You love flowers. You love being outside. You would love to get a pretty garden going. But how do you start? Here are 10 tips for the beginner gardener:
- Location. Plan how you’ll use and enjoy your garden areas. Think through what will flatter your home’s facade. Where do you often sit outside or host parties? Do you want more privacy from your neighbors? What do you most often look out at from the rooms in your home? Where will plants get trampled by high traffic areas or get crushed under snow banks? Do you have leach fields or well heads where deep-rooted plants can do some seriously expensive damage? Think this through.
- Sun. Watch where the dawn light hits your yard, and where the sun sets. What areas get six or more hours of sun per day (full sun)? Where is there gentle, more diffused light in the morning or evening, versus direct beating sunlight during the midday? Does your home or a large tree cast a huge shadow anywhere? The available sunlight will determine much of what you can and cannot plant.
- Water. Can the hose reach your garden? If not, you’re going to be back and forth with buckets all the time – not fun. Stay near the water.
- Good soil should look like you’ve just broken up some chocolate cake in your hands. They call it “black gold.” Is your soil sandy or silty? Is it smooth and stuck together like clay? Is it red or white or a tan color? This all tells you some of what you’re dealing with. If you need to, buy some bulk compost and work it into your soil. This will help new plants get established in the garden. Amend the soil constantly over the years – adding more mulch and compost (you can make your own! Egg shells, coffee grounds, vegetable scraps, leaves, pine needles, even newspaper) to get that soil nice and fluffy and dark. You want moist organic matter rotting down into that fertile black gold. And FYI: Worms are your friends.
- Zone. Seacoast NH is a Zone 5-6. We have plants that can survive (and in fact need) freezing temperatures for several months every year. Gardeners in southern states get to enjoy Camellias, for example, which will often get destroyed by our frigid temps. And Southerners wish they could enjoy Lilacs, but their heat won’t often allow it. So we have to admit defeat sometimes, and suffer through some plant envy now and then. Only buy plants that can survive in your zone.
- Obey your plants. A sun-loving plant will succumb in the shade even if you think it’s really, really cute in that spot. A shade-loving plant will burn to a crisp in full sun even if you water it a lot. An arid-loving plant will rot if under a sprinkler all day, even if you paid $150 for it. Do not ask your plants to be something they are not. Read plant tags, place them where instructed, and watch them carefully. Celebrate when they flourish, and respond to their needs when they falter.
- Last frost date. This date tells you on average when you can safely plant young plants, crops, and annuals. It’s a horrible feeling to plant a perfect row of tender lettuces on a sunny afternoon in early May, and then wake up to a foot of snow the next morning (true story). Save your time, effort, and money, and wait for the last frost date to pass, and always, always check the forecast.
- Color. Blue and red? Pink and white? The whole rainbow? In the beginning, gardeners often suffer from “One of everything-itis.” And that’s okay. You’re experimenting – go ahead and try stuff. A symphony of colors is always beautiful. But try to color coordinate for some cohesion across the whole garden, and group plants into thoughtful vignettes. Try to pick one common color (white, blue, chartreuse) to feature across the garden to create a visual bridge across the whole garden.
- Tools: Get one good pair of pruners and loppers, and one good hand shovel (a trowel), one hefty, weight-earing, round-point shovel, and one good weeding tool (I like the Cape Codder). That should enable you to tackle the majority of most garden tasks.
- Have fun and enjoy it. There’s an endless amount of information and insight to be gained as a beginner gardener, and your garden will quickly become familiar and dear to you. You will be sore and sweaty and dirty after a day of gardening. You will feel oddly calm and proud and satisfied with your efforts. You will be starving and eat a huge dinner, and then sleep like a two-ton stone. You will start to yearn for that feeling your garden gives you, and smile just thinking about it. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
(And also get a trusted plant sitter to water your garden for you when you’re on vacation – especially the hydrangeas.)