Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Beginner Series: Overcoming that Dreaded Fear of Failure– 8 strategies for Gardening Success


I have been gardening for longer than I care to admit.

The problem with being a garden writer with lots of experience is you forget what it's like to be gardening for the first time. What is it like to look at your yard and not even know where to begin?

This spring, I had a little reminder of what it must be like to be a novice gardener. I have a brand new flowerbed with absolutely nothing in it except a few daffodils that I managed to put in last fall. It's intimidating to look at that big, blank canvas.

With this new project, I face many of the same challenges most new gardeners would encounter. It won't be like one of those television makeovers shows with a pathetic "before" and a dramatic "after" transformation. Nobody is going to pull up to my house with truckloads of free plants and a full work crew. Like most real-life gardeners, I have a budget and limited resources. Rest assured, I'll scrounging around for free stuff, buying small plants and growing lots of stuff from seed.

Never allow the fear of failure to become a motivator to do nothing. Even though I have been gardening for quite a while, not everything will be perfect the first time. There's bound to be a few plants that will be placed in the wrong spot or ones that I plant too close together. There will be times when I ask myself– what was I thinking?

As with so many things, you experiment. Some things work and others don't. Take pleasure in what's good and fix your mistakes. Persistence is your most important ally. Slowly the garden will come together.

Here are 8 simple strategies to help get you started:


1. Sit in a comfortable outdoor chair and do absolutely nothing.

I know this gardening advice is a bit unorthodox, but I think it pays to spend time just enjoying the outdoors. Sit and read a book, watch the birds, listen to the wind in the trees.

Before you do anything, decide how you want to use your outdoor space –whether it is for relaxing, entertaining or just watching the kids play. Then design your garden to work for you.

2. Start Small

You'd never dream of decorating every room in your house all at the same time. It would be overwhelming, not to mention expensive. You're much more likely to tackle it one room at a time.

Take the same approach in the garden. Don't try to conquer the whole yard at once. Start small with a few containers. Don't locate them miles from a water source or at the back of your property. When I put cut flowers in the house, I place them on a hall table or in a location I pass frequently.
Then branch out into a small flowerbed and slowly build your confidence.

Flowers easy to grow from seed–Top row left to right: Balloon Flower, Rudbeckia, Lupin
Bottom row left to right: Gaillardia, Milkweed and Coneflower

Flowers easy to grow from seed:
• Columbine
• Balloon Flower, Platycodon
• Coreopsis
• Brown-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia
• Blanket flower, Gaillardia
• Lupins
• Yarrow, Achillea 
• Rose Campion, Lychnis coronaria
• Salvia
• Coneflower, Echinacea
• Mallow, Malva sylvestris
• Delphinium
• Maltese Cross, Lychnis chalcedonica
• Butterfly Weed (both Asclepias incarnata and Asclepias tuberosa)


3. Be realistic about the time you have to devote to your garden.

I speak from the experience of being too ambitious, but I've learned from my mistakes. When I added the new flowerbed, I knew enough to grass over another. I'd rather have a small garden that looks good than a big garden that's a mess.

Low maintenance options–Top row left to right: Gas Plant, Daylily, Blue Star. 
Bottom row left to right: Agastache, Yarrow and Sedum

Some of the Best Low-maintenance perennials:
• Peony
• Gas Plant, Dictamnus
• Baptisia
• Blue star, Amsonia 
• Primrose (shade)
• Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis (shade)
• Brunnera (shade)

• Daylily, Hemerocallis
• Coneflower, Echinacea
• Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia 
• Sedum
• Yarrow, Achillea
• Agastache
• Phlox
• Astilbe (shade)
• Hosta (shade)

Shooting Star

4. Don't delay! Get those plants into the ground.

Plants in nursery pots dry out sooo quickly! Even after you revive them with water, they become stressed and soon enough they'll become pot bound. It's better to get the placement wrong and move plants around in the fall than it is to wait.

As Elizabeth Gilbert says in Big Magic, her new book on creativity," Done is better than perfect."

Trout Lily, Erythronium

5. Water well until your plants are established.

Getting your plants into the ground quickly will help with keeping them hydrated, but even so, plants right out of a nursery pot have a small root system so they will need supplemental water until they are settled in.
When you're busy it's hard to find the time to drag out the hose and water your garden. If you can afford it, consider adding a drip irrigation system.
And if that is out of the question, to ease the work locate container plantings that will dry out quickly close to a water source.

Drought-tolerant perennials–Top row left to right: Yarrow, Lavender, Sedum. 
Bottom row left to right: Coreopsis, Dianthus, Catmint

Some of the Best Drought-tolerant perennials:
• Yarrow, Achillea
• Blanket flower, Gaillardia
• Sedum
• Milkweed, Asclepias
• Lavender, Lavandula
• Sedum
• Dianthus
• Coneflower, Echinacea
• Tickseed, Coreopsis
• Catmint, Nepeta 
• Oriental Poppy, Papaver orientale
• Brown-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia
• Rose Campion, Lychnis coronaria


6. Carefully consider light conditions.

When I first planned out my new flowerbed I envisioned a prairie-style planting with lots of ornamental grasses. The problem is ornamental grasses need 6-8 hrs of full sun a day. There are no overhead trees casting a shadow in this area of the garden, so I thought I was working with full sun.

When I really started to pay attention to the light levels, I discovered that the two trees on the other side of our property block the sun as it moves across the horizon. Those 6-8 hours of bright light had a couple of big breaks when the sun passed behind the trees. Time for a rethink!

If you're planning a flowerbed, take a day from dawn to dusk and clock just how much sun that area really receives. Then choose plants to suit.

Shade Plants left to right: Bunnera, Heuchera and Hosta together, Goat's Beard, Bigroot Geranium.

Some of the Best Perennials for Shade:
• Hosta
• Heuchera
• Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis
• Ferns
• Bigroot Geranium, Geranium macrorrhizum
• Brunnera
• Lamium
• Goat's Beard, Aruncus
• Hellebore

Drumstick Primula

7. It all starts with the soil.

If your soil is poor or so clay you could make pottery, amend it by digging in some organic matter (compost or well-rotted manure).
A raised bed is a great way to get around the problem of poor soil (the book pictured above has many DIY raised bed ideas). Once the framework is constructed, you can fill the bed with the best topsoil.
And of course, you can always opt to work with what you've got. If your soil is clay or low in nutrients, there are still some plants that will do well.

Perennials for poor soil left to right: Sea Holly, Groundcover Sedum or Stonecrop, Thyme

Perennials for Poor Soil (low in organic matter):
• Sea Holly, Eryngium
• Sedum
• Lavender, Lavandula
• Dianthus
• Thyme, Thymus

Perennials for Clay Soil:
• Daylily, Hemerocallis
• Baptisia
• Hosta
• Hardy Geranium, Geranium macrorrhizum
• Heuchera
• False Sunflower, Heliopsis
• Coneflower, Echinacea
• Brown-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia
• Tickseed, Coreopsis
• Russian Sage, Perovskia
• Blue Star, Amsonia

Perennials for clay soil left to right: Variegated Sunflower or Heliopsis, Baptisia, Russian Sage


8. Start each day in the garden with a stroll.

While there is a practical purpose to this– I make mental notes on what needs attention and the chores that are the most urgent– a walk around the garden before I do any work is by far my most favourite time of the day. It's on that stroll I see the results of all my hard work. There are often surprises- an unusual bird sighting or a butterfly or hummingbird flitting among the flowers. And there are always delights such as a flower that has come magnificently into bloom.

In gardening, I find that even my smallest successes outshine my most miserable failures.

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  1. I am so glad you posted this. I have had the hardest time growing things in my yard. We plan on selling in a couple of years and now I do not plan on adding any more flower beds. At our next home I do want to grow flowers and this is great advice. I will be printing this post out to save.

    1. I am happy you found the advice helpful enough to print. One of the great reasons to start slow is it helps you realize just how much garden you can really handle. I have reached the point where I am done with new flowerbeds. I am going to stick with what I've got and try to make it better each year.

  2. A great post, thanks for the encouragement. I am dealing with a whole new garden space (almost 1/2 acre) and want to do too much. So I need to focus on one area at a time as you say and make it beautiful. I will reread this post several times. thanks again.

    1. Thanks for passing that encouragement back to me. It's always nice to hear what I've written is helpful. 1/2 an acre is a big space! One thing I think gardeners often do (myself included) is feel the need to fill up an outdoor space with flowerbeds. It's rather like stuffing a room full of furniture. Open space allows a room or a garden to breathe.
      In your new garden I'd start with small projects, but at the same time I'd think about the overall garden and the feeling you hope to create. I wish you all the best with this exciting endeavour!

  3. These are truly such wonderful suggestions, Jennifer, and especially for me now. I have a wonderful (and very, very large) space for another garden, but I really have been avoiding it because I simply do not know where to begin. This post has helped SO much with that. Thank you!!!

    1. I am glad you found the post helpful Lisa. It is hard, and exciting at the same time, to start in on a new project.

  4. As a beginner gardener really great reading this post. I moved into a home with a backyard in late 2018 so have had two summers to start my garden projects and figure things out. Unfortunately I have a VERY shady garden due to being around a ravine with a ton of mature maples growing around my backyard. Will be looking for a lot of advice in your blog about growing for shady gardens. Thank you again for your blog! Wonderful reading and research.

  5. We have spent months building a screen porch... Unfortunately I didn't realize how long that project would take and purchased plants for the beds surrounding porch. I ended up planting them in pot until beds etc were ready. It is now August; some of the pots are soggy and I want to plant in the ground. I am in Zone 7, Arkansas. Your recommendations would be appreciated. I have several hosta, ostrich ferns, Jacobs ladder etc.

    1. I plant perennials right through the summer, so your timing is not the biggest concern. I am worried that the plant in pots are "soggy." It sounds like you have overwatered them. Always poke a finger into the earth in your pots to see if they actually need water.
      If you have overwatered them, there is the possibility you may have rotted the crown of your perennials. Let's think positive and hope that isn't the case.
      Before you plant: If the pots have been waiting in a sheltered/shaded spot, introduce them to the sun each morning for a few hours. Otherwise your plants might scorch.
      Remove the plants from their pots and check if they are pot-bound (the roots are thickly matted at the bottom). If they are pot=bound, tease the roots along the side loose with the tips of your finger and loosen/break apart the most densely matted roots at the bottom.
      Your plants will benefit from being planted in the ground. Once, planted keep an eye on them through the fall. The plant's roots will take a while to reach out into the ground for water. In the meantime, they will need regular watering (depending on the weather of course). Wilting is a sure sign they need water.
      Jacob's Ladder like regular moisture, so watch it in particular. Ostrich ferns wander, so don't be surprised if it comes up somewhere in the general location of where you plant it. They will love regular water, but are fairly tolerant of dry conditions. Hostas are fairly straight forward. Good luck!


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