Growing Just in Some People’s Nature


My grandfather likes to tell the story of how my great-grandmother took a twig from a Canary Island pine, stuck it in the ground in his back yard and sat back to watch it grow. Although he laughed and told her it would never root, today he points out that once-small twig to visitors. Standing about 50 feet high, the pine towers over many of the neighborhood trees as a monument to my little granny and her gift for gardening.

We all know people who can get just about any plant to thrive. We even have a name for those people--green thumbs. But is there some truth to that label? Are there individuals who actually have a special ability to grow plants?

A number of local gardening experts say yes, some people’s thumbs are greener than others.

“Just as there are individuals with a gift for carpentry, mechanics or art, there are those people who have an ability to grow plants,” says Ann Christoph, a landscape architect in South Laguna. “A person with a green thumb is sensitive to plants and tunes into them, much like a musician is absorbed by music.”


Hortense Miller, whose elaborate garden in Laguna Beach’s Boat Canyon is regularly toured by gardening enthusiasts, agrees. “It seems that some people do have an innate tendency toward gardening.”

While anyone can grow plants, concedes Kent Gordon, department coordinator of Fullerton College’s horticulture department, “some people are more adept with plants and have an intuitive understanding that others lack.”

Although it’s unclear why some people have a gift for gardening, green-thumbers do share a variety of fundamental attributes, including an affinity with the land.

“Unlike some people who are indifferent to nature, green thumbs are in tune with the land,” says Miller. “Those with a gift for gardening realize that they are just a small part of the world and that nature makes the final decisions--not them. People with green thumbs understand that they are not more important than soil bacteria--that it is this very bacteria that keeps the whole world going.”

People who have green thumbs pay special attention to the earth, says Erik Katzmaier, who is with Katzmaier, Newell, Kehr architects and landscape architects in Corona del Mar. “They regularly till and amend the soil so that earthworms and soil bacteria multiply and plants thrive.”

In addition to being in tune with the land, individuals with green thumbs treat plants in a special way.


While other people consider plants inanimate objects, a green thumb knows that plants respond to nurturing and love in the same way that animals do, says Jana Ruzicka, a landscape architect in Laguna Beach. “This doesn’t mean that people with green thumbs talk to plants; they are just in touch with green and growing things on a level that other people aren’t.”

“Green thumbs feel what plants feel,” Christoph agrees. “If they pass by a plant drooping in its pot, they’ll stop to water it, just as most people give animals something to drink when they are thirsty.”

Whereas a person out of touch with the land looks at his or her yard as something that needs to be maintained--like a car--a green thumb thinks of plants as living organisms.

In light of the green thumb’s qualities, some experts think that they are a rare breed today.

“Most people are too impatient to wait for things to grow at their own speed and they don’t want to spend the weekend gardening,” Christoph says. “Instead they look for landscapes that require minimum maintenance.”

It’s this wish for the least amount of gardening possible that has led to a proliferation of what Christoph calls “dead” gardens.


“They have grass that is like carpeting, rows of shrubs that look like sofas and trees that resemble floor lamps,” she says. “Such a garden is dead in the sense that it doesn’t provide an ecosystem that wildlife can enjoy and where soil organisms thrive. A green thumb, on the other hand, creates a living system.”


In addition to a connection with the land and an affinity for plants, green thumbers have a few other basics in common, including knowledge of plants and their needs and an understanding of the importance of timing.

“Here in Southern California you can grow just about anything if you know what you’re doing,” says Terry Daubert, gardening specialist at the Fullerton Arboretum. “Those individuals we call green thumbs have simply honed their gardening skills and pay careful attention to details. People who don’t have luck growing things usually haven’t educated themselves on important information such as when and how to water and fertilize.”

Much of a green thumb’s knowledge comes from repetition, says Gordon. “Good gardeners get the information they need to make plants thrive through experience.”

A green thumb is also very observant and keyed in to proper timing, says Fred Lang, a landscape architect in South Laguna, who has been an influential gardener in the area for 40 years. He was honored by the city of Laguna Beach in 1991 when officials named the Frederick M. Lang Park after him. “Good gardeners are aware of environmental changes and when to perform certain gardening tasks such as planting and pruning,” he says.

Lang learned about the importance of proper timing watching his family’s gardener in the central European climate where he grew up. “Before winter came, our gardener would protect the roses with pine sprigs,” he remembers. “Then in the spring, he would uncover them and the roses would have early buds in just a few weeks.”


People who are green thumbs often started gardening in childhood.

“When I was 6 or 7, I had a vegetable garden of my own,” Gordon says. “In fourth grade we had an assignment to do a model of a mission. I put my mission in a box and surrounded it with corn plants.”

Miller remembers the first time she saw a peony in kindergarten. “I was amazed--I didn’t know such things existed in the world,” she says. By the time she was 11 years old, she had carved a flower garden out of a yard full of “beaten dirt” on the city lot where she lived in Missouri.

Some young green-thumbs-to-be are also lucky enough to have the guidance of an experienced gardener.

“As a child I worked alongside my mother, who was an avid gardener,” says Katzmaier, who grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles. “From the age of 8 or 9, it seemed that I always had my fingers in the soil. I especially remember the wonder of seeing our compost pile of yard and kitchen waste turn into a rich, dark crumbly soil.”

Other green thumbs even had a parent in the business. “My father was a horticulturist,” says Ruzicka, who was surrounded by his plant books during her childhood. “By the time I was in second grade, I was making herb volumes. I’d press plants, put them in books and identify them.”

While it seems clear that many green thumbs have always had the ability to nurture plants, what about those who seem to have no knack for growing things? Can they be converted?


“Conversion is often possible, Ruzicka says. “Many people are blocked and don’t discover an interest in plants until later in life. I’ve worked with clients who will discover they have a green thumb while I’m developing their garden. Their interest often starts with roses. The process is very interesting to watch, because their personalities become softer.”

Katzmaier too has seen clients’ thumbs turn green. “One woman never worked in the garden before she called me. She and her husband had bought a vacant lot next to their home and wanted to develop the space. As we created the garden, I saw her transform into a green thumb. When I first met her, she had long painted fingernails. A year later I went back to see the property and she showed me her short, unpainted nails.”

Daubert says he often sees gardeners of all ages born at the arboretum’s community garden. “When people learn how to plant and care for their garden and a few months later harvest large, tasty vegetables like tomatoes, they become very enthusiastic,” he says.

Gordon, who says it is his business to develop green thumbs, thinks that people learn about gardening the best through familiarity and repetition.

“You can explain gardening until you’re blue in the face, but people aren’t going to get it until they get their hands dirty,” he says. “Fancy books and videos won’t do it. At the school we teach by the dirty-fingernails philosophy. Once people learn the basics and practice growing plants, their thumbs slowly start to turn green.”