Monday, January 17, 2011

I remember when…thoughts on beginning to garden and advice I would give.

Recently Steve from The Rainforest Garden asked “What advice would you give a new gardener if you had the chance?” Reading his post got me thinking back to when I was just starting to spend my weekends at nurseries, picking up gardening books and magazines, and tending a garden on the windowsill of my Seattle apartment. And then later, when I moved back to Spokane, WA, and gardened on my apartment porch and eventually the happy days when I actually owned soil and felt like a “real” gardener.

I found these memories repeatedly creeping into my thoughts over the last few days and I had to write them down. I thought of things I wish someone had told me, or I had thought to ask. Of things I wish I could go back and tell the young me, and things I would want to tell someone else if given the chance. Of course once I started down that path was in the basement digging through a box full of old photographs, from back in the days when we actually had to develop film. Following is my "advice" (not that I'm an expert!), accompanied by a few photos, some scanned so the quality is less than ideal. Containers are a valuable tool, use them. If you don’t have earth available you can always plant in a container. They can also act as a half way house for plants you aren’t sure where to place, they are a movable home for the less than hardy, and they are a way to garden when your current location isn’t long term (renting). The photos above and below are of my apartment container garden. Not only did it give me great joy but it beautified the back of the building and gave people walking by something pretty to enjoy. On the flip side just because your renting, or you know you’ll be moving soon, you should still plant! Plant for your enjoyment, however brief, and that of future tenants or owners. During the time I was living in that apartment I was infatuated with Queen of the Night Tulips, I bought several dozen and planted them around the side of the building and at the base of my stairs. I enjoyed them the following spring, and for several springs after whenever happened to drive by. It made me smile to know that I had planted them.

Just put it in the ground, you can always move it later! I have memories of being paralyzed with planting fear when it came to putting my first “expensive” (at the time) plant in the ground. It was a Peony and I was placing way too much importance on the act of planting. Putting it in the right spot meant sure success for the garden as a whole, putting in the wrong spot, certain disaster. As it was I ended up putting it where I was constantly hitting it with the hose.

If the plant is at risk of damage where it is, move it! See above. I broke as branches off the Peony as ever managed to grow.

It’s ok to say “no thank you” when someone offers you plant divisions. If you are a new gardener chances are you might be a new homeowner too, and you’ve just spent a lot of money. It’s tempting to take ever free plant you’re offered, but it really is okay to say no. Pass-along plants can often be invasive plants, avoid those! (internet research will help you know). Or maybe someone’s idea of a great garden plant (their favorite Rose for example) doesn’t fit your idea of what you want to for your garden. This can be awkward, but if you are polite and don’t always say no most people will understand.

Follow your vision, listen to the advice of others but don’t let it steer you away from discovering your own path. One of the first gardening things I did at my first home was tear out the Dusty Miller in the front yard. I hated it. A well meaning (I hope) neighbor came over to tell me those were well established and drought tolerant and I should have left them, and then proceeded to lecture me on installing a xeric garden. I was intimidated to say the least.

Keep the plant tags (but please not in the ground next to the plant). When we moved to Portland I brought several plants from my Spokane garden with me, but stupidly not the tags. I tossed them all out. I regretted that and have kept every tag from the plants I’ve bought since. Those tags have valuable information on them! As for how you chose to store the tag, or record the information, that is a highly personal choice…pick a system that works for you (picture below of my tag notebook). However I beg you to NOT stick the tag in the ground…your garden ends up looking like a cemetery or yard sale, plus the information ends up illegible over time. Don’t be afraid to try something completely new and different, but learn from your mistakes. Shortly after we moved to Portland I discovered a huge Agave growing in someone’s front garden not far from where we would eventually buy our home. I was ecstatic! Agaves can grow here! Shortly after we moved in we visited Cistus Nursery and I bought an agave. It went into the ground and looked fabulous, until winter and the rains came. It turned to mush. Of course, our soil is clay and has extremely poor drainage. I did nothing to compensate for that. I learned.

Learn what your soil composition is, and do something about it. (see Agave death above).

Don’t be afraid of Latin. Truth be told I still struggle with this one – after all who wants to sound stupid by saying a name wrong or repeatedly having to say “I have no idea what you are talking about” but by not trying (and being corrected, hopefully nicely) you will never learn.

When it comes to design…

Visit other gardens and take pictures/notes of things that inspire you.
This first picture is from a trip to the Buchart Gardens in British Columbia around 1996. At the time I was living a small Seattle apartment in a very urban neighborhood, I was blown away but the concept of so much space given over to plants. This picture is a private garden in Aberdeen, WA…and actually I took this picture because it reminded me of the first decorative pond I ever saw in a private garden in Spokane. That original was no longer around to photograph (destroyed along with the home it went with) so this was the next best thing. Sketch your ideas, even if you don’t think you can draw. This helps you visualize the space you are working with in different ways, and is especially helpful if you can do the drawings to scale. Plus it’s fun to go back and see how your original ideas might differ from the end result. I did this drawing when we first started planning our patio. Note my particularly detailed drawings of plants (ha!), and originally I wanted to leave a few squares void of pavers on the patio with the intention of planting in those areas. Now I am glad we didn’t go that route, too restricting!
Winter is for learning. Winter is a great time to read and scheme and there is so much information available…books, magazines, blogs take advantage of it all!

Blogging on this subject has got me reflecting on all of the gardens and gardeners in my past that have influenced me. I’m sure I’ll be revisiting this topic soon; in fact I gathered several pictures of my home and garden in Spokane that I want to share.

It was so interesting to go back and look at that place where I invested so much of myself, and then left it behind. Well, not completely, the car we towed behind the U-Haul was stuffed with plants dug from that garden now planted here. Which actually is my last bit of advice…take something with you when you leave a garden. Pictures are wonderful but having a plant that has been with you through a move (or many) is a lovely bit of continuity. The Ligularia in the middle of the second photo above (from the apartment container garden) is now thriving next to our garage here in Portland (photo from August). And the green Liriope in this picture… Has been with me for more than 15 years, through 5 moves…10 years in a container (yes, it was a little root bound) and finally getting to spread its roots in this garden. Who knows maybe someday it will end up in that Zone 9 garden I dream of...


  1. Loved reading this post, Loree, and getting a better understanding of your pre-danger garden years. Excellent advice too. Coincidentally, I'm having my own issues with plant tags and am in the middle of drafting a post on them.

  2. It made me so happy to read this post! You've put into words so many of the things that I've learned in gardening, things that I forgot I had to learn in the first place. I wish that someone told me to research passalong plants to make sure they're not invasive! I loved seeing your garden's planned layout... too cool.

  3. Enjoyed reading your "advice" post very much. I have been reading garden blogs (& posting my own) for less than a year, and love to see and steal ideas. Your blog was one of the first to which I subscribed; have admired your garden ever since. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Great advice, Loree. Oh, I've been on the receiving end of "well-meaning" scoldings for removing certain plants myself. I hope never to give one to an aspiring gardener.

  5. Good advice! One thing I've been thinking about is that I'm glad I didn't restrain myself too much with plants as I designed my front yard. Even though I'm pulling some types out to transplant or give away now, I'm glad I had the chance to try them out for a while. Otherwise I'd always wonder about them - now I can feel satisfied that they didn't work for me, so I can keep the winners and have more masses and feel at peace about it all.

  6. I love this advice post, Loree. You verbalized so many of the ideas I also formulated through years of gardening. One additional thought I have is not to be afraid to move or completely delete plants: Sometimes you don't like where a plant ends up, and sometimes you decide you just don't like it. I guess this is really a subgroup of: "If the plant is at risk of damage where it is, move it!"
    And how nice to see some of your beginning gardens!

  7. Starting out, I can remember getting much of this advice, which I blithely ignored. I guess for some of us the only school we respect is the school of hard knocks, but I wouldn't trade a bit of it. Well,,,maybe that vinca.

  8. I have a pile od zip-lock bags hanging on a peg in the garage, each bag is labeled with the names I have given various locations in my garden , and into the bag goes the tags.Tag-Bags. The challenge is remembering to move the tag when you move the plant..crikey do I ever move plants. I am jealous of your nice neat looking notebook !

  9. Great advice from a seasoned gardner. My house had a beautiful yard front and back all ready for me so I just kept it up. Especially when the two boys came. But when we moved into our current home it was newly built with virgin backyard. The front was planted by the builder. (Yuk, now it's gone) It took a lot of trial and error to find my passion. Which of course you now know is succulents. And I am still constantly learning. I am sure you are too. But I loved your post and your tag book is awesome. Wish I had started that one a long time ago. Now I take pictures of each new plant along with it's tag. Then I name the plants photo and keep them in succulent catagories. The only problem comes when you want a name and it has grown so much that it does not look like the picture! LOL

  10. Denise, I look forward to your plant tag solution. Mine is a bit crude but at least it's a place for them to go. I've thought about going the electronic way but there is something about hanging on to that little piece of plastic that I actually like.

    RFG, thank you for the impetus to give this subject thought...I really enjoyed letting my mind wander back to those days.

    RBell, thank you for sticking around! It's interesting how people come and go from blogland. I've been at this just short of 2 years now and love that some of my first visitors/commentors still come around fairly regularly! I am glad that you started blogging!

    klimpt, thank you for stopping by and linking...I'll be stopping by to visit your site and see what you are all about.

    Pam, good point! I find myself treading very lightly when dispensing gardening "advice" to neighbors and friends. I never ever want to come off as a know it all, yikes!

    VW, great point!

    MulchMaid, oh did I miss that one? So very important to give yourself permission to get rid of something (and if possible find a home for it) and move move move things until you find the perfect spot. Thank you for adding that!

    ricki, so very true...

    ks, that's a great method! For me another challenge would be to remove the tag when it dies! It's kind of sad how many times "DEAD" ends up being written in my tag book.

    Candy, a seasoned gardener huh? Wow, I guess I am. How did that happen? I like your method!

  11. Great full of great advice I totally agree with. I never considered myself any sort of authority or source of garden advice until one of my co-workers was talking about her indecision about planting a front garden. She was feeling a lot of pressure to make it just right from the start. I told her not to worry, she could always move stuff around later, I did all the time. I didn't think anything about it at the time. Months later (she had quit for a glamorous life free-lancing) I saw her at the Adults-Only Night at OMSI, she thanked me for that advice, saying it really took the pressure off and helped her enjoy experimenting in the garden.


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