Not quite art, but not exactly science, gardening seems to require a special knack, maybe even a "green gene." Don't have it? You can pretend! Just follow these easy tips from our experts, and your garden will be blooming - no green thumb required.
Follow these tips to get your garden blooming1. Clusters of pots
Novices do best when they have more control over their conditions. That's why clustering pots on the patio or porch is a good way to start gardening. Once a plant starts dying or wilting, you can easily water it, move it, re-plant it, or toss it altogether. Easy come, easy go.
"Start simple with a pot of your favorite colored flowers and another of your favorite herb," says Chris Lambton, a landscape designer and host of HGTV's Going Yard.
Two of Lambton's favorites include hardy lavender, which can be dried or clipped for its fragrant blooms, and rosemary, which he uses for cooking. During winter, he brings the pots inside his Cape Cod home, where the plants can beautify the interior year-round.
2. Choose plants with stamina
Savvy gardeners know to choose plants that can withstand a wide array of conditions because they'll endure from season to season.
"I especially like ornamental grasses because they don't require a lot of water, they survive in any kind of soil, and they come in all different colors, even variegated," says Lambton. "They also look great in the wind, and they are perennial."
Lambton also likes designing with resilient flowering plants, like black-eyed Susans and Montauk daisies. Both sustain harsh weather and return every year. Bonus: You can split them into quarters to replant in other parts of the yard to save money.
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3. Let foliage steal the show
Flowers play the diva in the garden, earning the spotlight for their burst of seasonal color. But experienced gardeners know that foliage makes the show go on long after blossoms fade.
"Just as flower arrangements use a variety of forms, tones, and colors, so does foliage," says landscape designer Kathy Tracey, who owns Avant Gardens nursery in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. A couple of her ideas: Use a golden leaf with a medium green leaf and a darker bronze or purple hue. Or, try mixing vertical foliage with one that will spill over the sides.
Tracey also mixes hardy plants, such as small shrubs or hostas (a mounded plant with heart-shaped leaves that comes in a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes), with more tender plants, replacing the latter as necessary. "Your flowers may bloom nicely in May and June, but the foliage will continue to look good throughout the season - without a lot of fuss," she says.
4. Play with succulents
Recently, succulents have gone from ho-hum to de rigueur in garden design circles, thanks to their expansive variety of color and shape (and willingness to tolerate a little neglect!).
"If you have a lot of sun and a well-drained soil mix, succulents are super easy," says Tracey, who loves to pack large containers full of succulents.
For healthy succulents, fill your container with a special cactus soil mix, or a homemade one with 50 percent sand or fine stone and 50 percent light compost. The kiss of death for succulents is rich soil that holds water, because succulents like their home fairly dry. Next, select a mix of succulents - rosettes, trailing, tall, and spiky - that showcases their diverse plant forms.
Feel free to pack the container fairly tight with plants, because succulents don't grow quickly and crowd out their neighbors the way other plants do. Succulents can even do well in shallow containers, like window boxes or birdbaths, as long as you provide good drainage. For more inspiration, check out these step-by-step instructions on how to create Tracey's favorite succulent wreath.
5. Pot a dwarf tree
There's something intimidating about planting a tree. The decision seems permanent, with the outcome depending on Mother Nature's whims. That's why a dwarf tree appeals to many would-be gardeners. Growing only 5 to 10 feet tall, many varieties do extremely well in larger pots and can be shaped, moved, or repotted to suit your needs.
Select a tree that can survive at least two zones colder than where you live, advises Tracey. (To find your zone, visit the USDA's web site.) That's because potted plants are much more vulnerable to freezing than ground plants. You might also move the pot to a more sheltered spot close to your home during winter, where it's shielded from harsh conditions.
Warmer climate dwarf varieties include crape myrtle, Japanese maples, and many citrus trees. In colder climates, try dwarf evergreens or hardy shrubs like boxwood, sumac, and Japanese privet.
"Above all, don't forget to water and fertilize potted trees, because they will dry out quickly and run out of nutrients," says Tracey.
6. Grow veggies in raised beds
Vegetables love great soil, and let's face it: Most of us don't have naturally perfect soil in our backyards. That's where a raised bed can help. These simple planters give veggies a little boost that can result in magnificent results, even for newbies. Bonus: Less bending as you garden.
Start with four boards from the hardware store nailed into a box; avoid pressure-treated wood that allows chemicals to seep into the soil. Place the bed in your sunniest spot and within easy reach of a hose. Then fill it with the best garden soil you can find. For an easy way to up the wow factor, Lambton recommends creating paths around his boxes with pea gravel. "It's easy to walk on barefoot and it's super cheap," he says.
Some simple-to-grow vegetables include tomatoes, lettuce, squash, and peppers. But plant only what you love to eat, so you'll delight in caring for and harvesting your garden throughout the season.
7. Bring your outdoor garden indoors
Move over, philodendron and African violet. We're giving new definition to the term "hardy houseplant."
"I'm a big advocate for inviting garden plants - not just your sanctioned houseplant found in supermarkets - indoors," says garden expert Tovah Martin, author of The Unexpected Houseplant.
Martin's home hosts more than 100 unconventional plants including tiarella, heuchera, and even conifers like juniper. To successfully bring garden plants indoors, she says to choose varieties that prefer low light, like those found in the shade section of your local gardening center. Then select a container with good drainage and put a layer of pebbles mixed with a tablespoon of activated charcoal at the bottom before adding potting soil. This will keep the water from becoming boggy and rotting the plant's roots.
Martin believes that plants should add to your home décor, starting with the container. "Pick out a very natty container, really sharp and exciting, and something that speaks about you as person. For instance, if you're someone who collects antiques, use an old water bucket and drill holes in the bottom," she says.
8. Create a miniature garden
Terrariums look exotic and high-maintenance, but they're actually one of the easiest horticulture projects to make and maintain.
Start with any glass container, such as a fishbowl or large vase. Line the bottom with an inch of pebbles mixed with two tablespoons of activated charcoal to help prevent water from collecting at the roots. Then use a good quality potting soil suited to the plants you choose. "Select plants that will stay dwarf and like high humidity and low light," says Martin. Some surefire picks include ferns, mosses, African violets, and peperomia.
Terrariums suit absent-minded gardeners because they tell you when they crave water. If your container is covered, remove the lid and let the terrarium air out for a few hours. Now replace the lid (or use a plate, if yours isn't normally covered). If you don't see any condensation, the plant needs a drink; if condensation develops, wait another week before watering.
9. Steal ideas from the pros
You don't have to reinvent the wheel every season when it comes to creating a stunning garden. Instead, take photographs or search Pinterest for containers and garden beds that catch your eye. Bring your pics to a local nursery that has knowledgeable, trained staff and ask them to help you replicate it.
However, there's a catch: You can copy only the plants and conditions that work for your space. So you'll need to work within your own specific limitations, such as climate, container size, soil type, and sun exposure, to make a particular ensemble succeed. When in doubt, ask a local expert to offer advice or suggest alternatives.
What are your best gardening tips for beginners? Let me know in the comments!
-by Esther Chapman
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