Yes, You Can and Should Garden: A Gardening Primer Part I

This is the introduction to a multi-part series on how to garden.

I have recently decided to start a garden design business. Academia, after all, doesn’t pay like it used to. So in addition to my own gardens, I’m now working on several other people’s gardens. I’m an absolute obsessive about gardening. I routinely spend 8 hours a day in the garden (or as long my children are willing to stay outside). One of the things I am most obsessive about, however, is that people don’t have to be obsessive to have a great garden. Most of my friends would love to have a great garden. They just do not have a lot of money or time to devote to creating it. They feel overwhelmed at the task and think it is too much work. I’ve heard, “I always kill plants,” or “I have a brown thumb,” or “I don’t have the energy.” My neighbor once asked me over to give her advice about where to plant a tree. I suggested some spaces and turned to leave. She clutched my arm as I started to leave. She told me she had no idea how to plant a tree and wanted me to walk her through it step by step. I think there are a lot of people like this. Much of the advice on the internet for any given gardening task (starting seeds, digging a bed, designing aesthetically attractive gardens or containers) I’ve read is often, I think, unnecessarily complicated. It involves either too much work or too much expense. It can overwhelm or daunt beginners.

There are many, many reasons to have a garden. Growing your own food is cheaper, more fun, usually tastier, and6_2013_Broccoli is as low as you can get on the food miles. Grass lawns consume enormous amounts of fresh water. Water run-off from lawns is both wasteful and harmful to marine life. Planting trees strategically can lower your energy bills (without even getting into green roofs or living walls). For a relatively low outlay, it can increase your home’s value by up to 12.7%. Most important (to me), however, are the psychological and health benefits a garden brings. A good garden should make you want to be outside. It should make your lawn (if you have one) something you actually use. Being outside, or seeing beautiful plants on your stoop when you come home from a hard day, or on the windowsill while you’re working, can boost mood, concentration, and energy. An outdoor space devoted to a seating or eating area just invites leisure. Many years before I became a crazed gardener, I was a surly teenager with pink hair. My parents used a landscape designer to install and maintain their gardens. (Quick aside: you don’t need a grand estate to have multiple gardens: we currently have less than 1/5 of an acre and have six gardens plus many containers.) One garden, in particular, was just so beautiful. Back then, I couldn’t identify a single plant besides maybe impatiens and maple trees. Didn’t matter. I never got tired of looking at it, it never failed to cheer me up.

Of course, you should hire me and I’ll design you a great garden! However, in the assumption that you’re not in the DC area looking for a professional garden designer, here’s my blog plan: I want to create a from-soup-to-nuts gardening guide (and hone my own gardening philosophy in the process) for people who want to start gardening but lack money, time, and energy. My focus will be on being as simple and low-maintenance as possible, and as frugal as possible. Sometimes, the frugal option is not the low-maintenance option or vice versa. When that is the case I will describe both options and indicate which is which.

So you know where I stand, here are the basic tenets of my gardening philosophy:

1) Pretty much anyone can have a garden of some kind. You have a yard that is a bare patch of weeds that is 4 feet by 3 feet? You can cram some serious beauty into that tiny space. You live in an urban apartment? You can have windowboxes filled with herbs or flowers. If your apartment has a roof or patio or balcony, you can have a lovely container garden with ornamentals, edibles, or both (or, my favorite, edibles that are ornamental). A few containers of simple plants on your front steps can cheer you as you enter your home, especially if they are wafting a lovely smell.

Very simple plants in containers make a brick staircase look much more inviting.

Very simple plants in containers make a brick staircase look much more inviting.

2) Many people who want to start a garden, especially if they are ecologically-minded, focus solely on growing edibles. That is fine! That’s great! That’s significantly better than having no garden at all. I will, however, be focusing a good amount of attention on ornamentals as well as edibles. Here’s why: first, they look better, of course! Ornamentals can give you that feeling of outdoor joy that edibles alone cannot. Second, there are many benefits to interplanting edibles and ornamentals. It looks better, it cuts down on pests or diseases jumping from plant to plant, it attracts pollinators which increases your food yield. Ornamentals can also provide environmental benefits that edibles alone cannot: they can be the mainstays of rain gardens or drought-tolerant gardens. They also provide a bigger boost to home values.

3) Many people are into planting only U.S. native plants. (That is, of course, if they live in the U.S. It would be a bit odd to live in Spain and insist on a garden of U.S. natives unless you maintain a botanical garden or are a seriously homesick ex-pat.) There are good reasons for that: native plants are unlikely to be invasive, they are likely to thrive in our climate, they will attract pollinators. Many, probably most, of my go-to plants are natives. However, there are some U.S. natives that have some problems thriving (my bee balm and phlox get powdery mildew every summer without fail). And there are some non-U.S. natives that have a long history that establishes they are not invasive, thrive here, and attract pollinators. Some examples of plants that meet all these criteria in my own gardens (which of course does not guarantee they will thrive in yours – more on that later): Caradonna salvia, limelight four o’clock*, Russian sage, certain sedums, kniphofia, delosperma, alcea rugosa, centranthus ruber, and begonia boliviensis. Some may disagree with me on this, of course, so I will try to remember to note which plants I discuss are natives in case a reader wants to use solely native plants.

4) Many people are also into avoiding hybrids and focusing on heirlooms or species plants. This is also something I’m not particularly religious about. Some heirlooms are great. Hybrid marigolds and impatiens are ugly and dull, but some of the heirloom/species ones are awesome. I grew heirloom tomatoes last year, which were not only amazingly delicious, but thoughtfully scattered their seeds for me so I have twice as many plants this year, for free. (Hybrids are usually either sterile or the seeds produce a plant significantly different from the mother plant. If you’ve ever been unsuccessful in growing seeds from fruit you got in the supermarket, it is likely because many of the fruits you buy are hybrids.) Heirlooms often have a beautiful look or scent that was weeded out when hybridizers were striving for some other characteristic. It should be noted that hybridization should not necessarily conjure up an Island-of-Dr.-Moreau-like vision of freakish mutations that were never meant to be. Hybrids are not solely the brainchild of an evil Monsanto-like corporation (such as, say, Monsanto) bent on world domination. Many hybrids occur naturally via cross-pollination by bees or butterflies. Others are the result of home gardeners having a little fun and experimenting. Some hybrids also really do have more desirable characteristics than the species, and I use them when that is the case.

5) I don’t use any chemicals and almost no fertilizers (with two exceptions). First of all, it’s better for the environment. Second, I don’t want to deal with that kind of maintenance. I can live with a few insect-eaten holes, as long as a plant isn’t decimated. If a plant needs constant tending with chemicals (I’m looking at you, hybrid tea roses), then it’s a plant I don’t need. I might give a spray or two with neem oil, but that’s it. The right plant in the right place in the right soil doesn’t need fertilizer or chemicals. I made a new exception this year. We got our yard treated with pesticides for ticks and mosquitoes. I was extremely reluctant to do because it kills pollinators – most worrisomely, honeybees. Last year, I tried every natural method (getting rid of standing water, planting tons of mosquito-repelling plants, etc). If it worked at all, it didn’t work well enough. None of my family wanted to go outside because they were bitten alive by mosquitos, and one of my sons contracted Lyme disease. The other exception I’ll get to in a later post. Happily, I’ve noticed plenty of pollinators, and no mosquitoes or ticks.

6) Getting rid of lawn is generally good. However, unless you will really never use it, keep some grass around. Grass is simply the single best plant for standing up to foot traffic. If you have kids or dogs especially, they’ll spend more time outside if there’s some lawn.

Here are the topics I thought I’d cover. Please let me know in the comments if there are any others you’d like me to take on.

1) How to select sites and prepare beds and containers.

2) Knowing plants: what are annuals, biannuals, perennials, sub-shrubs, shrubs, and trees? Which plants would suit your garden?

3) Sustainable practices: selecting drought-tolerant plants, rain garden plants, using rain barrels, etc. How to avoid using chemicals and fertilizers, and still stop critters from eating your plants. Best practices for grass lawns.

4) Design principles: how to make landscaping look good.

5) Seeds, bulbs, and propagation 101.

6) How to put plants in the ground and make sure they stay alive with as little maintenance as possible.

7) How to put plants in containers and make sure they stay alive with as little maintenance as possible.

8) Design for special populations: gardens that especially suit children or people with disabilities.

Any other questions? Let me know what you want to know!

*Four o’clocks can attract Japanese beetles (although that didn’t happen in my garden). Many gardeners therefore use them as bait amongst edibles. The Japanese beetles go for the four o’clocks, and leave the cukes alone.