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Gardening 101: Where to Begin?

Updated on May 17, 2020
ThriftyisNifty profile image

Now in my late 60s, I have had three books published on gardening in the South, specifically in Charleston, SC.

Getting Started

As a master gardener and the author of two gardening books, I am often asked for advice on many aspects of home gardening. Most of my advice is given freely, but I have been compensated several times for providing plans on paper and for executing plantings. When I first meet with a friend or client, I ask them the following questions.

  • What do you wish to accomplish? Do you want to start from scratch or work with the plants and structures you already have in place? If you need to build walls, patios, arbors, driveways, paths, and put in large shrubs or trees you will need heavy equipment and will probably need the services of a landscape architect. You will definitely need professional help if you have major drainage problems.
  • What is your budget? Plants, materials, and labor can be very expensive.
  • Do you want someone else to do the work, or are you willing to get 'down and dirty'?

Oakleaf hydrangeas, northern exposure

The hydrangeas are just behind and to the right of the red maple and to the left of the crape myrtle tree trunk.
The hydrangeas are just behind and to the right of the red maple and to the left of the crape myrtle tree trunk.

So many choices!

Let's say that you have a budget and you love to get outside and work in the garden yourself, but you still do not know where to begin. You want pretty flowers and shrubbery and you want your garden to be attractive all year long. Here are some helpful suggestions.

  • Grab a camera and go for a walk and/or drive, especially on a pretty weekend day when gardeners are likely to be outside. Go through your neighborhood and other neighborhoods you admire and take pictures of the gardens and plants that appeal to you the most. You will probably encounter some very nice neighbors who will be willing to share not only advice, but also plants. I once was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a gorgeous and unusual plant. I knocked on the door of the house on the property and ended up going home with a handful of seed pods.
  • Take a notebook and write down the addresses of the gardens you like best, so that you can return for another look. Also, if you are at all familiar with plant names, write down which plants seem to grow best in various locations. My husband and I always admired a hedge of oak leaf hydrangeas not far from our house. They were planted along a southern wall (so they had a northern exposure). As it turned out, we had a southern wall that needed plantings. We have enjoyed the foliage and blossoms of our oak leaf hydrangeas for many years now.
  • Take pictures of your house and your landscape, then print them as large as you can on plain paper. Take out the colored markers and start experimenting with different looks. You can also cut out pictures from magazines and paste them on these pages.
  • Try plotting ideas on graph paper. Get a plat of your property and transfer it to the graph paper, then start working on a design. You can hire a garden designer to do this for you, but you may find that you really enjoy plotting a small raised vegetable garden on the sunny area behind the garage or sketching a children's play area enclosed by a sturdy hedge.
  • Take your notebook and walk all around your property at various times of the day, recording sun exposure. Many of the perennial plants ( ones that live from year to year, as opposed to annuals, which live only one or two seasons) and shrubs have specific light requirements. Do you have full sun, shade, part-shade, or light dappled shade? You may have all of these exposures, but you need to know how many hours the sun hits each area of your garden. If you write this down, it will save you a lot of effort and money.
  • Be careful with foundation plantings. Trees and shrubs too close to the house can cause mildew and rot problems, or allow pests such as squirrels and raccoons easy access to your roof and attic. Foundation plantings can also compromise safety on your premises if bushes are allowed to get too big against windows and doors.
  • Think outside the box. How about a curving path to your front door instead of a straight shot? Why not put a round, oval, or square bed outlined with formal shrubs such as boxwood in the middle of your rectangular lawn out front? How about a funky bottle tree in an area where absolutely nothing can grow? Landscape programs on HGTV and other stations are full of good ideas. Take notes or record some of your favorites.
  • Visit as many local garden centers as possible before you plant anything, and TAKE YOUR NOTEBOOK and CAMERA. Also take pictures of your property so the staff can make more informed recommendations. Record plant names and prices. Some nurseries have staff available not only for advice, but also for delivery and planting. They can tell you what plants really thrive in your area and what exposures are best for them.
  • Get a soil test. This is important, especially if you want to grow specific plants, because you may have to amend the soil. For instance, camellias and azaleas need acid soil to thrive, while many flowering annuals prefer a 'sweet', or alkaline environment. You can get instructions on testing your soil and interpreting the results from your local agricultural extension service.



Boxwood and germander (pale grey green) form a simple but effective pattern. Mulch keeps it neat. The plants in the custom-designed 'tuteurs' are podocarpus (false or southern yew).
Boxwood and germander (pale grey green) form a simple but effective pattern. Mulch keeps it neat. The plants in the custom-designed 'tuteurs' are podocarpus (false or southern yew).

Before you plant

Now that you are more familiar with your local plant material and have probably gotten lots of ideas, I strongly recommend that you take the time to clean your outdoor space as thoroughly as possible. Several friends have asked my advice on getting their gardens ready for a special occasion and I have told them to start by thoroughly weeding and getting rid of dead plants and old pots lying around. Pick up ALL trash, prune dead branches, and get rid of any old mulch under shrubs that may be harboring pests and diseases. If you have diseased shrubs, make sure they are either removed or treated prior to bringing in any undiseased plants.

It is SO much fun to plant things in soil that is well-prepared and not full of weeds and grass and debris. It is also important to get your materials into the soil as soon as possible, instead of letting a flat of pansies dry out and die because you didn't have the space ready to plant them or you didn't allow the time.

Your soil test results will help you properly prepare the soil. You can buy all sorts of soil amendments at the big garden centers. We use a lot of composted manure and have our own compost heap as well.

It is a good idea to work a small amount of time-release or general fertilizer into the areas you are going to plant. In fact, if the season is right, you should probably feed your entire garden.

Don't forget that the season plays a tremendous part in when to get a new garden started. You may be 'chomping at the bit' to put in a huge planting of azealeas, but if it is June, the chances for survival are low. Fall is the best season for planting trees, shrubs, and spring-blooming bulbs, but you can spend the winter cleaning and cleaning your landscape, researching plant materials, and studying catalogs and other information about when to plant.


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