(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 10, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)

I am always trying to find fellow plant lovers or awaken the gardening urge in people I know. One of my most recent converts, Sarah, has taken to gardening like a duck to water. She can seemingly root anything; she can grow just about anything from seed and can spot a good plant deal like she's been doing it for years.

But when we first started talking about plants, she was singing a very different tune. She said, "I like plants, but all I do is kill them. I can't even grow the little ones from the hardware store."

She was sure that through all her unsuccessful tries at gardening before, she was just one of those "black thumbed people." She just assumed she was the problem; since she had, after all, tried every plant that the big box stores offered. She tried a couple African violets, numerous "indoor" cacti, half a dozen ivies, and several ferns, all of which met their slow demise under her care. And that prayer plant, it never had a...well, never mind.

"No!" I retorted. "Those are not easy plants to grow!"

True, the plants that you find for a couple dollars at the big box stores are interesting, colorful and tempting...but that doesn't mean they are easy to grow. Why would they sell you something that would last? They want you to come back, of course, to buy another doomed plant (just like cell phone companies tend to sell phones that only last for half your contract...but that's another story). Some of the hardest plants to grow inside are often the ones that are easiest to find at box and hardware stores. Among the most notorious confidence killers are: African violets, many different cacti and succulents, ivies such as English and Algerian, ferns, orchids, African masks, forced bulbs, and the difficult Rex begonias.

The Usual Suspects
Image ImageImage
African Violets Cacti and SucculentsIvies
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FernsOrchids African Masks
Prayer PlantsForced bulbsRex Begonias

No wonder people think they are horrible with plants. Indoor plants, especially, are really not that easy to grow. They need a lot of attention, an owner with a really good memory, and some psychic intuition about what some of those picky plants need.

Indoor potted plants require a lot of attention because you are their sun and their sky now, entrusted with the responsibility of providing ample light and the proper amount of moisture. Most well intentioned people will over water and under illuminate most house plants. You'll need that good memory because sometimes, nay a lot of time, life gets busy and you just simply forget to care for every plant in every nook of your house. And the psychic intuition will come in handy, because why would anyone guess that African violets need to be bottom-watered and those heavenly scented Hyacinths are not meant to be grown forever in a pot?

Now don't get me wrong, I still buy the occasional rubber plant or violet from box stores. They really are tempting, especially when you need to scratch the itch to buy a plant that we all feel from time to time. Nothing is wrong with purchasing these plants, but you can't beat yourself up for killing them with good intentions.

Don't quit now: There is hope

Here is my charge to all of you so called "black thumbed people." You do not have a black thumb! You are just growing the hardest to grow plants available! Even for seasoned gardeners, ferns and violets are difficult. Even for seasoned gardeners, growing perennials indoors under artificial light is near impossible. And yes, even seasoned gardeners kill multiple orchids in their lives. Drafty, dry indoor conditions are more often than not nowhere near the natural environment these plants grow in. Sometimes you're just fighting a losing battle; that is, unless you have a game plan.

There are several ways in which you could proceed.

  • Start by reading up on house plants and doing your research. Find several plants that are easy to grow and then go plant shopping armed with knowledge. You might not find every plant on your list immediately, but knowing which plants to pick will save you some heartache. Some plants to try: peace lilies, dracaenas, and golden pothos. Other easy houseplants are kalanchoes, aloes, philodrendrons, Swedish ivy, and hoyas.

Peace Lily


Golden Pothos

Aloe PhilodendronHoya
  • Or, you could start at the store. Pick a couple plants that really strike your fancy. Make sure you get a solid identification on the plants, as opposed to "Low-Light Tropical," as many plants from non-specialized sellers are labeled. You may as well chuck that label in the trash. If you don't have a clue what the real name is, get on the Identification forum here at Dave's and ask. Once you have confidence in the plant's identification, go to the Dave's Garden Plant Files and do some research. Research what people say about the plant, their best conditions, as well as the pests and pitfalls of each of the particular plants. You'd be surprised at what you find. This might seem obvious, but most people don't bother to research individual indoor plants. The truth is that they don't all like the same conditions; sometimes not even close.
  • Your third option, which apartment dwellers and renters might not be able to pursue, is to stop buying house plants. No, I'm not kidding. Stop buying them! Buy plants that excite you that can go in the ground or can grow in a pot outside. Mother Nature is much better at providing the proper elements that plants need than you are, no offense. Perennials are nearly effortless in the ground, especially when compared to house plants. You'll never feel like such a good gardener as when your perennials start rewarding you with blooms. You don't have to never buy another house plant again, but in-ground plantings can do wonders for your green-thumb's confidence. If you can't stand not to buy house plants, consider putting your collection of indoor plants outside in a sheltered, shaded spot for the summer. The fresh air and natural conditions are very good for your house plants; just remember to provide supplemental water.

The bottom line is that new (and sometimes even seasoned) gardeners shoot themselves in the feet. We grow plants that are hard to grow in conditions that are not proper and expect to be rewarded with thriving plants. Don't beat yourself up if you can see your own behavior in this article. Trust me, we've all been there. But when you realize how to fix the problem, you'll admit that you do have two green thumbs. You'll be growing like Sarah in no time!

Check out the Beginner Houseplants and Indoor Gardening and Houseplants discussion forums with your questions and to talk to other gardeners about growing plants indoors.

Special thanks to the following Dave's member for their beautiful photographs uploaded to the PlantFiles:

Spider Plant- Artcons African Mask - Greenwood Philodendron - Jode
Aloe- DarylOrchid - HtopDracaena - KatG
Peace lily - GrampapaAfrican Violet - JjdolleyAlgerian Ivy - Kniphofia
Pothos - kwilso16Hoya - PanamonCreel Hyacinth - Ladyrowan
Prayer Plant - Eliza Rex Begonia - rcn48 Maidenhair Fern - Shadyfolks
Baby's toes - kbadsPeace lily - NativePlantFan9