Saturday, May 5, 2012

Advice for a Beginner

I’ve never been very enthusiastic about “how to” books, preferring to blunder my own way through my projects, no matter how ignorant I am about the job I’m tackling.  The big hazard with this approach is the volume of mistakes I can make – slipcovers that don’t fit, jams that don’t jell and blossoms that don’t bloom.  Even so, I believe that famous proverb “Experience is the best teacher,” as well as my own saying “Mistakes are the glue that makes new facts stick in the brain.”

Last week I received a request from a “Blooming Gardener” for advice on how to start a flower bed, so I put the sensible sayings above aside and have been reading several of the garden books on my shelves to get some “how to” advice besides my own.  I’d probably have saved myself a lot of mistakes if I’d read some of them fifty years ago.

My first flower bed grew like “Topsy” with nothing but “hand-me-downs” from friends and neighbors.  At that point my garden knowledge was limited to vegetables. I didn’t even know how to plant the iris corms my friend Bunny gave me, or what color and when to plant the box of unknowns (they were feverfew) my neighbor Jeanette brought me one April, or how tall a clump of something called phlox would grow.  Instead of reading a good garden book, I just stuck all these “hand-me-down” gifts in front of the sheep fence.

Reading about plants is definitely helpful, but don’t depend on the descriptions in the garden catalogs.  They always exaggerate a plant’s good points and rarely tell you about its bad ones.  Get some books from your library with good colored photographs and hard facts. Ortho Books - All about Annuals, All about Perennials -  are good basic books. No book can substitute for the real thing, but you can get enough of an idea to make some choices.  Read about their height, color, lateral spread and the time and length of their flowering.

If you’re as much of a beginner as I was, you may think that the word “perennial” means “lives forever” or “blooms all summer” but neither is correct.  Some perennials are so fussy they may only live a year or two, or so invasive you wish they would, and as for blooms, most will have only a few weeks of flowering, so to maintain a garden of continuous bloom requires careful study.  Annuals, on the other hand, are comparatively inexpensive and bloom all summer.

When I went looking for a good photo for this column  all the handsome flower beds I found were overpowering,  what you might only find on a garden tour of fancy estates.  They were all full of perennials with a mere smattering of annuals.  Even so, I would reverse that order and use primarily annuals with a limited number of perennials to begin.

A few well-behaved perennials include hostas, astilbes, tree peonies, day lilies and Asian lilies.  Once you’re made your choices of plants, visit a local nursery to look at them in the flesh, and then draw up a plan. Try to be as artistic and natural as Mother Nature, breaking up your planting lines.

Obviously the bed should be designed so that no large-sized plant hides a smaller one, but don’t just make rows, short, medium and tall. If your bed is a border, it needs a background, be it a hedge, a house, a wall or shrubbery. Whatever its color, be careful about your colors.  Don’t plant a red beebalm against  a red background, or a white phlox in front of a white  white board fence.

The border’s width should be determined by the height of the tallest plants.  A wide border that contains only bedding plants is as dull as a chorus line of flat-chested go-go dancers; a narrow bed lined with only tall plants is as gawky as a row of plucked ostriches walking a tightrope.

As for color, a flower garden is a place where you can run riot with bright splashes of primary colors or experiment with limited color - pink and gray, blue and white. When you’re planting annuals, use at least three of one kind in a cluster as single specimens get lost.  If the bed is to be multi-colored, no one hue should dominate and the strongest colors should be separated by planting creams and whites in between.

Despite the fact that the “blooming gardener” addressed me as Hasty instead of Hatsy, (actually I get called Hasty a lot, probably because I am)  I’ve tried to give her the basics. I’m sure she hoped I’d give her specific flower recommendations, but that would deprive her of half the fun of making a garden. 

Good luck, Blooming Gardener, and don’t forget my little saying “Mistakes are the glue…”


  1. I've never stopped feeling like a beginner gardener, even after all these years. What I've learned is that it's one thing to read and absorb all the good advice that's out there; it's quite another to follow it!

  2. I've found that perennial gardens are like haircuts. There's that one day between being your hair being too short or too long that is just perfect. With a garden, there's a time when stuff is too spread out, and a time when it has overgrown its bounds. In the middle there is a period when everything works together in perfect proportion. As you pointed out, perennials do not live forever, and some have an untidy propensity to grow in ever-widening circles with dead centers. Perennial gardening is a continual process - but I guess that's one of the things we like about it!