Learning to Grow a Garden: 17 Lessons From an Absolute Beginner

As anyone who reads my blog with any regularity knows, I have been getting really interested in gardening in the past two or three years, and this spring, I really dove head first into the gardening obsession (I think it’s more than a hobby for a lot of people) for the first time.

As a total newbie gardener, I have SO MUCH to learn and I am reading as much as I can and also picking the brains of other local gardeners who know their stuff. But much of what I am learning is just a matter of trial and error on my part — hands-on learning with my own plants and my own dirt in my own garden.

As summer gets into full swing and my spring efforts start to show their colors, I’ve realized that I’ve already learned quite a few things about how to make flowers and edibles grow (and not grow), just by seeing how things have gone for me.

I decided I’d share a little round-up of what my garden has taught me so far this spring (some of it the hard way!).

How Does Katie’s Garden Grow?

(Just click the arrow to the right of each photo to view the next one in the series)

  • image-43 1 of 18
    This photo is of the nice stand of sunflowers I grew in front of our house last summer.
    I can't tell you how many baby flower plants I killed in May by overwatering. I have a tendency to want to "do something" in the garden all the time, and watering (and watering...and watering...and watering...) seemed like a good thing to do because plants need water, right? Wrong. They really DON'T need all that water. They will drown. Or they will rot.
  • It’s the Dirt, Stupid 3 of 18
    It's the Dirt, Stupid
    I have 8 different garden beds up and running now, and the difference between how plants are doing in the ones where I took the time to really till and prep the soil before planting anything and the two where I was lazy and just sort of dug and planted are stark. It's easy to get lazy about this first step in gardening of prepping the soil by loosening it up as deeply as you're able and adding some good mulchy matter and then mixing it all together BEFORE planting, but this laziness will bite you later in unsprouted seeds, dead plants, and wasted dollars spent on seeds and plants. Take your time prepping the dirt and you will have more fun once the plants are in the dirt.
  • Gerbera Daisies Are Tricky 4 of 18
    Gerbera Daisies Are Tricky
    I loooooove Gerbera Daisies of all types, so in April and early May, when the greenhouse-grown plants already in flower started showing up in local nurseries and stores, I got a little carried away. I bet I spent $100 in one month of Gerbera Daisy plants alone, including on some really fancy giant varieties. Well, most of them died. I overwatered them and put them in spots that maybe weren't just right for them with regard to sunlight...Who knows? But now the ones that made it are starting to give me the occasional, less-than-healthy bloom. I've learned to keep water OFF their leaves and to make sure they get a good mix of sun and shade each day. But they really aren't easy keepers, as pretty as they may be to cut and arrange. This is one of mine just now blooming and you can see from the flower and the leaves that the plant just really isn't in top form.
  • Some Annuals May Actually Be Perennial 5 of 18
    Some Annuals May Actually Be Perennial
    When I first started choosing flowering plants for my garden, I was dismayed to see how many plants I coveted were listed as annuals. I didn't want ANY annuals at first, so I ignored anything that was listed as one at the nursery. But then as I talked to other local (to me) gardeners, and visited a few gardens, I found out that in our USDA Zone here in the Knoxville area, many plants such as Gebera Daisies and Purslane will actually come back year after year if you just mulch your neds well in the late fall so the roots don't freeze. This photo is of one of my two Bee Balm plants. Some nurseries list them as annuals, but here in East TN they should thrive as perennials.
  • But Don’t Be a Perennial Snob 6 of 18
    But Don't Be a Perennial Snob
    Like I said, when I first started my garden, I was determined that I'd only plant perennials. No annuals whatsoever. They seemed like a big waste of time, and kind of like "cheating," since you get to start over with them every year. But when I put various perennials in last year and earlier this spring, I did also sprinkle some various seed packs of annual this and that around the beds, just to see what might pop up. And lo and behold, I have all kinds of gorgeous zinnias and marigolds and asters flowering profusely among the much trickier perennial plants I am continuing to struggle with as I learn how to garden. This is a photo of one of the nice pink zinnias — an annual — just in front of two of my perennials — atea rose bush and a big lily plant that already flowered (wonderfully) for the year. The mix is nice! I won't be so snobby about adding some annuals to my garden mix each spring in the years to come.
  • Pay Attention to the Sun 7 of 18
    Pay Attention to the Sun
    When you buy seeds or a young plant to add to your garden, you will note that the nursery selling it to you offers certain recommendations regarding how much sunlight and what kind the plant in question requires. However, unless you are really clear on how much sunlight each of your garden beds ACTUALLY gets, this info won't do you much good. I assumed that the bed in this photo got far more sun each day than it actually does, and thus, planted some things that didn't do so well. In fact, now that I have actually observed each of my garden beds carefully for the past two months, I know that this bed gets dappled sun in morning and afternoon, and at midday, one half gets pretty good full sun while one half is quite shady and cool. If I'd realized this when I first started choosing and adding plants, I would have had far fewer failures.
  • Sometimes You Just Have to Surrender to Mother Nature 8 of 18
    Sometimes You Just Have to Surrender to Mother Nature
    I have a gorgeous and thriving fig tree, and each year it's a battle between me and the birds to determine who will get to the ripe figs faster. This year, the tree has grown at least two feet and is LOADED with ripening figs. I decided that this would be the year that I would defeat the birds. With the help of my neighbor, we tricked the fig tree out with all kinds of little hanging mirrors and bells, intended to freak out the birds so much that they would stay away from my figs. Instead, as you can see from the photo, the birds decided that this fig tree with flair was THE happening place to be. These babies are doing very well on the diet of worms and regurgitated half-ripe figs that their conscientious mama brings them multiple times each day.
  • Don’t Overplant Your Raised Beds 9 of 18
    Don't Overplant Your Raised Beds
    This is one of my raised beds, containing two types of heirloom tomatoes and a big row of strawberries. As you can see, getting to any of these plants without stomping on others is nearly impossible because I got — how to put this nicely? — OVERENTHUSIASTIC in filling up every square inch of my new raised beds. Blog readers watching my progress via photos tried to warn me not to do this, but I didn't listen.
  • Lesson Learned 10 of 18
    Lesson Learned
    ...Well, I guess I did listen, because when I planted my last raised bed, I was more careful to leave space to walk and weed and water. This bed has eggplant (that I started from seeds in containers early this spring), a row of teeny carrots just now sprouting from seeds, two cherry tomato plants, and a few flowering plants that I nearly killed and am attempting to nurse back to health in the perfect soil conditions of a raised bed (I moved them from the beds where I did the damage. This bed is like my flower plant hospital). I added some river rock to walk on, and the little owls were a gift from my Auntie Lulu. This is how I will do all my raised beds next year.
  • Plant Deep Enough 11 of 18
    Plant Deep Enough
    This little climbing plant is a purple flowering clematis that I've brought back from its near-death experience. When I bought the plant at the nursery in the first week of May, it was healthy and in full flower. However, I got lazy and did not dig a deep enough hole to plant it (you are generally supposed to plant at least one and one half times as deep as the existing roots of a plant are long). I planted the clematis too shallowly. It died, or so I thought. It was completely withered to absolutely nothing. Just a dead looking ball of root. But it was an expensive plant, so I decided to try and save it. I read up on clematis and learned they require cool roots, buried deep and mulched well. So I started over in the same spot and did it right this time. I figured I had nothing to lose. Lo and behold, three weeks later, the plant has come back like Lazarus and is slowly creeping up the trellis I've provided. I have now replanted some other plants that were ailing with more attention to making sure I've planted deep enough and am hoping for similarly miraculous results.
  • You Cannot Kill Mint (and I Consider That a Good Thing) 12 of 18
    You Cannot Kill Mint (and I Consider That a Good Thing)
    Some people consider mint plants to be invasive because they are so hardy and will spread. Given my bumbling gardening skills thus far, I love the way mint will forgive my many mistakes and just grow and grow. It's one of the few non-flowering plants that I realliy love to put everywhere and anywhere. I grew up with a big stand of mint just outside the back door of our farmhouse kitchen, so the smell of mint plants takes me back to childhood, meaning I like it even more. This stand of mint was already in this part of our yard before it was ever transformed into an actual garden. Who knows how old it is, or who planted it (our house is 102 years old)? Now I've transplanted bits of this stand of mint to all my other beds, and it does great everywhere except super direct sun without enough water. Mint is one of my go-to plants.
  • Label Your Plants 13 of 18
    Label Your Plants
    What is this plant? I have ABSOLUTELY NO CLUE. I know I bought it and planted it some time in the past 8 weeks because it's in a spot where I started with a totally fresh slate — all new plants. But I somehow failed to label it with a little plant stake like I try to do with all of my new seeds and plants, so now I have forgotten what it is. Anybody know? I assume it will flower at some point, since I only planted flowering plants in this particular bed, and maybe then it will be clearer. But for now it's a total mystery unless one of y'all recognizes it.
  • Don’t Give Up on an Ailing Plant Too Soon 14 of 18
    Don't Give Up on an Ailing Plant Too Soon
    This ugly-looking thing USED to be a gorgeous, fully flowering Rudibekia (sp?) plant. At least, it was when I plopped down $9.99 for it at a nurser on impulse three weeks ago. I then proceeded to plant it somewhere too shady, nit deep enough and then overwater it. The trifecta of plant-death. But even when it looked totally done in, I didn't give up. I cut it all the way back to the root and moved the root ball to the perfect soil of my plant hospital raised bed, located in the direct sunlight. And lo and behold, if you look closely, you can see the tiny green shoots of new growth down in that brown dead stuff. I think this one is gonna make it. When it seems healthy enough, I will permanently transplant it to a nice sunny spot in another bed, planting it deeply enough and resisting the urge to drown it. I am glad I didn't give up on this guy.
  • Herbs are Instant Gratification Gardening 15 of 18
    Herbs are Instant Gratification Gardening
    I tend to go for plants that produce showy cutting flowers of the cottage-garden variety, but I am increasingly in love with growing herbs. For one thing, they are SUPER tolerant of beginner-gardener fumbles. Pretty much all the herbs I've added to my beds this year (a lot) are thriving. I did overwater and kill two lavender plants, but everything else is doing great. Here you see young plants including lavender, apple mint and African blue basil. The smells from these various herbs mixed in with all the flowers are just wonderful. I am an herb-gardening convert.
  • When in Doubt, Plant Some Purslane 16 of 18
    When in Doubt, Plant Some Purslane
    This is one of a number of sweet little purslane plants I've added to all of my beds over the past month as I've seen how well it does. This plant is growing in my bad soil, my good soil, full sun, partial sun — you name it. It just seems to do well everywhere. Obviously this isn't a cutting flower, but it looks lovely in the garden. It's listed as an annual at most nurseries but experienced local gardeners tell me that if I mulch my beds well in the fall, it will come back as a perennial in East TN. Once I found that out, I fell even more in love with purslane. Plus, did you know that the leaves of this plant are super edible and incredibly nutritious? I will be trying to cook up some purslane sometime soon and I will let you know how it goes.
  • The Garden of Your Dreams Takes Time to Reveal Itself 17 of 18
    The Garden of Your Dreams Takes Time to Reveal Itself
    This gorgeous garden (one of my favorites on the entire planet) belongs to my cousin Kimi, and I remember what that spot of grass looked like 20-plus years ago when they first bought and moved into their huge craftsman farmhouse in my hometown of Bell Buckle. There was no garden there, but it existed in Kimi's mind, and year after year, season after season, it's taken shape until it looks like this.
  • A Garden Is Forever a Work in Progress 18 of 18
    A Garden Is Forever a Work in Progress
    As lovely as Kimi's garden is, it actually gets better each year as she works on it. That's the great thing about a garden; it's never "done." Gardening always offers you the chance to try new things, learn new things and change your mind. It grows and you do, too. I like that.

Article Posted 4 years Ago

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