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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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!
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?