Shut Up and Dig

The myth of the plant killer

I find bulbs are my most reliable houseplants.

I find bulbs are my most reliable houseplants.

May 2017 be the year that nobody insists to me that they have a “black thumb.” Except that I know it won’t happen. I was at a small New Year’s Eve party when one of my non-gardening friends asked for advice about an aspidistra (cast iron plant) she’d just received as a gift, adding the usual “I kill plants” confession. It was kind of cute, and totally sincere. She wants to keep her gift alive.

But if she doesn’t, it won’t be because she has a “black thumb.” It’s because houses are dangerous places for plants—in fact, the only time that someone tells me she’s killed a plant, it’s always a houseplant. Most of the houses where I live are centrally-heated in winter, fairly dry, and fairly dark—in other words, plant hell. I always have a hard time keeping my plants alive through the winter; right now, I have a lemon tree and a ficus that are just barely hanging in there—this is why I like forcing bulbs—and I’ve seen many others perish. But then, I’m used to plant demise, and I often welcome it as an opportunity for change. For interiors, it’s best to stick to plants that survive in offices and refrain from overwatering them.

It’s not just about the fragility of houseplants though. It’s the whole idea that there is some weird curse—beyond all control—having to do with plants. People accept that there are maintenance requirements and instructions to follow for all kinds of things—cars, appliances, buildings, small humans. Nobody blames a curse if a car runs out of gas or seizes up because nobody changed the oil.

Plants are subject to many different threats—infestations, diseases, not enough light or moisture, too much light or moisture. Many factors contribute to their health—just not the dreaded black thumb. There’s no such thing.

Posted by on January 4, 2017 at 9:00 am, in the category Shut Up and Dig.
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12 responses to “The myth of the plant killer”

  1. Linda Larson says:

    This is so true for my home, then we replaced our windows w/ dual pane, low E glass, we humans are happy but the plants not.

  2. Sandra Knauf says:

    I just read an excellent article on all the benefits of houseplants (there are so many – more oxygen, cleaner air, and they improve your mood!). I also only water once a week, and it is DRY here in Colorado, and I have limited window space, and have had many, many failures, but it is worth it. Well, here’s the link to the article – I hope those with black thumbs will trying – those thumbs will green up eventually! https://www.garden.love/indoor-plants-benefits/

  3. Pat Evans says:

    I live in western NY and have a houseful of house plants including orchids, African Violets, and about 10 Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti. I will concede that even though I live in an older home, I have a good deal of light. But my plants survive on fairly minimal care including 7 weeks of sporadic watering by a neighbor and 55° temps while we are in FL. And yes, the orchids (all Phalaenopsis) have rebloomed.

  4. Great post! Probably too much to expect the media to help with managing expectations, eh? Gorgeous houseplants, overwintered Boston Ferns in the peak of health sitting in a rustic (dark) corner next to a wood stove….yep, every image is designed to help us believe that some people have it, and some people don’t. Well some people DO have it – an attached irrigated conservatory that is. I’m just getting them through the winter on meager rations. Leaves are optional.

  5. Claudia says:

    Benign neglect works best for me. I have inherited plants from black thumbs…..they thrive. Water on Wednesday, that’s about all I do. Maybe twice a year I remember to dust the leaves. Have not fertilized or repotted in about six years.

  6. Kylee Baumle says:

    YES! Same here. And think of the knowledge we’ve gained along the way…

  7. Kylee Baumle says:

    AMEN. And furthermore, I think we need to change our attitude towards houseplants. We use them to decorate our space, but they aren’t pillows. They don’t live forever and that’s perfectly fine. We plant annuals in the spring, knowing full well that they’ll die when frost comes. And what about a fresh-cut bouquet? We often spend more on that than the average houseplant costs, and we have that for what? A week? We’re okay with that. We enjoy them for the time we have them. So it should be with plants we grow in our homes. There are SO many and most aren’t expensive, so enjoy them for a time and then try a new one if the first one doesn’t last.

  8. Carol says:

    A green thumb is nothing but: 1. Identifying the plant; 2. Finding out what it wants; 3. Giving it what it wants to the best of your ability. I get tired of the “I can’t get ANYTHING to live” people, too, when it is obvious they don’t want to put any effort into growing the plant in question.

  9. skr says:

    Whenever people tell me they have a black thumb I respond, “the road to a green thumb is paved with the corpses of dead plants. I’ve killed more plants than most people will ever own.”

  10. Chris B says:

    I’m blessed with a fairly sunny, old brick house that has deep window embrasures. Even when central heat is on, those pockets remain quite cool, and houseplants do fine. Right now I have an angel wing begonia, white geraniums (and others), Dendrobium nobile hybrid orchids (thrive on neglect, I swear), a miniature cyclamen, and a “Thanksgiving” cactus all in bloom; and five-year-old amaryllis are poking up their noses. Ferns thrive too. Real warmth-lovers suffer.

    Separately, a genuinely cold sun room holds other geraniums, a few fuchsias, and a couple of agaves, barely ticking over until returning sun and a bit more warmth tempts them back into growth.

  11. anne says:

    My houseplants seem to thrive in direct proportion to the lack of attention I give them, so it’s easy to conclude that I’m the agent of their demise when they die. But I learned a long time ago to back off on the watering, etc. I don’t even fertilize much, maybe once a year; repotting once a year, at which point I trim, divide and/or propagate. Then they’re on their own. Matching plants to the right environment seems key.

  12. I killed TWO Japanese maples. I inadvertently smothered the roots on the first one; by the time I figured out what the problem was, it was too late. The second was a lacy leafed one that did not get enough water. I am happy to report that the current replacement is alive and doing well. A few shrubs have inexplicably keeled over, but I swear it was not my fault! Re houseplants, I select those that withstand a lot of neglect.