I actually get kinda angry with people when they compliment me on my 'green thumb.' I mean, I know they intend it well, and I get it, but it also irks me. It's taken a while to figure out exactly why that is.
I also get peeved, more so in fact, when people tell me that they need me to suggest something really unkillable for them, because they have a black thumb, or brown thumb,1 or they're just hopeless with plants, they just look at them and the plant dies. I go ahead and do it: generally I suggest a Dracaena of some kind – I really like Dracaena deremensis 'Lemon-Lime,' as I believe I've mentioned over and over and over – or a Sansevieria trifasciata, Philodendron hederaceum, Haworthia attenuata, or Zamioculcas zamiifolia. These are all fairly uncomplicated and forgiving plants, which most people, under most circumstances, should be able to keep easily enough, and if the customer doesn't like those, well, there are plenty of others I can recommend.
But that's not the point. The point is that there are people out there who have the idea that they can't keep a plant happy in their homes. Possibly a lot of them don't care that much: I have a hard time relating to such people, but I know they're out there. But then there are the rest of them, who would really like to have a plant, and don't try because they think there's something about them personally, something intrinsic, that makes plants die.
And this bothers me not because it's wrong (though it is), but because it's lazy. These people are telling me, I don't know anything about plants, and I'm not interested in learning anything, either, so just give me something that will die slowly kthxbye.2 It's also a little insulting: my entire life for the last year or so has increasingly revolved around plants, so to be told that you're not willing to learn even the most basic stuff about them, that it's not worth your time somehow, even when I'm Right. There. To be asked, sometimes gets me a little wound up. Do I say this to the customers? No. Is it, probably, more my problem than theirs? Oh sure. But I have yet to find a productive way to deal with the emotions this stirs up.
Without the brown- and black-thumbed folks, I probably wouldn't have a job. So even if they're being completely ridiculous, I do still need them, so I can't get too upset. And it's not like I expect them to go to the lengths I have, or enroll in a community college, or something like that. But, you know. Library books. The internet. Asking people stuff. It's not like you have to go terribly out of your way to pick up the basics.
The people who compliment the green thumb are less obnoxious. I mean, I always know it was intended well. But this, also, manages to take a lot of hard work and time and wave it away as trivial. Nobody is born knowing how much water to give a Yucca guatemalensis, or what the difference is between a 20-20-20 fertilizer and an 18-6-12. These are things you have to go out of your way to learn, either the hard way (by getting it wrong and killing plants until you happen on a good combination) or the easy way (by looking it the hell up). I do, kinda, at least with tropical plants, have a pretty good success rate at getting plants to do what I want them to do, whether this be growing or rooting or jumping through flaming hoops or whatever, and by now I've developed some general rules that would be hard to explain to somebody, but which work out when I apply them. But it's not because I have some mystical connection with the plants --
it's because I've grown some. Anybody can do this. You just have to do it.
So don't tell me that there's anything innate about either of us that makes us able or unable to grow plants. That makes about as much sense as complimenting someone on being able to drive, answer a ringing telephone, or file things in alphabetical order. It's a skill. You practice it, it develops. It's not supernatural.
To sum up, then: if the greenhouse looks nice, just tell me the greenhouse looks nice: you don't have to tell me I'm magic. If you haven't grown a lot of plants before, just tell me you haven't grown a lot of plants before: you don't have to tell me you're the Botanical Grim Reaper. Skills can be learned, "green thumbs" are myths, and I will not sympathize with your plant troubles if you make it clear that you've never tried to learn how to grow them.
Photo credits: mine unless otherwise noted.