Short list of useful tips for a newbie gardener


One of the lovely paths winding through the lovely Joy Creek Nursery.

One of the lovely paths winding through the equally lovely Joy Creek Nursery.

A comment in this week’s Wednesday Vignette post revealed that the garden that had puzzled me so, represented the efforts of a recent widow, who had begun gardening after her husband’s death. Pondering this made me think about what I would say to a new gardener, if asked. Would I have any helpful hints or wisdoms to share? After all, I have learned a lot from all the many, many mistakes I have made along the way. Granted, gardening is more of a continuous process than it is a goal, and – arguably – it is the journey itself that is so enjoyable. I wouldn’t want to ruin the ride for the newbie gardener. Even so, there are things that are good to know, or be aware of, up front – that at least I would have found quite helpful. So here goes – in no particular order:

  1. Accept that – from both a labor and finance perspective – it is easier to pick plants that love the soil you have, than to amend your soil to fit a plant. Even so, there are many things you can do to improve the soil you have. And trust me – it is far easier to do it before you have planted a bunch of things that you now need to work around.
  2. Read the tags. Learn what the plant needs in order to thrive, and how big it can get. Also, understand that the size numbers on the tags only tell you a projection of how big it will grow IN TEN YEARS. I imagine the reason for this is that so many new plants are developed all the time, that nobody has ever seen what they do beyond 10 years, or so.  (This may not matter much when you’re dealing with smaller perennials, but it can be devastating when you are planting trees. If you are planting trees, research the tree’s mature size – not its 10-year size.) And, this last one is important… If you live in Oregon, multiply whatever dimension is given by 1.5. Plants don’t read tags, and – trust me – just about everything gets bigger here.
  3. Choose plants that fit your spaces. Pruning and shaping are art forms in and of themselves, but even the most skilled talents can’t keep a plant that is roaring toward dimensional freedom within restricted boundaries, and still keep it looking good. And, why bother to plant something too big, when there are so many great, more size-appropriate plants that would do the job beautifully without all that hassle?
  4. Similarly, avoid placing plants that like “moist conditions” on a slope because, um… you know… gravity. You will run yourself ragged trying to keep it from drying out.
  5. Handy rule of thumb when it comes to conifers: If the tag says “fast growing”, you can pretty much count on it getting very big – fast. If it says “slow growing”, the opposite is likely true. However, DO NOT get fooled by the word “dwarf”. A dwarf variety of an 100′ tree might well reach 50′ – which isn’t exactly small. If you have 50′ to spare, by all means go for it. But if you don’t, plant something else.
  6. Don’t be afraid to fail. Killing plants is an essential part of the learning process, and anyone who can call themselves “gardener” knows that. Being a serial killer is part of our creed – it is how we learn. Part of our hard-earned authority is based on pushing limits and boundaries, and observing what happens. Our knowledge rests firmly on the decomposing backs of a long line of casualties.
  7. If you are starting with a clean slate, plant your structure plants (aka your big stuff) first. This may entail making at least a sketchy outline of some sort of plan – which is something every experienced garden guru will tell you to do first, but very few people actually do in real life. As the big stuff (trees and large shrubs) fill in, little by little, they will create the conditions for the smaller stuff to grow in. Be sure you know where you want them though – once they are established, they can be very difficult to move.
  8. Eventually you will start to get an idea of which plants have similar growing requirements, water needs, etc. Well thought out gardens tend to have plants with like needs grouped together – it makes sense in terms of success and ease of care. But this learning curve is also where you learn how to push boundaries. Gardening is not an all or nothing science. Chances are that even if the tag clearly states “full sun”, that your plant will tolerate some shade too. You will no doubt experience some failures, but you will just as certainly enjoy some brilliant successes! Play, push your luck, experiment, and use your senses and intellect to monitor and observe. If something doesn’t seem to work, you can either leave it to die, or move it someplace where it might do better.
  9. Think about what your garden will look like in winter. If all you can see with your inner eye is mud and bare sticks, make a conscious effort to add a few evergreens to the mix for winter interest. Ideally, there will be something carrying the show at all times – every month of the year. The choices are nearly endless, and you will have a lot of fun finding your favorites!
  10. Oh, adding one more, that I thought about after posting this. I’m sneaking it in here at the end, as it pertains particularly well to the puzzling garden from this week. Anything planted in pots will be the equivalent of about one climate zone LESS hardy than if it was planted in the ground. With planters, you also have to be very careful about providing enough drainage – especially if they are made of plastic, and don’t breathe.
  11. Have fun! Some will tell you that there are rules of convention and good taste. Yeah, probably, but those can probably be adhered to later – if ever. Gardens can be intensely personal – which is why they are so emotionally rewarding. The beautiful thing is, you can do everything and anything you want – it is YOUR garden!

Front garden

So, fellow gardeners, what hard-won secrets would you tell a new gardening enthusiast? I guess this is kind of a silly forum for this discussion, since I imagine this post will mostly be read by people who already know what they are doing. But still… what vital piece of information did I miss? What gold nugget advice would you share with a newbie?

About annamadeit

I was born and raised in Sweden, By now, I have lived almost as long in the United States. The path I’ve taken has been long and varied, and has given me a philosophical approach to life. I may joke that I’m a sybarite, but the truth is, I find joy and luxury in life’s simple things as well. My outlook on life has roots in a culture rich in history and tradition, and I care a great deal about environmental stewardship. Aesthetically, while drawn to the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia, I also have a deep appreciation for the raw, the weathered, and the worn - materials that tell a story. To me, contrast, counterpoint, and diversity are what makes life interesting and engaging. Color has always informed everything I do. I’m a functional tetrachromat, and a hopeless plantoholic. I was originally trained as an architect working mostly on interiors, but soon ventured outside - into garden design. It’s that contrast thing again… An interior adrift from its exterior, is like a yin without a yang. My firm conviction that everything is connected gets me in trouble time and time again. The world is a big place, and full of marvelous distractions, and offers plentiful opportunities for inquiry and exploration. I started writing to quell my constant queries, explore my discoveries, and nurture my curiosity. The Creative Flux was started in 2010, and became a catch-all for all kinds of intersecting interests. The start of Flutter & Hum at the end of 2013 marks my descent into plant nerd revelry. I occasionally contribute to other blogs, but those two are my main ones. For sure, topics are all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blogs!
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23 Responses to Short list of useful tips for a newbie gardener

  1. Very useful, although I hope I may never need it 🙂

  2. FlowerAlley says:

    Well done. I have been helping a friend who has purchased an older home with many “mystery” plantings. We play “Keep or Kill” (or move) on Tuesdays. It’s been like a treasure hunt for us both. It took pictures in the beginning. We are keeping a list of finds and drawing maps of plant locations.
    Advice for new gardeners in an inherited or purchased garden. Get experienced help and share your multiples. Not many gardens need one hundred of the same plant. Divide and give away or compost…

    • annamadeit says:

      Good advice, for sure, Becca! And, another one on that note: When you move into an established garden – wait a year to see what everything does, before tearing into it. If you don’t, you may accidentally remove some real treasures that you may actually have loved. And, what a fun project to help a friend with. Would love to see a progress post on that one… 😉

  3. Wonderful, Anna. I am going to share this on the Joy Creek facebook page…great GREAT info. If only I had known (and adhered to) this advice when I was starting out. D’OH!

  4. annamadeit says:

    Oh, Tamara – the things we know now… Just goes to show that knowledge comes with a price – even outside of the ones reflected by student loans. By all means – share away! 🙂

  5. Kris P says:

    It’s a great list, Anna. Your list also provides good reminders to less-novice gardeners. For example, I was careful to test the soil in my former postage-stamp garden but didn’t do so here until recently and I’ve paid the price. If I was to add to your list, I’d say don’t be afraid to dig up and move plants. I rarely did that in my former garden but, in making this established garden my own (tearing out the lawn, replacing thirsty plants with those that are more drought tolerant, etc.), I’ve finally accepted that it’s okay to move plants to support the evolution of the garden. Another addition would be: don’t be too quick to dead-head. While my former tiny garden benefited from constant neatening, I’ve come to appreciate allowing self-seeders to do their thing.

    • annamadeit says:

      Thanks Kris – those are great additions to the list! Isn’t it strange how self-seeded plants tend to do so much better, with so much less coddling, than those that have been nursed along in pots for a while? In addition – I feel the need to disclose here – I haven’t tested the soil in my garden yet either…. (hanging head in shame…)

  6. Such good advice for every gardener, novice and experienced alike. I’d do well to heed a number of your points, but being me, I usually hurl myself headlong toward some imagined ideal! One additional point I’d add is this: Even if you are working toward a xeric, low water garden, be aware you will need to water most newly installed plants more frequently for the first year to get them established. Even the dry, dry, dry plants are not “set it and forget it” right away.

    • annamadeit says:

      Oh – good one, Jane! So many get misled by the idea of drought tolerant plants. Watering them in until established is HUGELY important! Oh, and by the way – it’s easy to tell others what to do, but I often don’t heed my own advice either. 😉

  7. hb says:

    Not every cereal killer learns from her mistakes. I speak from experience. ;^)

    Great list! I would only add–don’t feel like you need to fill every single space in the garden right away–because your tastes will change as you learn–and then you won’t have any place to put those nifty new acquisitions.

    • annamadeit says:

      Amen to that! Some of the plants I planted a decade ago (which were new and exciting to me then) are gradually being removed to make room for new things. It’s an ongoing development.

  8. Peter Herpst says:

    Great advice indeed. I might add two words bamboo barrier. Simple words but an ounce of prevention…is better than years and years of rhizome digging and trying to eradicate the giant grass.

    • annamadeit says:

      Another good one for sure, Peter. Bamboo is great, and there are plenty of fabulous clumping varieties that won’t give you the headaches of the running kinds. I wish more people would be aware of that – I hate that bamboo in general has gotten such a bad rep. As so often, it is our own arrogant ignorance that causes problems.

  9. Alyse says:

    Great post! Found it on Tamara’s Joy Creek link 🙂 . My favorite is the one about not being afraid to kill plants. Oh the plant mortality around here, yet garden viewers would never know it. I’m also fond of Mulchmaid’s watering advice–that xeric plants are not drought tolerant until established. That’s one of the misnomers, if you will, that new gardeners don’t get at first. One of the hardest concepts I teach newbies is how to water a plant. I coach them through it A LOT, and have given them $10 moisture meters (via Amazon) to help them especially through plants’ first summers. Moisture meters still help me too, after all these years, and you can be shocked how wet or how dry a plant’s root zone is. Especially helpful for plants new in the ground.

    • annamadeit says:

      Thanks, Alyse! Oh yes – watering is indeed an art, and something that just about everyone underestimates, I think. Investing in a moisture meter is a great idea! Thanks for stopping by and for your comment!

  10. Anne says:

    I believe that an important thing is to understand that buying plants from big box stores is usually a crap shoot. They are often plants that aren’t suitable for the local climate or are invasive. Take the time to buy your plants at a locally owned and operated nursery. The plants people there will be able to help you purchase plants that will grow where you live. And they will happily share their knowledge with you. And don’t be afraid to pay for professional design guidance if you are feeling overwhelmed with your garden. Often you can pay for a couple of hours consultation that will get you going in the right direction.

    I agree with Alyse about watering new plants. It doesn’t matter how drought toleran they are. They have to be regularly irrigated until they are established.

    • annamadeit says:

      Good point, Anne. Not to mention that box store plants are often laden with neonicotinoids and other pesticides. Supporting independent garden centers and growers is always a good idea – both for the local economy, and for a unique, individual garden end result. And, of course, like you said, the staff of an IGC is far more likely to know enough to offer good advice. You are right – an hour or two of consultation is a GREAT idea, before you get started, as BIG mistakes can easily be averted. Thanks for stopping by and adding your thought!

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