Letters to a Young Gardener

What advice would you give a new gardener if you had the chance?  I've been mulling this question around in my head and ultimately decided to call upon the experience of  my friends on Twitter and Facebook for their ideas.  First I'll share some of the lesson's I've learned, and then I'll provide the sage advice my friends have to offer.

There are No Green Thumbs
I want to dispel the myth of "The Green Thumb".  People talk about that discolored appendage like its a God given blessing that one's born with, like being ambidextrous or having an acute sense of smell.  Gardeners are not plant whisperers.  We don't have an innate ability to keep plants alive, any more than mechanics have a knack for keeping cars running.  You have to start out by getting your hands dirty and changing the oil, taking on larger projects as you go, reading the manual and asking your friends for help when you make mistakes.

And you will make mistakes. Once you get over that little fact of gardening, you're invincible!  Just don't go running in front of any cars unless they're parked.

Be Willing to Learn
Whenever the topic of gardening comes up with an acquaintance, they invariably say something along the lines of "I kill everything I try to grow! I guess I have a black thumb."
I would then ask the coworker what she tried growing. "Oh, I don't know what it was. It had green leaves and... I think it had flowers or something.  I just can't keep anything alive for some reason!"

The reason is right there in front of you!  How can you be expected to keep something alive if you don't even know what it is?  That would be like expecting to cook a world class dinner on the first try without a recipe.  Oh its possible alright, but your chances of success are much better when you take the time to flip through the pages of a good book.

Each Garden is Different
Here in Florida, the difference is pretty obvious. Remember that coworker with the "Black Thumb"?  Well, now I'll share the plight of another coworker that has another issue. She plants hyacinths and tulips in spring, only to find them curl up their toes every year.  The English ivy that did so well up north is out of control in her garden, and looks awful during our wet summers.  The Kentia palm she bought is hardy here, but still fails miserably thanks to our hot evenings in summer.

This coworker doesn't really have all of these problems, but if she did, she could blame it all on location.  Her climate should really give her the old "It's not you, it's me" speech.  Read books that are written for your region, and look at what your neighbors are growing.  Look for your local Extension Office online, and read what they have to say before planting those plants that you grew back home. You're not in Kansas anymore... unless of course, you really do live in Kansas.

Celebrate the Death of Your Plants
Each time you kill a plant, you've just learned one way not to do it the next time.  I woke up yesterday morning to find that my (very valuable) Japanese samurai orchid had one foot in the grave.
It shot me a withering look that said "You have dishonored your family by failing to water me, and now my time has come." 

Before I could say a word, my neofinetia falcata commited seppuku and dropped the last of its leaves in a pile around the glazed bonsai pot, each curved leaf like a diminutive sword.

While I feel awful about my doomed orchid, I know that Akira (that was his name) will be reincarnated in another impulsive plant sale purchase.  When I stroll past my new purchase, I'll feel a haunting breeze pass my ear, whispering "Mist leaves, water twice a week... regain your honor!"

Listen to Your Friends
I asked my friends on Facebook and Twitter what advice they would give to a new gardener.  Though none of these tips included a story about seppuku committing orchids, my friends offered some excellent tips.  I'll add more as you share them via the comments or on Twitter or Facebook.

Darren Sheriff, AKA The Citrus Guy 
"If in doubt, ASK! I know some people that wanted to get into gardening, thought they knew what they were doing, they didn't. Then ended up getting very frustrated and gave up."

"I had TONS of advice for my son, who just bought a house. He'd tell you, "Ignore your Mom."

Laura Mathews of Punk Rock Gardens
"Nurturing soil nurtures your plants."

Laura Wright of Mindful Garden Design
"Start small. It'll save money and tears."

Derek Powazek of Plantgasm
"Only buy pots you actually like looking at, because you'll be carrying them around for years." Derek also shared a link to a great post for new gardeners.

Helen shared a link to an excellent article she wrote about, you guessed it! Gardening with confidence!

@stefsstuff on Twitter
"Keep it simple and native w/some specimen plants" "Oh, & if you live in Fl and want to do pots, empty them in the summer as it's hard to keep up with them." "MULCH & when mulching - don't be stingy, just make sure to pull it away from base of plant or tree."

David Cristiani of The Desert Edge
"Generously embrace the native plants that make your area great, and use them well!"

Carol Silrum of Carol Silrum Art Jewelry
"Get your soil tested, (we use Neil Kinsey), that way you can add the right amendments. Then mulch and talk to local nurserymen."

Kelly Thorpe Schubert 
"Discover your County Extension! They can tell you what to plant where, with the greatest chance for success."

Roger Waynick, Cool Springs Press
"Buy a gardening book!"

Successful gardening all starts with the soil - best lesson I ever learned.

Brian Donovan
Dream big, but set realistic seasonal goals. Consider joining a gardening or flower club or society. Finally, don't fear the Latin.

Shannon Harper
"Water your plants."

Nancy Bond of Leaping Greenly
"Know what grows well in your area...don't give up. :)"

Do you have some words of wisdom too? Leave your advice with the comments and I'll try to post them with a link to your blog.  Also, don't forget to join the party on my Facebook page and on Twitter!


  1. You have covered just about everything ... a lovely post.

    "Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are." (Alfred Austin)

  2. Thanks! I had a little help from my friends too. ;)

  3. Good advice here. The nourishing of the soil is the beginning of all good gardens. You are so right about there not being any green thumbs, it's work and education. I have celebrated many dead plants and hopefully learned from them.

  4. Lovely post RG! Makes you look back too on how one began with this journey towards plants and gardening.

  5. Steve, it looks like you gather a wealth of information there! H.

  6. I love this post. I'm not sure I would go as far as 'celebrating' the death of my plants (OK... well some of them. A dead plant does make room for a NEW plant). But honoring their death by realizing that you learned something is excellent advice. I wrote a piece a while back about why I hope to continue to fail as a gardener because it is through failure that I also learn. Hands on experience is the best.

  7. Great advice, Steve. Researching plants to see what their needs are is helpful for me when placing them in the garden.

  8. i have to just say i'm a big fan, steve! this is a great post, but aren't they all? entertaining and and informative. thanks! will post on fb.

  9. My secret to successful gardening is to spend a lot of time with my plants. I give myself to them at least several minutes daily, and when I have the time and the weather isn't mizzuble I give them much more time than that. I look at EACH and EVERY plant for signs of health and stress, insects and disease, precursors to bolting and fruiting, etc. The local ag and garden agencies are founts of information, but you must get a "feel" for each species and each part of your garden if your reference literature is to do you any good. Besides, spending quality time with your plants is good for YOUR soul.

  10. Great post, Steve! I was a novice gardener who could grow the basic tomatos, a cucumber vine, and maybe some corn - things that didn't really need 'special' attention other than water. Then I got lucky and married a Master Gardener 5+ years ago! :)

    She came well equipped with years of practical knowledge, lots of books, links to websites, a list of all the gardening TV shows on PBS, stories of successes and failures in the garden. Together, she taught and I've tried to learn, and to this day, we still get more books, read more websites, connect with more gardening friends, still have successes and failures, watch the TV shows, listen to gardening shows on radio, and try to make our gardens a pleasure, not a job. We still underwater and overwater things. Sometimes we add too much or too little mulch. Every time, we learn something new.

    I think I've done well as her student, and I think it's fair for me to pass along this advice to new gardeners: Read, watch, listen, learn. Don't be afraid to fail in the garden. Don't be afraid to experiment. Don't be too shy to share your successes.

    Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither can a garden be built like that. My wife has jokingly told me I can leave if I want to "when the gardens are finished"... with me knowing full well they will never be finished. At least I have job security at home :)

    Tony Avent, of Plant Delights Nursery fame here in Raleigh, NC, has a good motto..."I will kill a plant three times before I decide it won't/can't grow here".

    Now, if they could only find a cure for the Japanese Beetle.

    Tom- aka @SolakNC

  11. NanaK: You could really write a whole book full of the advice that everyone's shared!

  12. Mark and Gaz: That's an interesting way of putting it, and so true. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I'm still such a beginner myself.

  13. Kat: I really liked how you put it: "I hope to continue to fail as a gardener because it is through failure that I also learn." and dead plants DO make room for new plants!

  14. Susan: That method sure shows in your beautiful garden photos! :)

  15. Daricia: You're way too generous with your kind words... but don't let ME stop you! :) BTW, I loved the variegated Ae Ae banana over at your blog. :)http://acharlottegarden.blogspot.com/

  16. Buford Nature: Spending time with your plants is a really good idea, plus you just get to enjoy them more! I would go crazy if I responded to every sign of stress or poor health, since nothing is really at its best this time of year... but just you wait til spring!

  17. steve, do you know a species name for that banana? ae ae is the common name in hawaiian, isnt it? i should have made note when i took the photo, but didnt. thanks for the link, btw!

  18. Tom: Thank you for that great comment! I love the quote you shared, and I'm likely to be that stubborn at times! :)

  19. Allen: Thanks for stopping by! Glad you liked it. :)

  20. Daricia: I'm pretty sure that the Ae Ae banana is just a variegated sport of a more common variety... I can't remember which one it is though!

  21. Keep trying...never give up...it will grow and flourish when the right set of circumstances are found! (Try something new...new soil, new lighting, new location, new temps, etc).

  22. Some version of, "Don't wait until you have a yard to start gardening." or "Container plants are plants too." or something like that.

  23. Julie: I like the part about trying new things until the plant's happy!

    Mr. Subjunctive: "Container Plants Are Plants Too." I like that. You of all people know about gardening without a typical setup with a yard! Can't wait for this week's posts...

  24. RFG, this post got me thinking back on my early days of gardening and before I knew it I had a whole list of things to say! (I'm sure you're not surprised)...I blogged on this subject today! http://dangergarden.blogspot.com/2011/01/i-remember-whenthoughts-on-beginning-to.html

  25. I LOVED that post, Danger Garden! It was so cool to see how your garden and plant addiction have developed over the years!

  26. GROW FOOD! OK, it may not be for everyone, but when your efforts not only look good but provide you with awesome-tasting vegetables and fruit, it's hard to imagine NOT having a garden.

  27. "Never plant a $4 plant in a $0.25 hole." And always water it in. (And if it dies anytime in the next 25 years, it was root-bound from the nursery!). Thank you for this wonderful post. I'm going to be tweeting your link for a good long while!

  28. Great post! so many truths to it.
    Loved the part about the japanese orchid. I can imagine it saying that

  29. Thanks guys! I'm definitely going to need a follow up post for this with all of your great advice... maybe a second blog?


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