A practical approach to gardening

Amy Chapman wrote a wonderful article for the March Camden News on suggestions and resources entitled, “Become a Gardener.” It is filled with excellent detailed advice from the perspective of a Master Gardener. I would like to offer an approach to those who don’t want to do a lot of reading or research.

Although I grew up in a gardening family and gained some knowledge about flowers and planting through osmosis, I learned mainly through trial and error. I was awarded the 2016 Mpls. Garden Award for Best Residential Garden, but I still consider myself to be a bit of an amateur, as I’ve never done any formal horticultural training, or even have my soil tested. Even so, here are some practical suggestions for a beginning gardener, based on my experience.

Consider how you will use your yard space: First, ask yourself, “How do I want to use my backyard? Do I want to leave space for my children/and or pets to play in? Do I want to do outdoor entertaining? In the morning, afternoon or evening? How much privacy will I need?” If shade is necessary for entertaining, consider a convenient and appealing part of your yard, and think about appropriate tree placement or building a pergola.

Think about overall design, and don’t limit yourself by what is already growing in your yard. Could you incorporate an existing tree or shrub as a focal point or backdrop in a garden bed? Could you plant additional trees or shrubs so that your existing one is only one of similar repeated elements? Think about balancing out both sides of the yard. Incorporate layers to add vertical interest. Your existing taller shrubs could be a backdrop to shorter perennials and annuals. Plant vines on a trellis or fence (that belongs to you) to add height to your garden. Consider the design of the entire yard and try several plans on paper to see what suits you. Ask yourself if you want to be able to show your garden, or are you more interested in picking flowers for bouquets or harvesting vegetables?

Select a color scheme and plant with different textures. Do you want a high-energy, multi-colored garden that contrasts and pops out with yellow, orange and purple? How about soothing shades of blue, lavender and pink? Do you want a monochromatic white garden that glows at dusk?

For color all season, plant a large variety of flowers in order to stagger blooming times.  Plant tulips, iris, and peonies for the spring, lilies, daylilies, and daisies for mid-summer, phlox, dahlias, zinnias, hibiscus for late summer, and asters and helianthus for the fall.

Do you want to do high-maintenance or low-maintenance gardening? A rain garden with prairie blooms or hostas in shade will require little watering, while annuals in the sun will require lots of watering. Some shrubs require regular pruning, while others do not. Certain perennials need to be divided often, while peonies do not. Remember that your body will age, and you may not be able to do as much maintenance as you get older.

Have a five-year plan if you tend to be overzealous. You may be young and energetic, but even you cannot do it all in one year if you’re planning on doing large-scale gardening. As you work on your garden, you may change your mind about the design, and decide to make changes. Taking extra time allows you to reflect and spread out costs. Some shrubs and perennials can be divided after a short period of time, and existing pavers can be moved and repurposed.

Year 1: Design the shape of your beds, and remove unwanted plants and rock. Prep planting sites by digging out tree roots and amending the soil! Plant foundational trees and shrubs that will take a while to get established. Leave plenty of space between them (more than what is recommended on the tags), and plant away from power, gas, and sewer lines. Build patio spaces if desired. Observe how much sun each area of your yard receives.

Year 2: Remove sod and create the shape of your beds. Amend the soil with compost! Plant perennials and leave plenty of space between them for growth and for annuals. (Remember: The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap.) Are you planting for sun or shade? Water, weed, and mulch well! Consider arranging sprinkler hoses.

Year 3: Add annuals to your garden and mulch and water well. Deadhead your flowers to prolong blooming. Consider adding edging to your flower borders. Plant ground covers to cut down on the need to mulch and weed. Consider planting bulbs in the fall for spring color.

Year 4: Move or replace plants that aren’t thriving. Change what you don’t like. Maintain what you have before adding more! Consider reducing turf with paving stones and ground covers.

Year 5: Consider dividing perennials so you can fill some empty spaces, or so you can exchange plants with friends. Add statuary or colorful chairs or benches if desired. Enjoy and show off your garden!

Get to know your neighbors and dog-walkers. If you don’t know them yet, you’ll get to know them once you start digging up your yard. Other gardeners can share their advice and exchange plants with you. You might also exchange watering services when you or your neighbors go out of town.

Consider that not all neighbors will share your enthusiasm for gardening. Plant away from property lines and don’t allow your vines to grow on neighbors’ fences.

Commit to not using chemicals, especially neonicotinoids. Buy flowers from organic nurseries and amend your soil with compost. Use organic fertilizers. Avoid planting flowers that attract aphids, and pick off Japanese beetles by hand. Don’t spray!

Listen to folk wisdom. My 93 year-old-neighbor feeds her flowers with food scraps by digging them into the soil. She also talks to her flowers and threatens them if they don’t bloom. In addition, she pays attention to which flowers don’t get along with one another, and moves them if necessary.

Start digging, and don’t forget to share your garden with others, whether it’s big or small! Its great way to meet your neighbors!

   This article was written by Tanya Novak