So, you want to grow a garden, but you’re not sure where to begin. You get that dreamy look on your face when you enter the backyards of gardeners who seem to have The Gift, and you long for a Shangri-La of your own.
But you’re still not 100 percent clear on perennial vs. annual, and which is the one that keeps coming back every year.
The good news is: It’s OK. Breathe. You don’t have to speak Latin or understand soil chemistry to break ground. But there’s one question to ask yourself before you dig in: Do you want A garden, or do you want TO garden? Noun or verb? If you’re just looking to impose a little order on the spindly foundation plantings, it’s easy enough to dig a few holes and install plant material … and the job’ll be done by next Tuesday.
But if you’re in it for the long haul, the secret is to learn to love the gardenING, and not just the garden. Because if you’re a real gardener, the job will never be done.
To my mind, the best gardens are slow gardens, and the best gardeners, slow gardeners. Slow gardeners don’t install plant material. They plant tiny saplings, and watch, and wait. They think in botanical time.
Want to be a slow gardener? You’ve got to sow the seeds of lifelong garden-love, cultivate your inner geek, engage the dirt with effusive enthusiasm. Let’s face it: When you love something, working on it isn’t actually work. And the only way to start loving something is to dig in with abandon — because that’s what makes the seeds of garden-love germinate in the first place.
Were you able to pick out all four tired garden metaphors in the previous paragraph? (hint: Check the active verbs.) Then you’re ready to get started on these six simple steps to becoming the gardener of your wildest imaginings:
Stroll through your yard and notice where the light falls. Figure out where you like to linger, and watch how dappled sunlight and cool shade slide across this spot. Take photos. Cook up schemes.
Head out the front gate and take a walk in your neighborhood. See what yards appeal to you. Do you like organized and formal, with hedges, fountains and evergreen shrubs? Or do you prefer the unfettered cottage garden look, lousy with bees and hummingbirds?
In this exercise, you are teaching yourself to notice things, and learning what to love. Before, all plants most likely looked approximately the same to you. Now, all that undifferentiated greenery is sorting itself into: 1. Stuff you like, and 2. errors in judgment (hint: Bradford pears, bamboo).
You’ll find that passing silent judgment on your neighbors’ horticultural folly can be delightful and quite rewarding.
Buy or borrow a garden catalog, magazine, or guidebook. Sip a beverage on some sunny porch as you page through a Wayside Gardens catalog or a Southern Living guide. Dream. Learn. Hone your tastes. Figure out what’s a perennial and what’s an annual, what grows well in Middle Tennessee (hint: Look for plants hardy in the USDA’s Zone 6B or 7A on Plantmaps.com) and anything that you find impossibly lovely.
Learn the names of three favorite plants that can find happiness in 6B/7A. Then go for that walk again and look for the trees and shrubs you’ve taught yourself to see and name. Suddenly, they’re visible to you, and you’ll notice them everywhere.
These will henceforth be Your Special Plants.
Somebody you know is a gardener. Maybe it’s your dad, or your sister-in-law, or (even better) a neighbor with amazing climbing roses. Find this person, visit his garden, and pick his brain.
The best garden knowledge is passed on by word of mouth. It’s experiential, and very local. What grows well in Ohio or even a mile away may not work in your neighborhood … and you may as well benefit from someone else’s giant screw-ups (hint: Bradford pears, bamboo) whenever possible.
“How are you protecting your Japanese maples from the cicada invasion?” is a question the Internet will answer poorly, but your new garden mentor will answer simply and practically: “I found the perfect netting to wrap them, but you can only get it at the _________ garden center on _________ Road.”
Most of all, geekery is best when shared. You’re learning a secret language, using code names, and unabashedly geeking out with somebody who already loves putting his hands into the soil — and that love is contagious.
Now go find more of these people. You’ll recognize them by their fingernails. (Hint: “Green thumb” is a misnomer; “brown thumb” is more like it.)
Make the dreaming tangible: Head to your new favorite nursery (suggested by your new mentor, perhaps). See what’s there and what you can afford. Perhaps some of Your Special Plants are even there. Price them. If they’re suitable, imagine them in your lingering place. Start reading plant tags and practicing the secret language you’re learning: hardiness zones, perennials, part-sun vs. shade, etc.
Maybe buy one small, harmless thing — a maidenhair fern, say — and plant it in a pot, just to get your fingernails dirty. Leave the dirt there for a while to see how it feels. (You want the other geeks to recognize you, right?)
Dream big, act small. Sure, you can rent a tiller and dig up the whole yard if you want. Good luck with that. But you can also break into a single spot, the one where you like to linger, where dappled sun alights at midmorning.
Make this spot your laboratory, the empty canvas for your first work of art.
I know. You’re itching to make your yard look like Cheekwood by the time your in-laws visit in June. But nature abhors impatience. Start transforming one spot, make embarrassing errors, and learn.
Turn up the soil on some mild weekend in the next couple of weeks, then buy one super-cool tree or shrub from the “Your Special Plants” list and install plant it. I wouldn’t dream of telling you what to plant (redbuds, Japanese maples, Carolina silverbells) or what not to plant (Bradford pears, bamboo). That is entirely up to you. Remember: This is your very first perennial! It will grow ever bigger, and will fill and define your lingering place forever and ever (unless it dies). Choose well! No pressure!
Get perennials in the ground as early in the spring as you can, so spring rains can fortify them for the frontal assault of Nashville summer. On tax day, head back to the garden center and buy a few colorful annuals (hint: Persian shield) to satisfy your craving for immediate amazingness. Fill the front of your new lingering place with color. Sip a beverage. Enjoy.
Next fall, you’ll be ready to tear into another spot of ground. Plant one more wish-list perennial before Halloween, then mulch it well for winter.
Keep in mind that anything you plant may die. This is the way of things. You are not a failure.
And I was just kidding about the “no pressure” thing.
Repeat this process every season. You will never stop being astonished in March, when hairy Japanese maple leaves unfurl and caterpillar-green sedum shoots push out of the ground … even though this is exactly what is supposed to happen.
Astonishment is a good sign. It means the six steps are working.
After a year, you’ll be steering starry-eyed shoppers in the garden department away from Bradford pears and toward Kousa dogwoods. In five years, mysterious Latin terms will escape your lips, with respectful modesty, as you stroll the grounds at Cheekwood with a cadre of geeks.
In 10 years, your fingernails will be beyond all help. And you’ll have your Shangri-La, money-back guarantee.