in the market for a black-thumb garden


As some of you may recall, my little terrarium was in dire straits a few months back. It’s now become clear to me that, despite all of your sage advice, my poor little plant is not long for this world. It’s a sad state of affairs, but one with which I’m constantly plagued. I’m a black-thumbed girl with green-thumb ambitions. I’ve always wanted to be one of those women who gardens as a hobby, who has beautiful, flowering plants in every corner of her yard, who can make lemons grow on a miniature tree in her dining room. Alas, as evidenced by the fact that I can’t even sustain a succulent, I’m not that girl. I’m the girl that has managed to kill ivy, rosemary, and all sorts of other “indestructible” plants.

Yet every year, I start the spring off with hope, however unfounded. This is the time of year when I find myself desperately wanting a little something to pot and care for, but it’s clear I need to take baby steps. I’d love to plant a little boxed herb garden, but I think it’s beyond my care grade. I’ve heard that strawberries can be an easy starter plant, and the seedling sellers at my local farmers’ market tell me that basil should be nearly foolproof, but I’m skeptical.

And so, I turn to you dear Shelterrific readers for another helping hand. If you’re an expert greenie, is there something out there at my local nursery that I simply cannot kill? Or, if you’re a novice like me, maybe you’ve had luck with a species or two? –Becki S.

From our partners

If you can keep the pot outdoors, near enough to the kitchen that you’ll be anxious to snip leaves off for meals all the time, and WATER, basil should do just fine.

I keep it in a large plastic pot (the plastic holds water better than terracotta so I’m willing to put up with the tackiness factor) near the kitchen door where it gets about 6 hours of sun a day and it does just fine. I don’t grow the basil from seed–I pick plants up at the grocery store.

Even if you forget to water for too many days and the plant starts to look wilted, a good watering should perk it back up.

As long as you pinch the top 1″ or 2″ every so often to keep the plant bushy rather than spindly, you’ll have basil all summer!


Spider plants always seemed to be the starter plants. Easy & cheap, for indoors or outdoors. If you want something that flowers, try geraniums or petunias. Both are very hardy, and can be moved inside. If you have a choice on the petunias, go with the “million bells” varieties — you won’t have to dead-head.

I have killed off a jillion houseplants, but have managed to do pretty well with pothos. Sure, eventually it gets underwatered often enough that there’s six feet of vine with a little tuft of leaves on the end, but then you just stick the end in the dirt and eventually you can cut out the six feet of vine and start the process all over.

I once complained within the hearing of my grandfather-in-law, a retired greenhouse owner, that I needed something that hardy that *bloomed*, and he gave me two kalanchoes with the assurance that I couldn’t kill them. I did kill the yellow one, by leaving it outside in a dry Kansas summer on a concrete porch against a south-facing concrete step (freezing will do it too) but the red one survived even that. Like the pothos, if you forget to water it its leaves will shed, but unlike the pothos those shed leaves will then replant themselves soon as there’s water. It’s been ten years, and the original plant is now spread across four or five pots (sometime by itself), has had offspring given away, and so forth. Blooms every year for months on end.

Like pothos, they’re somewhat poisonous, but also like pothos, they’re bad-tasting so it’s generally not an issue.


I somehow manage to keep a fair amount of plants alive even though I have no clue what I’m doing. The best thing I have discovered is that if you have one plant that droops the minute it needs water that helps you remember to water the others. I have a peace lily without which none of my other plants would survive.

Definitely do not over water. If a plant looks like it is less than happy I try watering it from the bottom. If you have a fairly deep plastic water tray under your pot just poor the water in there and the plant sucks it up. I killed a couple african violets and now that I know that trick my current one is thriving.

I haven’t branched into plants I can use in cooking yet although I’m thinking about it. Good luck!


I swear by peace lilies. Not just because they’re decent houseplants, but also because they will tell you when they need water. They’re almost Italian in their drama level, and swoon magnificently…but then perk back up when watered. My swooning peace lily reminds me to water all the other plants.

Thanks to the peace lily, I manage to keep about 80% of my houseplants alive. It was also gotten so big that visitors have started quoting Little Shop of Horrors…

Sarah L.

sago palms are pretty hard to kill. the also are good for keeping pets out of any area where you place them. ditto for kids!

Sarah L.

sago palms are pretty hard to kill. they are also good for keeping pets out of any area where you place them. ditto for kids!


Check out Gayla Trail is the best. It’s my favorite website for all things plants related. She has lots of tips for beginner gardeners that are really about beginning. She’s just a regular gal who loves plants and started a blog about it something like ten years ago- I’ve been reading for ages.

I seem to have luck with spider plants thanks to a tip from my good friend, that they always want to grow UP toward the light (so placing them at the bottom of a window rather than hanging them at the top of a window works much better) and they need to get fully dry but not wilted before watering. They will start to look pale green when they are ready for a drink. Plus they only need fertilizer about once a year and the babies are so cute and they are perky and sprightly plants.

Good luck! I am a master gardener’s daughter with a black thumb. I’ve killed more houseplants than I’ve kept alive. I currently have six, after moving to this house three years ago with something like twelve or thirteen. :-)

You guys are amazing! I am feeling so much better about my potential after reading this – I think a trip to the nursery is in order this weekend: peace lilies, kalanchoes and petunias – check! Thank you all so much!!

I especially love the idea of using a peace lily as a barometer for my other plants. And “m”, I’m a chronic re-potter into terracotta for looks alone, but it had never occurred to me that it might be harder for the plants to survive my mistreatment that way. Plastic from now on!

As always, Shelterrific readers to the rescue :)

Julie J

I think it’s possible to have a black thumb. Some of us exude a chemical or something. I used to have a black thumb. I got around it by never touching my plants. I used tongs and chop sticks, occasionally gloves. I even got an extra long spouted watering can so I didn’t get too close.

Since having a hysterectomy, plants seem to love my touch. I went back to school and became a horticulturist.

That said, I had a lot of luck with African violets.


Mint. I had a mint plant for years in a tiny plastic pot, never repotted it, never did anything but water it (when I remembered). I kept the pot in a cake pan by my kitchen window. I would leave that poor thing sitting in that cake pan full of water anytime I went out of town. It liked it. It finally died when I went to South America for 6 weeks. And even then, I don’t think it was dead, I was just too lazy to wait for it to come back. Seriously, you can’t kill mint, even if you want to. I’d keep it indoors, though, as it will take over a garden in a flash. But indoors it smells delicious, and you always have fresh mint tea!