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A Beginner's Guide to Gardening

Embrace the Process

Marigolds and Purple Salvia in one of the Geneva Beautification Gardens, Photo: Janae Jean, 2020
Marigolds and Purple Salvia in one of the Geneva Beautification Gardens, Photo: Janae Jean, 2020

A garden is an ongoing process. There are many questions you need to ask yourself and steps to take even before the first seed is sprouted or the first weed is pulled. Planning and being aware of your expectations, limitations, and situation are essential. Embracing the process of it is key to success. As noted British horticulturist Monty Don has said, “Gardening is inevitably a process of constant, remorseless change. It is the constancy of that process that is so comforting, not any fixed moment.”

Considering Resources

One of the first things to consider before you begin working in the soil is the space you have available for your garden. Think about where your garden will be. Does your home have a lawn or yard? If not, do you have a patio, terrace, or rooftop available to you? Is your garden on a slope? A wall garden may work for you. Even if you have a sprawling estate at your disposal, it is advisable to start small, and if you only have a balcony, container gardening is a good starting place.

[Create a small container garden in a planter or window box as in the photo on the left or create a raised bed like the one in the Accessibility Garden at the Chicago Botanic Gardens in the photo on the right.]

Once you have chosen your location, ask yourself how much time and how many other resources do you have to commit to your garden. Gardening is not only a commitment of space but of your financial resources and your most precious resource, you. You need to consider what you can or can not afford to maintain as well as what you are physically capable of maintaining. It does not only take your time but a concerted physical effort to maintain a garden, and it is work that is never done. You may spend two hours pulling weeds on Tuesday to find a new batch has popped up by Thursday. It is important to consider how much physical labor you are able to take on before you begin. You should also consider how you will water your garden, whether by hand-watering with a watering can, with a drip hose, a timed irrigation system, etc. Don’t let the physicality of gardening be a hindrance however, modifications can be made and there are as many approaches to gardening as there are gardeners! For example, for people who are limited mobility, a raised bed garden may be a workable solution.

Once you have done this, decide what type of garden you are going to create. Is it a garden for beauty or a garden for food? Is it a specialty garden, such as a garden to attract pollinators, a moonlight garden, an herb garden, or a water garden? You may even decide to plant a traditional Japanese-style garden or a “secret garden” as featured in the much-loved novel, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. After deciding what general type of garden you wish to plant, it’s time to begin plant selection.

Climate and Soil Considerations

My Garden, 2021
My Garden, 2021

When deciding what plants will flourish in your space, the first thing to consider is your local climate. If you are located in the United States, you will want to consult the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. The map, which is produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS), is the standard by which American gardeners can determine which plants are most likely to thrive in their location. For the Western United States, the USDA zones are not very accurate. The diverse conditions including the influence of the Pacific Ocean, mountains, and deserts make the USDA zones less accurate for the Western U.S. The Western Garden Book, published by Sunset Magazine, offers a zone map specific to the western states.

After you know what zone you are located in, find out how much sun your garden will get. If you are unsure, you may wish to mark the area and time how many hours of sun your chosen space gets throughout the day. Certain plants prefer different amounts of light than others, from shade-tolerant hostas and ferns to full-sun-loving tomatoes and squash. Most produce plants require full sun to flourish. For gardening purposes, full sun is at least six hours of sun each day, partial sun/shade is three to six hours of sun per day, and shade is less than three hours of direct sun each day.

Another consideration is the type of soil you have. The dirt in your yard falls into three basic categories, clay, sand, and loam. Clay is the densest and has the poorest drainage. If you have standing water in your lawn after a rainstorm, you likely have clay-heavy soil. If you have very quick drainage, you have sandy soil. Sandy soil’s fast drainage leads to the loss of essential nutrients in the soil. The third, loam is the ideal soil for most gardening. It drains well—but not too quickly—and is nutrient-rich. Most gardens do not start with loam, and it is up to the gardener to add other components, organic amendments, and compost to improve the quality of the soil. Additionally, you may purchase a pH testing kit or contacting your local county extension service to see how acidic, alkaline, or neutral, the soil in your garden is. This knowledge will help you to further identify what amendments will improve your soil.

Plant Selection

Growing Your Own Vegetables Has Its Rewards, mesclun greens in my garden 2021
Growing Your Own Vegetables Has Its Rewards; Mesclun greens in my garden 2021

When wondering what plants to choose, you should consider not only what your long-term garden goals are but also the short term. You may plan on including annuals, plants that grow for one season; perennials, plants that return every growing season, or a combination of the two. By planting flowering annuals, you will have colorful blooms that growing season. While if you plant only perennials, it will take about three seasons for the plants to become established and fully bloom.

Roses add scent, beauty, and texture. 2020 Janae Jean
Roses add scent, beauty, and texture. 2020

Besides considering the growing life-cycle of the plants you wish to plant, also consider how the garden will affect the five senses. Create a strong visual impact include plants for visual effect (bright flowers, lush greenery, and ground covers to fill in gaps between other plants). Fragrant plants offer their strong scents (some less pleasant than others!). Songbird or pollinator-attracting plants will bring the sounds of birdsongs and buzzing bees to the garden. While some plants are damaged by touch, others, such as lamb’s ear sage, have a touchable texture, Lastly, you may wish to treat your tastebuds with edible plants (such as herbs, fruits, and vegetables).

When choosing plants be sure to check which plants thrive best together and which do not grow well together. This is called “companion gardening” and is especially important when planting fruits and vegetables. For example, broccoli and tomatoes do not grow well together, while tomatoes and basil are an excellent match as basil attracts bees which improves the flavor of the tomatoes. For more on companion gardening, consult The Farmer’s Almanac.

Once you have determined what plants fit into your gardening plan, decide how you are going to procure them. You may wish to sprout seeds indoors yourself and then plant them outside or sow seeds directly into the soil of the garden bed. Or, you may wish to purchase sprouted plants from a garden center. You may also be able to swap seeds, plant cuttings, or whole plants with a local friend or neighbor. Choosing plants that you already knew flourish in your local climate is a smart way to begin.

Learn, Grow, and Bloom

All of this planning may feel overwhelming, but you will find it worthwhile. There is no bigger disappointment than planting a bunch of seeds and having very few sprouts. By taking these steps before you begin your garden, you will be much more likely to enjoy success in your first season. But, every with a well-thought plan, you may run into difficulties throughout the growing season, such as insects or unusual temperatures or rainfall. But, keep in mind that each season is a chance for a new start and a new chance to learn, grow, and bloom––and not just the plants in your garden but yourself as well. As the Chinese proverb goes, “Live begins the day you start a garden.”

Geneva Beautification Gardens 2019, Photo: Spencer Schluter
Geneva Beautification Gardens 2019, Photo: Spencer Schluter

Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.



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