From the Ground Up
A beginner’s guide to gardening from a local guru.
As temperatures rise and greenery thrives, it’s hard not to notice the beautiful landscapes and blossoming gardens on display in yards around Aberdeen. With summer well under way in South Dakota, green thumbs are finally rejoicing, getting outside and digging their hands in the soil. For some, the art of gardening is meditation; a tranquil escape from an otherwise bustling, chaotic daily life. For others, it’s a pipe dream. In correspondence with Northern’s greenhouse manager and biology instructor Julie Schroer, we asked some of the most frequent and basic questions about gardening, and learned some key tips of the trade. Whether you lack a natural green thumb or are just trying to get back into the gardening groove, Schroer’s expertise is a great starting point for what’s shaping up to be a long, hot season ahead.
First and foremost, regardless of skill level, planning is a gardener’s best friend. This is essential – not putting the time in at the beginning of the process could mean spending more in the long run. “Do research on the plants you’re considering growing: How tall do they get? When do they flower? How much water and sunlight do they need? What combinations of plants do you want in your containers or gardens? If you’re an experienced gardener, evaluate last year’s plantings. What do you want to change for this year?” Schroer advised. If you’re like me, dazed and confused in any garden section, Schroer recommends talking to local gardeners. Having a mentor who can provide encouragement and guidance can also help to educate and motivate along the way.
If you’re not so much a gardener as you are a casual grower, Schroer had some plants in mind that aren’t as fussy as others. These are the kind she refers to as “carefree.” Still, before deciding on a plant, flower, tree, etc., you should determine how much commitment you’re willing to put in. If you just want to try it out for a season, annual plants are the way to go. Annuals are those that need to be replanted every year with new seeds. Some beginner friendly ones are Geraniums and Dragon Wing Begonias. If you want something more long term, perennial plants come back each season, without needing to be replanted. Some easier perennials to grow include daylilies, ornamental grasses and the shrubby False Indigo. Tend to forget about watering? Succulents are your best bet. “They have thick, fleshy leaves or stems that store water. You can actually kill them faster by overwatering them than under-watering,” Schroer wrote.
In fact, Schroer suspects that overwatering is the number one killer of plants. The skill of knowing just how much is enough is one that can be tedious and takes a bit of practice to perfect. Still, it all comes down to paying attention to the plant. “If your plant is wilted and the soil is dry, then water it more frequently using more water at a time. If it seems to be doing well and then you notice soft, dark spots on the stem, then you’re probably overwatering,” Schroer explained. When in doubt, “less water will lead to fewer insect and fungus problems.”
How not to kill your plants with kindness:
- Water container plants at least daily in the summer.
- Larger containers require less watering than smaller ones.
- Perennials in the ground do not need to be watered daily.
- Water droplets act as a magnifying glass in the sun; don’t use a sprinkler when in the heat of the day or leaves can burn.
- Water in the morning and try not to get leaves wet – both can lead to fungal infections.
Luckily for many of us, lots of different plants work in pots – both annuals and perennials – which are a better option for those who live in apartments or have smaller backyards. Unlike in garden planting, container gardens can be planted at any time, regardless of weather. They’re also generally a cheaper option, too. Keep in mind though that pots require potting soil specifically, and that you should fertilize once a week (unless you are planting succulents).
Some basics to find out prior to pot planting:
- Sunlight exposure; if it’s in full sun, you can grow different plants than you can in the shade.
- Soil composition; if, when moist, it falls apart instead of forming a clump in your fist, then you may need to add peat moss to help it retain water.
In potted plants, the pros recommend what they call “a filler, a thriller and a spiller.” “Thrillers are the beautiful flowers – something that makes you think, ‘Wow!’” Schroer wrote. “Fillers include smaller flowers or grasses that complement the thriller, and spillers will trail over the edge.” As greenery accents in homes gets more and more popular, container sizes, shapes and styles are becoming increasingly varied.
Gardening is full of small choices and niceties. While the details can seem overwhelming at times, what keeps people coming back year after year is the art of it. Whether your plants bloom or not, it’s essential to remember that even the most experienced gardeners kill plants sometimes. The real joy comes out of trial and error. Schroer’s most important advice was to not get discouraged. “OK, you didn’t get any peas this year because the rabbits ate them. Get advice on how to grow better next year,” she wrote. “Don’t be afraid to start small – you can always add to your garden when you see some successes. You’re not going to be a perfect gardener the first time out – something will die or not go the way you had planned, but you WILL eventually have success, and it can be very rewarding.” It’s all part of one big learning experience, but what’s most important is that you enjoy it – the sun, the soil and the process. // – Erin Ballard