There have been countless times when I have met with a client or been introduced to someone as a landscape designer and the first thing out of that person’s mouth is that they wish they didn’t have such a “brown thumb” (aka can only grow dirt). However, to me this is just an urban legend. I truly believe that no one has a “brown thumb.” With planning and realistic expectations everyone can have a “green thumb”.


Here are things that you should consider if you think you have a “brown thumb.”

How did you get this notion?

So often people reflect back on a memory of some random potted plant they had on the balcony of their apartment that they forgot about and subsequently it died. Or they reminisce on some garden they planted on their new patio. They found pretty pottery and filled them with colorful plants from the hardware store. But alas the plants perished from neglect. The problems with these scenarios are that neither of these situations were thought out. Don’t take offense to that because that is the reality of why they failed and also why YOU DON’T HAVE A BROWN THUMB!

Therefore, how can you change your fate and become a person who has a “green thumb”?

Start Small & Make a Plan:

If you are doing it on your own, it is really important to start small but thoughtfully. For example, pots and containers are a great way to start but be sure to have a plan. Although splurge buying plants can be fun, it does not usually end well if you don’t know how many you need or where to even put them. I recommend before going to the store to get plants take an assessment of the area of your garden or patio you want to update. If it is your patio, then count how many pots you already have and how big they are. This will help you get an accurate assessment of how many plants that you need and lead to higher plant success.

Choose the Right Plants:

If you are a novice gardener then try to pick foolproof plants. This does not mean however just picking up the colorful pretty plants at the hardware store. Those are great but may not fit your needs. The colorful plants are most likely annuals and will only last one season. These are great filler plants but if your whole garden is filled with annuals then every season (4 times a year!) you will constantly be replacing them. That will for sure make you feel like a terrible gardener! So, resist the urge to just buy the colorful, pretty plants.

Instead it is best to mix a variety of plants. Evergreens are plants that are around all year long (ex. boxwood). Perennials are plants that may or may not be cut down at times but only bloom at certain times of the year (ex. lavender). Lastly are annuals which are those temptingly colorful plants at the front of any plant nursery that add some quick cheer to any garden (ex. petunias). Adding various varieties in each of these categories will help you get seasonality and interest throughout the year.

Accept that Some Plants Won’t Make It:

Spoiler alert! Even the most experienced gardeners have plants die on them! That for some is really the joy of experimenting in their garden…not knowing if they can make some new plant/seed grow in their garden. Give yourself a break! Plant death happens to everyone and I mean everyone!

Amend Your Soil

Soil does not just provide a foothold for your plant’s roots. Healthy soil is actually alive. Yep! You read that right! There are microbes in the soil that play a pivotal role in providing nutrients for your plants. In addition, healthy soil will be loose enough to allow rainwater to filter through it.

Oftentimes, if you have large areas of exposed soil or left-over soil in pots, then that soil will be very compacted. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there won’t be microbes (although less than healthy soil) but it does mean that water will not be able infiltrate through the compacted soil and instead run-off it or drown the plant.

So, grab some soil bags at the plant nursery to add in to your current soil/pot when planting new plants. This will not only enliven your old soil but also look better.

Watering is Key:

Plants need water! That is just a fact of nature. Therefore, make sure you have a system in place to make sure that your plants will get watered. Since you are human and like everyone else will most likely forget to water at some point, it is important to set up an automatic irrigation system for your plants. This will take the pressure off of you and yield higher plant health/success.

Also resist the temptation to over-water. If the soil is still very moist from your previous watering, don’t water. Instead hold off until the soil dries out a bit. Choosing easy plants will also help you in this regard as they will not be as temperamental to an accidental over-watering.

I also recommend you water your plants in the morning. Nighttime watering can encourage fungal growth, rot and insect activity on many plants so as a good rule of thumb just water in the morning.

Sometimes Plants Need Food too:

This is especially noticeable if you are using a lot of pottery. As you water your plants, the nutrients in the soil eventually leach out. In the rest of your garden, leaves from trees can help add nutrients back into the soil (via healthy soil microbes) but in pottery we rarely let dead leaves accumulate on them. So if you see yellowing of the leaves this is often an indication of the need for some organic plant food.

In conclusion, I truly feel that having a “brown thumb” is an urban legend. If you have a plan and start small, you can have a garden you love. Reach out to others like myself with questions along the way. But of upmost importance, make sure you have fun and cut yourself some slack.



  • Laura Osteen


Before: This side yard was the home to an old lawn that had died years before. My clients were stuck on what to do with the space so had just not done anything until finally they gave me a call.

When I first visited this site, I was amazed at the view of the valley below from this upper mounded perch. My clients mentioned that they sometimes like to stand there and watch the sunset. During this visit I also noticed some far-flung garden beds that my clients said they tried to maintain but often forgot to harvest since they were out of sight and therefore out of mind. Now that their kids had left home, they wanted to pursue their passion of gardening and growing their own food.



Design: To accomplish their dreams of having garden beds, I chose to move the garden beds to the previously located grass area. Now that they didn’t have kids at home, they were not interested in maintaining the lawn. I had them itemize what they wanted to grow so that we can determine how many garden beds would be needed. I also added some additional fruit trees off to the side to add their production. To help with production, I added pollinator plants all around the beds. These not only help create more habitat for pollinators but will also help the garden look interesting year-round.



After: Now my clients enjoy the bounty that their garden brings them. They are constantly experimenting on new seeds and are enjoying the therapeutic nature that gardening gives them.





  • Laura Osteen

I always love a good small yard. Smaller yards create interesting challenges because you need to make every inch of the space functional. It is actually quite a fun endeavor.



Before: For this townhouse yard, their house had been beautifully remodeled and decorated but they were not real sure what to do with the outdoor space. They had two little kids so they wanted to be able to have a safe place for the kids to play.




Design: I really wanted the outside to blend with the inside. The home was so cozy that it was important to make the outside have the same feeling. We chose a beautiful fireplace as the focal point that could be seen from the inside living room area. This really helped draw the eye outside to create a feeling of a much larger space. A mix of hardscape materials (poured concrete & synthetic grass) create dimension and usability to the space. A seating wall running the whole property not only serves to raise up the plants to add a cozy element but also allowed more sitting space (more friends can visit).


After: This was such a fun transformation. My clients are so happy with the end result and I love hearing from them how much they love it. It just shows you how a small yard can still be beautiful, inviting and functional.



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Secret Garden Landscapes is a residential landscape design company serving clients in the San Francisco East Bay area.

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