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Grow Your Self Podcast
Published February 19, 2020 by Nicole Burke

Episode 007: Why You Don't Have a Green Thumb

Filed Under:
green thumb
garden tips
gardenary says
Welcome to the Grow Your Self Podcast

Episode 007

This week we are talking about green thumbs. Why don’t you have one? We will dig into where the idea of a green thumb came from, what it even is, the 10,000 hour concept of becoming an expert at something, and what to do if you don’t have 10,000 hours. By the end of this episode, you will be on your way to getting that green thumb that you never thought you’d have. Let’s dig in!

“Nicole, that is so great that you own a garden business. I would love to call you, but I just would never be able to because I literally have two black thumbs.”

“Oh, wow. That's so pretty. I love your garden. You're so lucky that you have a green thumb.”

“Oh my goodness. I could never do what you do. I literally have never had a green thumb. I even kill fake plants.”

Have you ever said one of these sentences? Well, today's episode is for you. It's for everybody who says that they don't have a green thumb. I can't wait to discuss this idea of a green thumb with you and explain why you and nobody really has a green thumb. Sound fun? I think so. 

Have you ever heard the two words, green thumb, especially in the context of people basically excusing themselves from ever trying to keep a plant alive again? Well, I have been shocked over the last five years with how many times I've heard the excuse that this person and that person and this other person just don't have a green thumb and therefore have no interest in what I'm doing as a garden coach.

I'm not sure I grew up hearing the words green thumb, but almost, as soon as I started telling people about my business Rooted Garden, I started hearing these two words used very often. I remember one of my first times I was introduced to a group as a speaker, and the MC said, “Oh, here's Nicole. You know, she does this and that. She's going to talk to us about gardening. I'll never be able to work with her because I have two black thumbs.”

I was like, Gee, thanks!” It was a great way to set me up right before I talk. 

Another time something like this happened was when I set up a booth at an outdoor market. I cannot tell you how many people would walk by and just go, “Oh, that is so cute. Too bad I don't have a green thumb.” It was woman after woman after woman who walked by and said that. 

This was my first year in business, so it kind of hit me hard. I thought, There is a serious mental blockage here that I'm going to have to work super hard to overcome in order to accomplish my goals of garden coaching.

My dream is that everyone in ten years will have a kitchen garden and be growing a little bit of their own food. A huge part of that, I soon realized. was this: If I have this goal and this dream that everyone's growing a little bit of their own food, but everybody pretty much believes that they can't, then I'm going to have to do some serious mental work, right?

This set me on a path of figuring out what a green thumb actually was.

Nicole Burke of Rooted Garden, GardenaryCo, Gardenary.Com watering some plants with a mint green vintage watering can

where did the 'green thumb' idea originate?

The idea started around the 1930s, right in between the World Wars, and it looks like the idea of green thumb actually began with the idea of green fingers.

And this began mostly in the UK. There was a celebrity gardener by the name of James Underwood Crockett. He actually died right after I was born. So for all those decades before, he did a PBS show called the “Victory Garden.” One of the things that this guy suggested was that a green thumb is from this idea that algae grows on the outside of pots. So if you've ever tried to grow something in a terra cotta pot, over time they get wet, and at the bottom, a little green algae forms. It'll kinda turn white and then it turns green.

So the first idea was basically that people who move those pots around a lot end up picking up that green algae on their fingers, and their fingers start to look green. This is when people would say, Okay, that guy has green fingers.” 

Basically those people were touching a lot of plants. So over time, the term green fingers became green thumb.

Another theory that this celebrity gardener proposed is that perhaps it started all the way back when King Edward the First was reigning in England. He loved green peas supposedly. The story has it that he had 12 servants constantly shelling peas for him during the season, and whoever had the greenest thumb in each season won a prize from him. Now this is a great story, and who knows if it's actually true. But the idea is somewhat similar, right?

A green thumb comes from touching green things. 

Suddenly, the idea of a green thumb morphed.

Grow Your Self Podcast
plant decorator

If you look at the definition of a "green thumb" in Webster's dictionary, it says this: an unusual ability to make plants grow.

Nicole Burke

Wikipedia says a "green thumb" means a natural talent for gardening.

So do you see how that changed? The original idea for the green thumb is that it literally is just about exposure, right? It's just about someone having their hands on green things and their fingers turning green because they're with green things so much. 

The change in the idea happened about 90 years later. The current definition has nothing to do with exposure and has everything to do with just natural abilitysomething that you're either born with or you're not. 

It's funny, right? We took something that was a little bit more aspirational in the sense that really anybody can hold a lot of pots, right? Or anybody can shell a lot of peas. A green thumb was basically attainable for everyone. Then suddenly, this is more about having a supernatural ability. You're either Harry Potter or you're not. It's no longer accessible to everybody. It's only for a select few. I think that's the perspective that I'm often faced with when people dismiss what I do. They say that they’d love to learn from me or to have a garden but that they don’t have a green thumb.

They're thinking, You were born this way, and me? I just wasn't. 

Nicole Burke of Rooted Garden, GardenaryCo, walking through two raised garden beds full of lush green plants while hauling leaves of swiss chard

So I want to introduce the idea of the 10,000 hours concept and apply it to the green thumb. Now, if you are anyone who loves great writers, you probably already read this concept over the last decade. It was recently popularized by the great Malcolm Gladwell. In his book Outliers, he introduces the concept of the 10,000 hours. Now, he kind of expanded on this from an original study, from 40 years ago. Two American scientists, Herbert Simon and William Chase, did this great study on grandmasters of chess.

They came up with a conclusion that no one is born with the innate ability to be amazing at chess and that even these grandmasters who just seemed to be natural reached that status because they spent a decade with intense preoccupation of the game. So they estimated that any kind of master or grandmaster in the area of chess or really any other intense subject matter became that way. Not because they were born that way, but because they spent 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions. 

That's a lot of time, right? So Malcolm Gladwell popularized this by basically proposing that we could become a master at almost anything given we're willing to give it 10,000 hours. Now, there's been all kinds of debate on whether he's actually right and what role natural talent really plays.

What has been proven again and again is that people who are great at things are people who do things a lot. 

I want to take this and pull it into the area of gardening. Let’s take that original definition of the green thumb and what we've turned it into and apply the 10,000-hour rule to it. 

So if we look back at the origin of the green thumb, it goes really well with the 10,000-hour theory, right? Basically, if you are touching green things for 10,000 hours, then your fingers are gonna start to bring on the green hue.

I remember one of my first years when I got really super excited about gardening. I had done tomatoes for a few years and then really honed in on a method I was gonna use to grow tomatoes in my Houston garden. I planted 26 tomato plants, all kinds of different varieties. And I was using the Florida weave method. If you haven't ever heard of it, it’s a super fun way to grow a lot of tomatoes in a very small space. In eight beds, I had 26 tomato plants, and I was committed to my method. Now, the Florida weave method requires a lot of pruning. You have to come in weekly and fertilize your tomato plants and prune them heavily, particularly the lower leaves of the branches, all while weaving the plants in and out of strings.

I was getting epic results with this method. I had more tomatoes on these vines than I'd ever seen before. The plants were so beautiful and coming so early. It was incredible. Each weekend, I tried to give my tomato plants 30 minutes to an hour to go and do all the pruning and feeding. I was a little obsessed at this point. 

I remember one of the first mornings when the plants were really taking off. I came out of the garden, looked down, and my fingers were literally green. They had a green hue to them, and they smelled of a tomato plant, and all of a sudden, it hit me. This is what's meant by the idea of green fingers or a green thumb. It's literally just someone who spends hours with green things so much that their fingers turn that color. This is when I really started to buy into the 10,000 hours idea and became 100% committed to debunking the green thumb myth.

Green Thumb origin
plant decorator

This is really not about natural talent. It's a lot more about spending time with plants.

Nicole Burke, Owner of Rooted Garden & GardenaryCo

So hopefully I'm convincing you that yes, you do not have a green thumb right now, but that doesn't at all mean that you can't have a green thumb soon.

But 10,000 hours. Oh my, that's a lot of time. Right? So I did a little bit of calculating and tried to figure out how long is 10,000 hours actually. First I divided it by 40 because I'm thinking, “Okay, what if someone was going to garden full time?” So if we divide 10,000 by 40 we get 250 work weeks. So that means you would literally commit to gardening for 250 weeks of work. So just quit your job, quit taking care of your kids, whatever it is that's currently requiring 40 hours of your time a week, and just go out and play in the garden. Sound good? I think that's pretty reasonable.

Let's say you took off for like two weeks at the end of the year and maybe a week for spring break and a week in the middle of the summer. For 48 weeks out of every year, you're working. Any guesses as to how many years you're gonna have to work in the garden full-time to get the 10,000 hours in? Well, it's right around five years. 

So this is the secret guys. The way to get your own green thumb is this: For five years, I need you to work in the garden for 40 hours a week, for 48 weeks out of the year.

Sound good? 

I'm waiting. I'm guessing that most of you are like, Yeah, Nicole, that's not happening. Honestly, there's no way that could happen for me either. So the 10,000-hour rule is super cool if we're 10 and have a lot of time after school to pursue a new skill or hobby. 

Take The Green Thumb Quiz

Discover your garden type and find out how Gardenary can help you grow yourself to the next level.

For me, when I first wanted to start gardening, I was 30 and had four kids that were under four and a half and barely had time to brush my teeth. So what is a girl to do? 

Let's say you are convinced that you can find your own green thumb, but there's no way you're gonna find 10,000 hours to devote to gardening to learn the skill. Well, no need to worry. We're going to talk about it right now.

Let’s go back to Malcolm Gladwell and the amazing genius that he is. A lot of people push back. There are people who spend 10,000 hours doing something, but that doesn't mean they're actually going to become pro at it. So he had to go back and defend his theory. 

So one of the studies was about one of the best violinists and how much time they practice. Part of what they found wasn’t just about the hours. There was some kind of talent involved, and the main talent was that that person knew what to practice or they practiced in a certain way or used a certain method.

So it wasn't just like they were blindly spending 10,000 hours doing something. There was a clear method to it. There was some intelligence, there was some talent involved, and most of that was in selecting the way they would spend that time. 

You could literally go outside for 10,000 hours and just spend some time with plants and you would make some progress, but it would probably be pretty slow progress. I'm looking at this study and thinking of my own experience, and what I've watched with my clients and students is the way that we make the most of that time we have is we're smarter about the way that we practice. 

So I want to propose some good news for you that you actually don't have to give gardening 10,000 hours to get good at it.

plant decorator

A green thumb can be found pretty quickly if you do it right. You can‘t just touch a plant and make it grow. It's more about picking the right method and applying it so that you can maximize the amount of time that you spend learning to garden.

here are 3 steps to finding your green thumb

Number 1:

Pick a method. Are you going to do kitchen gardens, mushroom gardens, row gardens? Pick one. Pick one thing you want to learn to do as a gardener. One way you want to develop your green thumb, one method.

If you want to approach food gardening, then pick one of those levels. Do you want to do something small indoors? Do you want to do container gardening, a kitchen garden with a raised bed, or more like a row garden or a homestead? Just pick one that fits your lifestyle right now and where you are.

Number 2:

Pick a teacher. Don’t get overwhelmed by all of the teachers you see on Instagram. Just pick one.

Number 3:

You're going to commit a period of time that you'll learn from that teacher. I would give it at least a year.  Make sure you make the time period long enough to allow you to fully exhaust all of the things that one teacher can teach you. 

This, my friend, is the way that I have grown so quickly in so many areas over the last decade of my life. I've literally picked one thing I wanted to learn, then decided which method I wanted to use to learn it. Then I picked the person I thought was best to teach me. I paid for whatever they had to sell me. I studied every single thing they offered. I have grown in so many ways over a short period of time.

This is the secret. This is a way to get a green thumb. It's really the way to get anything. 

Yes. Sometimes to become a pro it is going to take 10,000 hours. But the way that we can shorten that and not have to give five years of our professional life to learning every single thing we want to do in our lives is to find teachers who have committed that much time to their particular method or skill, and learn from them as quickly as possible. I'm sure you've experienced this, and I know I have. When I find a good teacher, I grow exponentially.

I get to absorb all the years they've spent in a very short period of time, which literally maximizes my amount of time for learning a new thing. 

Does this make sense? I am so excited to introduce this idea to you if you haven't heard it before. I love the 10,000-hour concept, and I love the way that we can go back to the original definition of a green thumb and make a green thumb attainable for all of us. 

Generally when someone says they don't have a green thumb, they may mean literally that they feel frustrated and they're just certain that it's a natural talent they can never have. Or I think deep down, probably most of us know that original definition, right? Most of us know that if we actually tried something and put our mind to it and committed to it, we could learn almost anything.

Discover Your Green Thumb

But most of us feel overwhelmed. And so the way to get underwhelmed, is to pick a method, pick a teacher, and to commit to learning it over a period of time. 

Here's the good news. Studies show that when we put our hands in dirt, we literally feel amazing. There are all these studies that show that people live longer and they live happier lives when they're connected to plants and soil. Basically, I think the people with the green thumbs are the people with the happiest brains, the happiest emotions. 

Even if you feel a little overwhelmed, I propose to you that it's absolutely worth it because it's not just about growing plants. It's literally about growing your self. Do you see how I did that?

My hope is that over the next 10 years, I'll hear less and less people tell me the excuse that they weren't born with a green thumb and instead come up and say, “You know, I don't have a green thumb, but I'm getting one.” As you know, I am a garden coach and my dream is always to help people learn to discover their own green thumb.