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10 Tips for the Beginning Gardener—What I Learned in Year One


10 Tips for the Beginning Gardener—What I Learned in Year One

October 24, 2013

The other day, a friend with a newly acquired balcony asked what kind of containers she should buy and what she should plant. I responded by reminding her that I write a series of posts called the novice gardener because I have no clue what I’m doing. But within moments, my inner gardener changed her mind and blurted, “Actually, wait.”

It’s been one year since I bought my first plants for my urban window box, and I’ve been busy tending and neglecting and killing and growing plants since. I’ve learned a lot. Lucky (or not) for my friend, we were setting out on a long walk–so I started from the beginning and rattled off the things I’d learned the hard way:

Photographs by Meredith Swinehart.

1. Soil quality matters. When I inherited my garden, it was full of dead plants. I had the right instinct to start anew, and painstakingly dug out the compacted dirt and filled the box with fresh potting soil. But I ran out of soil before I finished planting, and, having already spent nearly seven hours on my still-not-yet-a-garden that day, I opted to scrape some of the dry, sandy, old dirt off the sidewalk rather than buy more potting soil. I wondered at the time if I would come to regret this, and several months later when I pulled out my dead plants from that end of the box, I did.

I’ve learned to start any new planting with fresh soil, or to take the suggestion of San Francisco-based garden designer Stefani Bittner to use a 50/50 mix of potting soil and organic compost. When I tried this mix with a few new plants, they thrived.

2. Free the roots. Before I began gardening, I’d heard some debate about whether it’s necessary to loosen the roots of a new plant before putting it in the ground. It just might not be needed, or it might harm the plant’s delicate roots.

I’ve since spent time with Julie Chai, a Gardenista contributor and former garden editor of Sunset magazine, and she taught me that gentleness is not needed here. Julie really mangles the roots of her plants, and I’ve started to do the same. When I pulled out the first plant I killed, a dwarf myrtle, I saw that its roots hadn’t expanded at all–it was in exactly the same shape as when I had put it in the ground months earlier. I suspect now that messing with its roots might have given it a fighting chance.

3. Plant it right. After I put them in the ground, several of my original plants sat a bit higher in the soil than others. More of the plant was exposed and just didn’t look quite right. I wondered if I’d done a poor planting job and if I should have planted deeper, but then I squished the plants down into the soil and hoped for the best. Instead, I should have dug the plant out, made the hole deeper, and tucked the plant back in. The myrtle, sage, and a little astilbe all had this in common, and all died.

4. Learn how to water. I’d been told that in San Francisco, I wouldn’t need to water much; it never gets too warm in the city and it’s always a bit damp. Heeding this advice, I killed several otherwise healthy plants through a rainy spring (including my lavender).

I admit I’m surprised at how much water my little window box needs, and I eventually learned the right way to tell if my container is thirsty: by putting my finger into the ground and feeling the soil. And as dumb as it sounds, investing in a $15 watering can made a huge difference in my enthusiasm for watering my garden. The can holds a ton of water, the gentle dosing means it’s better absorbed into the soil, and my plants are happier for it. I may be the only person who failed to realize that there are real benefits to a watering can over a pitcher, but if not, now you know. 

5. Diversify. I had been a little too conservative in choosing my first round of plants. I’ll maintain a someday goal of planting a perfectly coordinated minimalist garden, but while I’m learning, the more variation in color, height, and texture, the better–for several reasons.

First, I didn’t guess right about how tall a particular plant would grow. Nor was I able to figure out ahead of time exactly how long it would take a particular plant to achieve its full height. So there was no hope of me planning a perfect container in the first place. Over time, the more plants I added, the more I learned about how I wanted to compose my garden. Second, whenever one plant died, other plants did not die; this made all the difference between and piqued my curiosity about what thrives under what conditions (instead of affirming my fear that I am a bad gardener). And third, different plants look their best at different times, so the more diverse my mix, the better the chance that something is always looking nice in the garden.

6. Pack them in. Starting out, I didn’t have a good sense for how much space each plant would need; I gave each a generous perimeter and expected it to grow. But my favorite container gardens look a little overgrown, and as I started to garden I examined them more carefully. I’d assumed they were composed of a few robust plants, but in most cases the gardener had packed in plants to the brim.

After my tulip bulbs are ready for planting, I’m planning to plant over them with shallow-rooted plants. Like everything else, plants can get expensive, so I’ve learned to buy more of the smallest, cheapest plants (like those sold in packs of six) rather than fewer larger ones. 

7. Soil needs tending. I’ve often wondered about the myriad boxes of fertilizer and “plant food” that line garden center shelves, but disregarded these as products for people who know what they are doing. I also want to be a responsible steward of the environment and am more than a little skeptical of what’s inside.

But edible gardens expert Stefani Bittner taught me that soil can be safely “refreshed” using organic compost, which she recommends doing at least twice a year. I heeded her advice–making sure to mix the compost well into the soil, as directed–and my plants loved it. It’s been about six months since I last added a little compost, so I just bought some “compost tea” so I don’t have to keep a large bag around. I’m hoping the tea will make my plants as happy as the fresh compost did.

8. It’s not a big deal if things die. In my inaugural year of gardening, I killed a lot of plants. When I first realized my myrtle was dead, I felt discouraged, almost a little devastated, and certainly affirmed in my belief that I am a terrible gardener. My lavender was on its way out, and I almost accepted my fate as a tormentor of plants. But now that I have more experience, the memory of my dead myrtle doesn’t haunt me. I planted something else in its place, changed my gardening habits, and made something grow.

9. A little elbow grease brings a lot of reward. Caring for my plants has taken more time than I expected. My garden is only 8 feet long and 12 inches wide, so I’m not claiming that I have lawns to mow or trees to trim. And I admit that it didn’t take much time to have an ugly garden–I neglected it, and yet a few things till managed to survive. But a thriving garden took modest energy and yielded great reward. 

10. Experts are full of conflicting advice. A lot of conflicting advice. When I began gardening, I took everyone’s advice as God’s word until I realized that a lot of it was contradictory. Now I listen carefully, ask better questions, and either take the advice or leave it.

Along my journey, I asked someone at a garden center about a particular piece of advice I’d been given. She thought for a moment, shrugged, and said “Just try it and see.” I knew this was my new gardening maxim the moment I heard it.

And if you heed a piece of advice and things improve, wonderful. If not, see number eight, above.

Read more about the trials and travails of year one of The Novice Gardener, and follow along with our new Gardening 101 series to learn the basics.

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