Gardening is Alchemy- Encouragement and Guidance for the Aspiring Gardener

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“We might think we are nurturing our garden, but of course it’s our garden that is really nurturing us.” -Jenny Uglow

Who doesn’t love a flash of red tulips in the Spring, fat pink cherry blossoms weighing down tree limbs, the smell of lilacs and honeysuckle on a breeze, or a home-grown tomato that makes our mouth water?

Even houseplants can literally liven up a space, freshening up the air, surprising us with newly unfurling leaves, and reminding us that a little care and attention can really be the difference of life or death.

Gardens bring us delight, pleasure, sustenance, health, and joy on a daily basis. Gardens are the seductive lovechild of humans, nature, and art, and if you want to grow a garden, you have to believe in alchemy.

Gardening is taking what sometimes looks like a grain of sand, burying it, throwing some water and compost on top, and sitting back and waiting, adding more water, and believing it will become a beautiful flower, or a tree that bears fruit. Gardening is magic, and when we can give our seeds and plants just enough attention, they reward us with daily inspiration, surprises, food, gifts, health, creatures and lessons.

Gardening can heal us, too, and help us realize all we are capable of. It helps us get exercise, fresh air, sunshine, appreciate the seasons, and teaches us responsibility, faith, and letting go. This is why there is an upwards trend in Healing Gardens in hospitals, and other healthcare facilities, because research shows gardens can relieve symptoms, reduce stress, and improve well-being and hopefulness. Who doesn’t want that?

If you want a beautiful garden, much like a beautiful life, you have to do some work, and most importantly, believe it is possible, and have the patience as you believe it is coming, and look for the good and enjoy the work it takes to get there, even if it seems like you can’t see the changes from day-to-day. You must believe it is right around the corner, and have full confidence in yourself to do your best, and for nature to do the rest.

It’s a relationship of faith, and when your garden blooms, it feels like magic.

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“Buff Beauty” Hybrid Musk Rose

I’m not a green thumb. I have a black thumb. I kill everything I touch. I’m not good with plants. I love flowers, but I don’t want to do any work. 

I’ve heard it all before. I grew up helping my mom and grandma garden, and nurseries were one of my favorite places to visit. I loved seeing the candy- colored fuschias drooping from hanging baskets. I loved earthworms and lady bugs and butterflies and the endless surprises the garden revelead: bouquets of coneflowers and baskets of raspberries that turned into jam spread with butter on fresh baked bread.

My second job ever was at a greenhouse and nursery, and I’ve spent about ten years in the horticulture industry, and I want to tell you a secret:

Everyone kills plants. Experts kill plants. Experts experiment constantly, research often, and are willing to fail. They don’t quit gardening when a few plants die or become covered in powdery mildew. They don’t expect a weed-free garden. They learn from their mistakes, or they choose different plants. Plants are variable and do not always fit into the neat categories we want them to, growing only so tall and blooming all season long. If you need to your plant to do exactly as you say, buy plastic ones.

The first tomato I ever grew never produced a single tomato. It was disappointing, to say the least.

The first flowering, outdoor plants I ever bought were annuals, which, “annual” you would think, came back every year, annually. In reality, an annual is something you plant during the growing season and once the frost comes it dies for good (of course, there’s reseeding annuals, which can come back after they drop their seeds, but that is another ball of wax entirely.)

So, my first several attempts at growing plants were failures. I didn’t realize the power of a little research, and at the time, I didn’t have a tiny computer at my fingertips at all times. In the age of the smartphone, anyone can be a gardener.

Most worthwhile endeavors require time, patience, and failure. Give yourself room to learn, to fail, to experiment, and to devote yourself to getting better. Having a few flowers or houseplants is better than having none at all. The more you plant, the more you learn. Keep planting.

Accept that some plants will die. You will learn from the experience. Sometimes it will be your fault. Sometimes it will be out of your control. It is worth the shot either way. Some nurseries will even take back dead plant for store credit if you put in an honest effort. Call and find out about your local nurseries return policy.

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Mid-Summer cut flower haul from last year. I love gardening for bouquets.

I meet people all the time who say they wish they could garden, but they kill everything they touch, or they they don’t want to spend any money. With some resourcefulness and a few Google searches, you can have flowers, veggies, or herbs with a $25 budget. You can, of course, easily invest $250-$100,000 or more, too. The choice is yours. Without further ado, here’s a few tips and general guidelines for the beginner gardener. As always, take matters into your own hands, and consult with experts in your region, and research your particular USDA zone and climate.

Eleven Tips for the Beginner Gardener:

  1. Figure out what you’re working with. Do you have full sun (6 + hours of direct sun) part sun (3-6 hrs of direct sun, or cumulative filtered sun) part shade, or full shade? The time of day counts here. 10AM-2PM is the strongest sun, so if you have a section that only gets that time frame of sun, you are safe to plant full sun plants. You will get a feel for it. If you want to grow veggies, you need full sun. If you don’t have this at home, look into availability in your local community gardens.
  2. Embrace shade. My first “real” garden was full shade. At first I was disappointed, because I wanted to grow roses and lavender and coneflowers, but I knew it was a lost cause in the shade. So I learned about shade plants, and discovered some of my new favorites: camellias, Akebia “shiro bana”, calla lilies, Epimediums, Brunerra, begonias, fuchsias, anemones, and hydrangeas. The best part of a shade garden? Less watering and relief from the summer heat. Soil dries up much quicker in sunny spots, so a shadier spot means less watering for you with some smart plant selection.
  3. Get your soil right. 1/3 compost to native soil is the general rule of thumb if you’re planting in the ground. Use potting soil if you’re planting in pots. Use a bit of mulch on top if you want to go the extra mile. Mulch helps minimize weeds, retains moisture, and adds nutrients slowly over time. Use plant food and follow the directions on the packaging.
  4. Research planting times in your area. I’m in zone 8 on the Northwest coast, and our last frost date is April 15th. I grew up in the Midwest, and the last frost date there is May 15th. The growing season in Southern California is year-round, but there are optimal planting times, there, too. Do a little research. Example: Since I’m in zone 8, I can plant zone 1-8 plants in the ground and expect them to come back next season. A zone 9-11 plant, however, I will treat as an annual, i.e. only lasting one growing season, or maybe, a houseplant.
  5. Talk to nursery staff. Find staff members and ask them loads of questions, as well as their recommended reading and research tools. Be nice. Be self sufficient. Ask about first hand experience. Ask about their favorite plants. Ask about the easiest plants. Bring them treats and bouquets and form a good relationship.
  6. Be patient.
  7. Plan and draw it out. Figure out where you want to view the garden from: inside your house, walking up to the front door? Place taller plants in the back, pick “anchor” or “focal points” first, and then fill in with smaller plants, perennials, annuals.
  8. Stagger bloom times. Figure out winter first: evergreens, winter blooming plants (hellebores, camellia s.,) Then early spring (bulbs, flowering trees) then spring (lilacs) summer (roses, lavender, dahlias) and fall (Clematis, Anenome, Echinacea)
  9. Water deeply and infrequently. This encourages deep root growth, and the deeper the soil, the more moist the soil, thus, the more drought-tolerant your plant becomes. Factor in rain or lack of rain, get used to testing the soil with your fingers. If the top two inches are dry, water.
  10. Don’t let renting deter you. Love on your house plants, consider pots for outdoors (you can have a beautiful garden all in containers)
  11. If you’re renting, ask your landlord if you can plant in the ground. Seeds are low investment, and even if you do decide to get roses, lilacs and the works, you can always dig up the plants and take them with you. Even better, leave them, and the place you’re renting, better than when you arrived. These little gifts we leave come back to us threefold

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Gardening teaches us patience, symbiotic relationships, acceptance of flaws, setbacks, failures, and the impact of environment. It also teaches us the sheer amount of magic in our world, and the magic we are capable of. It’s good exercise, fresh air, it beautifies our world, the neighborhood, and brightens our spirits and others.

I don’t believe people are born green thumbs. Gardening is research, experience, and variable. Gardening is not reserved for the special, the gifted, or the rich. Gardening is for anyone who has a desire, is willing to do some research, put in a few of hours a week of care and maintenance, and keep learning.

You can buy a full season of bouquets for the cost of a $3 pack of seeds and a $10 bag of compost. You can spend $500,000 on a garden renovation and create a garden for the gods. With care and attention to nurture your garden, it will nurture you back and delight you for years.

In the era of the smartphone, anyone can become a gardener. Believe in yourself, do your research, don’t neglect your plants, and have fun.

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