Giant Swallowtail on Bright Eyes phlox.

Ten tips to start gardening

It’s January. Time for the annual seed catalog roundup, but I don’t want to do one, so I’m not going to. I’m working on several new speaking engagements for spring and summer, and my head is full of other information. I’ve done seed catalogs before. From those posts, you can see which companies I favor. Here’s information on when to start seeds with a calculator too, and here’s how to start seeds indoors.

So many seeds, so little time.

Seed catalogs are crack for the winter weary gardener.

Now, that we’re done with my normal seediness, let’s do ten tips to get started gardening.

Hell, I don’t know where to start some years. In winter, I walk out in the garden and just stare at it for awhile. It’s as if it takes the spring breeze to blow all the cobwebs from my winter brain. Once I begin removing the insulating cover of dead foliage from emerging plants though, I find that the gentle rhythms–old as time–take over, and I’m whole again. Fortunately, I have last year’s pictures and the scent of my hyacinths to get me in a planting mood.

Hyacinth vases in the window waiting to bloom. The first two are Tye-type vases and are vintage.

Hyacinth vases in the window waiting to bloom. The first two are Tye-type vases and are vintage.

Today is cloudy and gloomy for the fifth day in a row, but I’m thinking ahead to spring. While I’m pondering where to start, let me give you some tips.

The view of the potager from the other side. I'm standing next to the greenhouse and facing south.

Start small with raised beds or containers.

  1. Start Small. When we’re bitten by the gardening bug, we just want to grow everything. That may not be true of everyone, but I know it’s certainly true where I’m concerned. I rarely meet a plant, seed or garden tool I don’t like. Amorphophallus titanum, carrion flower might be one exception–Don’t hate me you carrion flower lovers. Gardeners don’t need to grow everything. That’s why we have stores, local flower farmers, CSAs and farmers’ markets. Thank goodness.

    Bucket full of my favorite tools.

    Bucket full of my favorite tools.

  2. Prepare. If you’re working in garden soil instead of potting mixes and containers, a soil test can make your garden efforts easier. Think ahead about how you will water. Drip irrigation is essential in a dry garden. Will you have rain barrels? If so, get several and position them all around the house. One or two rain barrels isn’t enough to make a difference unless you use them for one bed like I do. You’ll still need other ways to water. Will you grow veggies, flowers or both? What do you like to eat? To see? What are you trying to express in your garden? Are you going for form or function or both? It might seem obvious to ask, but so many people don’t think about these things before they dig. Don’t grow food you don’t like to eat. Also, don’t grow flowers or fauna that you don’t like to smell. That takes us back to carrion flower again. It’s also called corpse flower for a reason. Your garden is yours. If you like a Japanese style garden, and it works in your climate, great. If you want a small urban farm, wonderful. Still, start small and prepare.
  3. Assemble a few tools. I simply must have my DeWit Dutch Hand Hoe and a Japanese Hori Hori Knife. I also like my five gallon bucket to carry around my tools along with garden gloves. You’ll also need hoses and hose-end sprayers. I haven’t found a hose-end sprayer I really like, but I keep hoping. The closest one so far is my Haws V360 All Brass 24-Inch Watering Lance that I use in the greenhouse. It’s pricey, but makes a good present from someone special. I only use hose-end sprayers for watering in new plants, or in the greenhouse. Otherwise, the garden, including my containers, is on a drip system.

    One side of the back garden in October, 2015.

    One side of the back garden in October, 2015.

  4. Know your conditions. How much space do you have? Is your yard shady, or full of sun? Most of mine is full of sun, but I do have some shady spots too. It took me a long time to learn the sun’s path in my garden because my house faces west. In the early spring, it’s very sunny which can be hard on some plants. Once the trees leaf out, it is shady again. Learn your climate zone and grow within it for awhile before you venture outward. All experienced gardeners try to grow outside their climate zone by creating microclimates.
  5. Ask for help. Talk to your neighbors. Join a gardening class at your local nursery or garden extension. Think about joining a community garden where there’s lots of garden discussion. Join a gardening club. Note the operative word here. Join. Club members have the best plants, and they will share them with you along with the knowledge of how to grow. Plus, you’ll have the fast track to any speakers coming to speak at your club. I’m speaking at the Tulsa Herb Society this year, along with numerous local clubs and across the U.S.. I’m still finalizing several talks, and I’ll link to them as the contracts are signed.

    A forest of catalogs

    A forest of seed catalogs.

  6. Don’t let seed, plant and tool catalogs overwhelm you. After you consider how much space you have to plant, don’t overbuy. Catalogs are called garden porn for a reason. Go through your previous year’s seeds before ordering more.
  7. Use technology to keep track. Try Evernote for Android and Notes for iPhone. Evernote works on iPhone too, but I like Notes better. It’s less complicated, and you can still drag photos and links into it. Make a commitment to keep better track of your garden this year. Take photos of what worked and what didn’t. Dictate notes into your phone. It’s not only how I garden. It’s how I wrote major portions of my book. I found that I was most inspired when I was out in the garden. Is dictation perfect? No, but it’s getting better, and you clean it up later on your computer because everything is saved across platforms. Plus, you can copy links to online articles on various topics. You can link to my blogs, or my Instagram profile if you want. Everything on the Internet has an address that you can copy and put into your notes. This is the nice way to remember someone’s posts, and it doesn’t involve scraping.

    Rosa 'Carefree Beauty' rose against the split rail fence that surrounds the back garden. Photo by Dee Nash

    Rosa ‘Carefree Beauty’ rose against the split rail fence that surrounds the back garden. I’m taking as many photos of my favorite rose as I can because I fear Rose Rosette may claim it soon. Nothing is perfect even when it looks that way.

  8. Embrace imperfection and failure. We all fail. Let me repeat. We all fail. I kill plants. Of course I do. I forget to water sometimes, or I go on vacation, and the system breaks down. I might not get plants covered before a freeze. Mistakes happen, and I can be as sloppy as the next person. It’s okay. Really. Embrace imperfection. You’ll be a lot happier. Plus, you can buy another plant at the nursery, or you can plant more seeds. Last spring, with all the rain, I replanted my green beans three times. My tomatoes worked great because most of them were in the raised beds of the potager. I saw many gardeners frustrated because the rain washed their tomatoes away. I felt their pain, but I just said, replant. If I can impart one thing to you, it’s this: Don’t try so hard to be perfect. Gardening is an art and a craft. It takes time to learn it, and Nature is a fickle mistress.
  9. Slow and steady grows the tomato. Plants take time to mature. Give them that time. Don’t hurry them along too much. Don’t plant out tomatoes, eggplant or peppers until late April after all possibility of freezing temperatures are gone. The same with warm weather annuals. Patience, grasshopper.
  10. Try not to compare. Human beings are competitive to a fault. Facebook depression is real and not just for teens. Social media is great, but people are sharing only a tiny portion of their lives with you. Statuses don’t tell the whole story.

    Stop to smell the roses while you may.

    Stop to smell the roses while you may and follow your heart.

Your gardening journey is yours alone. Instead of looking at it as a competition (Best grown rose anyone?) consider it personal expression. Remember you’re an artist in your garden, and you don’t need to explain yourself to anyone. Follow your heart.



19 comments on “Ten tips to start gardening

  1. Muriel Beck

    Great tips! I really get overwhelmed by the gardening catalogs and usually buy many seeds. I still have packages that are even closed from last year. 🙂 I can’t wait to start with the gardening! I will keep a garden for the fourth year and I am still not that experienced but I know how to prepare for the season. I really love your blog! I always find helpful tips!

    1. Dee Nash

      Hi Muriel, you’re not alone. I get completely overwhelmed too. I’m trying to buy fewer seeds this spring. I did go through my inventory before I ordered. I still ordered too many yet again. It’s the gardener’s lament, one of them anyway.

  2. Robin Ruff Leja

    Along the lines of “know your conditions”, I’d add “work with the conditions you have”. Don’t try to fight it what you’ve got. If your garden is hot and dry, quit using those thirsty plants that need continual watering. You’ll just wear yourself out with the darned garden hose. Plant that things that love your hot, dry conditions, and relax.

  3. P O T A G E R

    Ready, Set, Garden! Start small is the very hardest! Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Laurin Lindsey

    Great information! Pinning this so I can share it with clients! Thank you Dee, Hugs : )

    1. Dee Nash

      Thank you for pinning Laurin. I appreciate it. Sharing is caring. 😉

  5. Lisa at Greenbow

    I think this is a good primer. I think another good thing is to not try to do it all in one fell swoop.

    1. Dee Nash

      Lisa, I guess I was so inexperienced when I started I didn’t think about trying to do it all. That’s a good one though.

  6. Beth @ PlantPostings

    Excellent advice … especially the last paragraph. One of the best things about gardening is that it can be a lifelong hobby, and there’s always something new to learn!

    1. Dee Nash

      Beth, I think that’s why I’m still doing it after all these years. There is always something new to learn.

  7. We are in the dead middle of winter, yet it is as though I can hear spring and my garden whispering to me, imploring me to get going.

    1. Dee Nash

      Charlie, I hear ya. I’ve had such an urge to garden. It’s part of why I’m traveling to Seattle next month to speak. Will I see you at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show?

  8. Kathy from Cold Climate Gardening

    Hardest advice for me to learn: listen to your inner artist. Color outside the box. Don’t follow the rules. Beginners follow the rules because they don’t know where to start. That’s okay. That’s good. But after a number of years, you have to start going with your gut. And it’s hard for me to hear that inner voice. Gardening is truly an art that requires skills. The skills are a means, not the end.

    1. Dee Nash

      Kathy, it’s that scientific brain you have. Hard to be an artist sometimes, but keep reminding yourself to break the rules.

  9. Sarah

    Great tips! I’m a big fan of your gardening book for 20-30 something’s. My wife and I bought a house late last year, and we’ve been planning our gardens all winter long. We’ve even turned our little spare room into a seed starting center, complete with a DIY seed starting shelf (okay, maybe we need to take tip number 1. “Start Small” a little more seriously…). All inspired by your book, of course! I cannot wait for spring!!

    Thank you for the knowledge and encouraging words you share on your blog.

    1. Dee Nash

      Sarah, thank you very much for your kind words. I hope you two have a wonderful gardening year. Send a photo of your garden when it gets up and growing. I’d love to see it.

    2. Dee Nash

      Thank you Bruce for the kind words. Now I need to look up Sneeborer tools.

    3. Dee Nash

      Thank you Bruce for the kind words. Now, I’m off to look at Sneeborer tools because I’ve not heard of them.

  10. Bruce Batman

    A very timely article! I enjoy my Sneeborer tools, and my 5 gallon bucket, as you’ve shown, is a must!!