As we head into the first few weeks of Autumn and my garden is beginning to wane, I find myself contemplating the what-if’s. What if I had planted the moonflowers sooner? What if I had planted the lavender in the ground instead of a pot? What if I had pruned the lilac back just a bit more? Things like this. In my second year of really gardening, of studying which plants to get and how to care for them, of spending time daily in the gardens caring for seedlings and new additions, of anxiously awaiting blooms, I have learned some lessons about gardening. Some of these lessons I found in books and tried them out and others I just came across in watching certain plants and their habits. Some of these lessons were learned after big mistakes and some after little bumps in the road. These lessons are unique to my garden because maybe my garden soil is different than another’s or maybe my garden catches the sun’s rays at a different angle than another’s. But some of these lessons may be very helpful to someone thinking about starting their own garden, whether it be a small plot in the backyard or a few containers across a patio.
Lesson 1: Always use the richest, most fertile soil you can find. Do the sight, smell and touch test. Is it very dark and does it have bits of old leaf and twig matter in it? Does it smell rich, like the forest floor after a rain in Autumn? Does it feel moist and have some weight to it? I have found that organic soil is the best, whether it’s soil created from your very own compost pile or a bag bought from the local gardening center. Some garden centers, those that know you well usually, will even let you open a bag or two to check it out.
Lesson 2: Watering plants is based on an individual plant’s needs and the weather. If you had a Summer like we had in the Northeast, where every living thing seemed to be roasting, watering was a daily necessity. Once things cooled off here and these relentless cycles of rain came upon us, watering was no longer really necessary. Mother Nature took care of it.
Lesson 3: Always make sure your plants have good drainage, especially if they are in containers. When you water plants that don’t have good drainage, the water pools around the roots and can rot them. I killed quite a few plants in my first year of gardening with this method and regret my amateur mistake to this day.
Lesson 4: Look before you pull. There were a few times when I was weeding out garden beds and was not paying attention. One year I pulled out an entire peony plant simply because I didn’t remember that it was planted there! I’ve also accidentally pulled out the beginnings of tiger lily plants among some already established ones because I thought they were weeds from some bird food that had fallen from a feeder and implanted itself in the ground. Your best bet is to let things grow to a height of a few inches, maybe 4-5 inches, before pulling it out.
Lesson 4: Some debris is good for your garden. Don’t always rake out every bit of fallen leaves from the garden beds after storms and in the Autumn. When leaves decay into the soil, they fertilize it, making it richer in nutrients. It’s like natural composting. Autumn leaves can be used to insulate your garden beds for the winter as well. Last year, I took handfuls of leaves and put them in the tops of some perennial containers to protect them over the Winter and those plants had a very successful growing season this year.
Lesson 5: Talk to your plants. Sounds weird, I know! But apologizing to each plant as you prune off old blooms or thanking it for the flowers you are cutting from it for a vase in your home makes a big difference. They seem to understand that your intentions are not harmful, that they are part of your life.
Lesson 6: Listen to your plants. Even weirder! No, the plants don’t necessarily talk to you, like “Hi, Lady, can I get some water over here.” But if you look at your plants each day, get to know their individual cycles, you will begin to know when they need water or need to be transplanted. This is listening to your plants.
Lesson 7: Some plants like to be next to each other. It’s called companion planting. For instance, I have a yarrow plant and purple coneflower plant, each in a pot. I started them off next to each other and they did great. Then I made some new container additions and moved them away from each other in an attempt to maximize space. A couple of days later I noticed that the yarrow was looking a bit wilted. It still received the same amount of sunlight each day, so I knew it was not that issue. For some reason, I felt like it missed the purple coneflower (listening to it, perhaps?) and I moved them back next to each other. The yarrow picked up its stems and leaves within a day or so. Now I call them the best friends!
Lesson 8: Mint is invasive! Mint plants are one of the hardiest herb plants I have ever experienced. You can cut them back to the very ground and they return with full force and, if they are in a container with other herb plants, you will soon see mint popping up in the middle of your thyme or sage plants. If they are in a garden bed, the same thing will occur and soon the whole bed will be overtaken with mint. So I recommend either planting mint in its own container or blocking it off from other plants in a garden bed.
Lesson 9: Do not buy tomato plants from Home Depot. I am not knocking Home Depot here. I love that store and I have had great success with other vegetable, herb and flowering plants from there. For some reason, their tomato plants just don’t work out for me. The first batch died off before they even came to fruition and the second batch grew like wildfire and produced tomatoes that either never ripened or cracked open or just fell off as they began to ripen. I tried changing soil balances, checked for pests, talked to them, everything I knew to do but, alas, they were a mess the past two years. Next year, I will not buy Home Depot tomato plants.
Lesson 10: Expect the unexpected. This is probably the most important lesson of all. Things can go very wrong or very right. Sometimes it’s the weather, sometimes it’s the soil, and sometimes it just wasn’t meant to be. Last year, in late June we had a hailstorm here that destroyed many of my plants, or at least I thought. Most of my plants had whole leaves ripped off or chopped in half. I thought there was no way they could come back from the onslaught to which they had been subjected. But in late July, everything started bouncing back. Tiger lilies began growing again. Herb plants began sprouting up again. It was a miraculous recovery. This year, the extremely hot temperatures also wreaked some havoc in the garden. Then, when those soaking rains came in August, everything seemed to launch into a totally new growing season. Another miracle!