Where do I begin (gardening!)?

13 Sep

*summons Love Story theme song*

So you buy a house.  It has a yard.  You have visions of year-round glory, brought to a fever pitch by glossy plant catalogs and trips to local nurseries.  Excitedly, you begin planting–and the next year, you realize that everything looks like a mess.

You’re not alone!  I’ve been there–more than once.  I grew up in Texas, Zone 8b, which has highly alkaline heavy clay despite the generous rainfall much of the year.  What worked there were the plants of my childhood, the ones I knew.  Then I moved to a high altitude, near-desert area of New Mexico–6a.  And let me tell you, there’s a world of difference between 8b and 6a, and an even bigger difference between a place that’s so muggy you can wring water from the air and somewhere that my house was actually air conditioned by something called a “swamp cooler,” with winds that would suck the moisture from a prickly pear.

Exactly one of the plants from my childhood did well there–one particular kind of yucca–and planting a flower meant dedicated trice-weekly watering for the next three months until it established.  The semi-wild character of the mountains was different, too, and I had to adapt my gardening style to match the environment.  In New Mexico, I planted plenty of full-sun perennials under the shade of large trees.  In the high desert, even four hours of sun is too much for many plants to handle.

This began my firmly Darwinian gardening stance–I water to establish plants, and I’ll toss a bit of iron about twice a year and I’ll fertilize once if I absolutely must, but for the most part, I just mulch and water when things are horribly dry and otherwise let the plants do their thing.

Then I moved to Maryland, zone 7, with a yard dominated by high shade, where I had to memorize a whole new set of plants and culture requirements.

You may be starting out because you just moved to a new area, or you may have lived in a similar region your entire life but have never gardened before.  In either case, the steps are the same.

Assess what you have.

Figure out the names of everything and what you should do to keep the plants in tip-top condition–or restore them to their former glory.

Note your cultural conditions.  How much sun do various areas of your yard get?  Are there particularly low or wet places?  Places where erosion is a problem?  What kind of soil do you have?  Do you have ravaging monsters deer to worry about?

Find inspiration.

Beyond the glossy catalogs, look closely at landscaping that you love, and take the opportunity to see other people’s gardens up close and personal when you can.  Magazine pictures can be inspirational, certainly, but for the finer details, local is better.

Figure out what you want in the broadest sense.

Do you want a play area for the kids?  An outdoor dining area?  A bird garden?  How much grass do you want to keep?

What kind of aesthetic do you want?  Formal clipped hedges?  The riot of color of an English garden?  A quiet, informal woodland space?

Draw a general plan.

Don’t draw what plant goes where–just figure out where your beds are going to be and how your yard is going to be divided into different spaces.

Tackle one space at a time.

Diffusing your attention diffuses the results, too.  Pick one area and go for it.  When it’s done, pick another.  Keep your unifying ideas clear in your mind as you move from area to another and make sure they flow one into the next.


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