Green Thumb on the Grid

Containers filled with colorful plants in various heights spruce up a boring cement patio area.

By Alanna Bradley

When my husband and I first moved into our house we were elated to have a pool, unfortunately the pool was surrounded by flower beds and a lawn of dirt and weeds. I set out to make my backyard the stuff BBQ party dreams are made of. The first step, of course, was to buy really pretty pink gardening tools, gloves and sunhat.

My dad has a green thumb; unfortunately, I wasn’t born with his gift. Even though I now find gardening to be one of the most therapeutic activities in my life, keeping plants alive and thriving didn’t come natural. Below are some of the lessons, tricks and products I’ve learned along the way.

1. Pace yourself: Resist the temptation to buy all the pretty plants at once. If you buy too much at once you could end up not having time to get them all in the ground in a reasonable amount of time. Also, if you do delay on planting remember those plants need A LOT more water in those tiny containers than they do in the earth.

2. Make a plan: you don’t have to plan everything to the square inch, but do read those fancy little tags to learn how large the plant is expected to get once it is full size. This will help you make sure you have taller plants in the back and smaller ones in the front once they reach full size. You want all your beauties to get attention from your admirers and adequate sunlight.

3. Keep the tags: If a plant starts to look sickly and you can’t for the life of you remember what it’s called it’s hard to do much about it. The tags come with pictures for easy identification so you can properly research the plant to hopefully make a diagnosis either at the nursery or via Google.


I love the day-glow orange flowers on this Kalanchoe. This particular plant looked like it was growing black mold a while back. Turns out it had mites, very curable with a little powder you get at the nursery.

4. Make friends with clerks at your drugstore: Say whaaa? Seriously, not all drugstore employees have a green thumb. They usually toss perfectly fine flowers because they don’t look pretty enough to sell. My dad has been getting these discards for FREE for years. With a little water and the tiniest bit of attention, he nurses them back to health for a beautiful spring/summer garden. If they happen to say no, take a trip around to the back of the store and you might find a few palettes out by the dumpster.

5. Integrate: Edibles and spices are just as pretty! Plant the mint next to the blueberry bush right in front of the climbing Jasmine. Beautiful and functional.

6. Product recommendations: There’s more to the garden than the plants. Here are some tools/products that I have come to love.

  • Sure Start – sprinkle a little bit of these granules into the hole before you plant (the box has directions on how much to use per size of the plant container)
  • Sunset Western Garden Book – this is your bible for all things gardening. From climate zones to details on over 8,000 plants and gardening tips…it has it all. Seriously.
  • Garden Safe Snail Bait (Garden Safe is the brand) – safe to use around pets and works like a charm. You probably have a slug or snail problem if you see holes in the leaves of your plants.
  • Ammonia – best natural dog repellant I’ve found. I’ve also read that vinegar is good, but our dogs seem to like it. Spray ammonia on potted plant bases and also put cotton balls soaked in ammonia in small lidded containers with holes poked in the lids to keep pets and animals away.
  • Nursery staff – don’t be shy ask them anything. I’ve gone so far as to bring in pictures of areas I’ve wanted to plant in and a good staffer will help you plan it all. It’s their job and they usually love plants and helping the amateur gardener shine.
  • Bark – this is a great weed barrier. I love the black bark because it feels clean and sophisticated. On the topic of weed block– I used the black sheets for a while, but they make adding additional plants in at a later date difficult.


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