Fix a “Black Thumb:” Top 5 Plant Care Mistakes

“…I Just have a black thumb when it comes to growing things!” To be honest, I don’t often really believe this statement when I hear it from someone.  Or rather, I don’t believe that it’s an unchangeable fact!

Sure, I believe you’ve accidentally killed some plants. Haven’t we all?  But I also believe that with some practice and knowledge of common plant care mistakes, almost anyone can start turning that brown or black thumb to a green thumb!

I’m often told that I have a green thumb, which I suppose is true to a certain extent. However, I feel that there are many people with more knowledge, skills, practice, creativity, or natural giftedness than I have.

Personally, I define the term “green thumb” as an understanding of what plants need to grow well. Some people have this naturally. A few almost seem to have a sixth sense or gift. Some people grow up watching their parents grow things, or get degrees and certificates in the science behind it. Some people read books or blogs.

I believe that for many people, with some basic information and practice, a green thumb can be learned. (That’s pretty much the inspiration of this website!)   All that said, here are some of the top “causes” of a black thumb–the most common plant care mistakes that people make–and of course, the solutions!

This post may contain affiliate links.

The real reasons you have a brown thumb, and how to fix a black thumb!

Bad Soil

Soil is probably the number one determining factor of your garden’s success. If you’ve been watching your plants die every time you put them in the ground, it might be the soil that has problems, not your black thumb!  For most people in the U.S., your plants simply will not do well if you plant them in your yard without adding good stuff to the soil first.  This is especially true if you have tried using regular dirt in pots instead of special potting mix!

Spending more money on bigger plants at the garden store won’t help if your soil is, at best, starving them, or at worst, suffocating them. For more information on choosing the right soil for your garden, see this post.   Like a friend of mine, you may swear that paying money for dirt is a big rip off… But in most cases (unless you’re good at composting or have some manure on hand) it’s absolutely necessary for a successful garden (especially if you’re gardening in pots).

To make it easier, you can find kits like Click & Grow (below) or that already have all the soil nutrients planned out & included for you!

GNRL Click & Grow

Black Thumb Watering Mistakes

I don’t have stats on this, but I think it’s safe to say this black thumb plant care mistake is the number one killer of houseplants by far.  And it’s not always forgetting to water, like you’d think… So many people mistakenly think that if a little water is good, more water is better. For most plants, this is simply not true!  Did you know a plant can die by “drowning?”  

When you learned in school that a plant needs “soil, water, and sunlight” to grow, the teacher probably didn’t mention that the roots of most plants need air also.

So when a plant ends up in a pot with spongy, sopping wet soil…. the roots can very quickly start to die.  Some plants can be saved if you stop watering and let the soil dry out a bit.    For some plants, though, it’s almost impossible to save them once the roots have gotten too soggy. If you tend to always have water flowing out the bottom of your potted plants (and especially if they are usually sitting in a dish full of water) this is probably your black thumb problem.

For more information and tips on how to know if you’re watering your plants the right way, check out my post “The Right Way To Water Your Garden!”

In short, your garden soil should be “evenly moist”–not too wet and soggy, but not allowed to fully dry out either.  Grab a soil moisture meter like the one below if you’re unsure!

Soil moisture meters let you know when soil is too dry or wet.

If you are growing in pots, a self-watering pot or planter might be a great solution for you. You can find them on Amazon in many different sizes, materials, and price points.

Do you often forget to water your plants, or forget to turn off the water when you do? Hey, I won’t judge, that was me before I put my garden on a simple watering timer.  For some people, that’s the only solution you’ll need.  But others might be clueless about how much water plants should get.  If that’s you, I wrote this post just for you.

I love having my garden on a watering timer!

Lack of “Food”

Sometimes the best fix for black thumb problems is adding a little bit of fertilizer or plant food! Yep, plants need food as well, also known as soil nutrients or fertilizer.

As discussed in my post about choosing fertilizer, plants have three major nutrients that they need to grow properly. These same three nutrients are found in most fertilizers (and some pre-packaged soils), listed by percentage on a chart of three numbers.  Nitrogen (the first number) is necessary for green leafy growth and good plant size. Phosphorus or phosphate (second or middle number) helps develop roots and fruits.  Without the first two especially, plants will not grow.

As long as your soil is ok, choosing a fertilizer is probably the easiest and simplest way to give your plants the nutrients you need.  Adding compost to the soil (mixed in or on top) is another great and simple way to add nutrients as well as texture (to help the roots get air and grow well). Compost can be purchased or made, but it does take practice and knowledge to learn to make it right. If you’re cheap, spreading some dead leaves, cow manure, or veggie scraps in your soil in the early winter will help improve your soil some by spring (usually a slower payoff than purchased options).

If you want to start small with an cute indoor herb garden, check out Urban Leaf. Their products are designed to be foolproof for beginners and black thumbs (complete with instructions or even an app) as well as decorative in your kitchen!

Urban Leaf Complete Herb Garden Kit Urban Leaf Bottle Garden Culinary Classics

The Wrong Plants

Unfortunately, not all plants are right for beginners.  Additionally, not all plants are right for every area.   Think about wildflowers and weeds compared to specialty plants. Some plants grow like weeds, while others are much more picky and likely to die from any plant care mistakes. Sometimes all a black thumb needs is to practice on an easier plant! Find a list of hard to kill houseplants here.

Ask another gardener or a garden store worker what plants are easiest to grow in your area for beginners. Be sure to let them know some information about your yard or the spot you’ve chosen–how much sun the plants will get, etc.   And if you fail with one thing, just try something else. Something you find difficult to grow might be easy for someone else, and vice versa.

I’ve got a post coming soon about which vegetables are the easiest for beginners to start with.  The funny thing is, I’ve read some lists elsewhere and sometimes disagree with the rankings!   Leafy greens like chard might be a good option for you. Personally I’d suggest anything with a short “days to harvest” range.  For instance, summer squash and cherry tomatoes or smaller tomatoes usually take around 50-70 days.  Bigger beefsteak tomatoes or large melons or winter squash, on the other hand, often take as many as 80-100+ days!

The Wrong Method

I’m not generally one to proclaim a one-size-fits-all approach (well, I do think my own favorite setup comes pretty close). However, to garden successfully and confidently, you will have to figure out what works best for you. My own opinion is that growing a garden in raised beds is often less complicated (in other words, more black-thumb-proof) than growing in pots or in the ground.  You can read more about why I love raised beds here 

The truth is that there are nearly as many gardening styles and methods  as there are gardens and climates.  This is one of the reasons I love to talk and compare notes with other gardeners. 

Consider the challenges of your area, as well as your own personality and abilities or resources (like time) when choosing a method.  Read about my favorite time-saving and foolproof garden setup here, or get some tips on growing plants in pots here.

Ready to kick your brown thumb for good? Grab my step by step guide to creating a brown-thumb-proof beginner vegetable garden below!

get the Very Easy Veggie Garden eBook

If you have grown a vegetable garden before but it didn’t produce well, check out this post to find out why.

Was this post helpful?  Share it (you can use the buttons below) to help another “black thumb” gardener and their plants!

Which of these mistakes is your biggest problem? Let me know in the comments!

7 thoughts on “Fix a “Black Thumb:” Top 5 Plant Care Mistakes

  1. So happy I found this! I have a half green/half brownish thumb. I would like to have a fully green thumb please ! 🙂
    I will be following you as well!

  2. My husband always saves our plants from certain death… I can’t even seem to keep succulents alive lol we recently switched to all plants that just live in jars of water (inherited from the cafe where I used to work) and everything is thriving! Your tips are excellent though as I want to get more involved in creating a lanai garden since I live in Hawaii and therefore have no excuse. I honestly have never heard a better explanation of the plants’ roots needing air too… props for cracking that one open for me! Thanks for being so thorough in this post… I’m looking forward to reading more ❤️

    1. Thanks! That’s great! My kids love helping me in the garden…even though only one of them is old enough to know how 😜 but gardening is so great for kids 😁

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