My first attempt at gardening was not fruitful. Nearly everything that I planted died within a few weeks.
The only plants that survived were some beautiful multi-colored impatiens planted in a shady spot under an oak tree in our front yard. These lovely lollipop flowers lasted about two weeks, until the deer discovered the tasty treat.
If you’re new to gardening and don’t know where to start, here are some key things I’ve discovered that will accelerate your learning and your enjoyment in your garden.
5 questions you should ask prior to planting anything:
What zone do I live in?
Geographies are categorized by zones, if you live in the U.S. The difference between one zone and another is determined by both the warmest and the coldest temperatures that particular region typically experiences in a given year, referred to as “plant hardiness”.
Knowing what zone you live in will help you to determine which plants will do best in-ground, in containers, or maybe not at all in your region.
You can find your zone by visiting the USDA Plant Zone Map.
What is my soil type?
This one piece of information completely changed my gardening experience and has given me so much more confidence in gardening.
In our area, the soil is clay-like and has poor drainage. Drainage refers to how quickly water is absorbed into the soil. Most plants need good drainage in order to survive, otherwise the roots become saturated with water and rot.
A quick test you can conduct is to spray an area with a hose until it begins to saturate. If the water disappears quickly, you have good soil drainage. If you see water “pooling”, your soil drainage is poor.
You can get really technical with soil types to determine if it’s alkaline or acidic. You can purchase a kit or take a soil sample in to a local plant nursery for them to test it. I’ve never done this. However, I did ask a local nursery how to change (you’ll hear this referred to as “amending”) the soil.
In my case, the soil needs acid to break up the clay. I purchased some acidified compost, which completely changed the soil in a flower bed that was drowning in pooling water. I removed all of the bushes, amended the soil, and now enjoy some fabulous roses in that bed. I will need to continue to add compost to it every few years, as the roses will absorb the nutrients in the soil. If left untouched, the soil will eventually resort back to clay.
Based on what part of town you live in, you should be able to discover what your soil type most likely is by visiting your local nursery.
Are there native plants I can use in my garden?
Native plants are the best way to go if you find something you like. They do well in the temperature and water and overall climate of a given area. In Austin, Texas, where I live, native plants are water-wise, drought tolerant, and don’t mind the humidity of the area. Again, your local nursery is a great resource for both education and purchasing the plants themselves.
What is the amount of sun exposure in the areas I want to plant?
Most plants are classified by full sun (6+ hours per day), full shade (very little or some morning sun) and partial shade (filtered sun – perhaps under a tree canopy, or morning sun and afternoon shade). Walk around your property at different times of day until you have a good sense for the type of lighting you have. Keep in mind that the lighting will change depending on what time of year it is.
What’s the difference between an annual and a perennial?
An annual is a plant that usually only survives one growing season in your area. They typically provide lots of color for several months, but have to be replaced.
Some annuals that have done very well for me in Austin are:
–Impatiens (partial to full shade)
–Caladiums (partial to full shade)
–Geraniums (full sun)
Annuals are usually less expensive than perennials.
A perennial is a plant that comes back year after year (deciduous), or keeps producing foliage year-round (evergreen). They typically flower for shorter periods of time and many have to be pruned or cut back almost to the ground in winter. Good examples in the Austin area include blackfoot daisies and lantana.
The perennials I have are mostly rose bushes. I simply love roses, so I have several bushes in my garden.
I do have some lantana, oleander, and Mexican heather that come back nicely every year. I do cut back the lantana and the Mexican heather nearly to the ground, leaving the woody growth.
Some new perennial additions to my garden this year are Endless Summer hydrangeas, Mexican feather grass, and blackfoot daisies. We’ll see how these perform.
Much of what I’ve learned about gardening has been through trial and error. One thing I know with certainty: as you begin to get to know your garden, follow your gut instinct when it comes to purchasing plants. Do seek the advice of local growers, but in the end, do what you want and be willing to change it if it doesn’t work out the way you had hoped. The great thing about plants is that they can be transplanted and replaced! I’ve given several away to neighbors and friends who love their new plants.
If you’re new to gardening, I don’t suggest re-doing everything in your yard. Do a little at a time. Try a few clay pots with some herbs. Pick out some easy-care plants. If you love roses like I do, try a Knockout Rose in a large pot (roses need lots of room for their roots as they grow). These are pretty hard to mess up and they bloom repeatedly throughout the year. When using containers, throw in a handful of rocks in the bottom of the pot. This technique will help with drainage – I generally like to combine potting mix with garden soil for most potted plants.
Your local nursery is a great resource
Just in case you missed it in the first few paragraphs, visit your local nursery. Saturday’s are always crazy. However, I find that going first thing in the morning around 7 or 8, is a great time to go. You can bring in pictures of the areas you want to work on, and ask for recommendations. The people who work there live for design ideas and love plants! Who better to talk to about your garden?
Question: What are some of your favorite gardening tips?