Sunday, May 10, 2009

So You Think You Can Garden, Part I

Sure, you can grow Black Barlow Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris 'black barlow') in your yard!

But can you grow it 5' tall.....from seed?
As a trained wetland geographer & wildlife manager, a practicing habitat ecologist, a former Maryland Master Gardener, and the proud owner of an NWF Certified Backyard Habitat (send in a photo and a check, ha ha), I enjoy April and May each year, when friends and family call me relentlessly with their lawn and garden questions. Usually, it's about a specific site, or a specific plant. Most of them are very basic, or deal with an issue I've dealt with in the past, so it's pretty easy. But the hardest questions are the most basic: "Where do I start?" "What should I plant in my first garden?" Those types of things. I'll address the former question, but the latter question, to me, is like someone asking me to pick out their wedding dress, or choose the color of their baby's room. Not gonnna do it. So where does that leave us? How do you start gardening, and stop worrying about failing at gardening?
The first-time gardener has so many important questions , and many seem so critical to success (because this all costs money!) .......but....none as much as "why the hell am I doing this?" You need a plan! I don't mean a landscape plan, or a garden layout. We're talking much more basic - why do you want to grow plants? If you had the time and money to plant everything "just so," what would it look like in 3 months? 1 year? 5 years? If you're a first time gardener/landscaper, you must answer these questions, or I promise that you will fail. How can I say this? You can't reach your expectations without verbalizing them or writing them down.
If you're not sure about why you want to grow, you aren't ready to select what you want to grow. Take some willing to learn - it's one thing that very successful gardeners, and really, all highly successful "outdoor" professionals have in common. Visit historic homes and gardens, and visit native plantings and wildlife plantings at parks and wildlife refuges. Concentrate on "what you like," without regard for the logistics of "can I afford that?" or "is it possible?" Get a firm idea of what you'd like to see on your land, whether it's a working ranch with no plantings, or a 10' x 10' cold box on the cement slab that is your urban back yard. You now have a "vision" of sorts..
Another quick and critical exercise is to determine which Hardiness Zone your land is in. Why is this important? Most plants, whether you purchase them at Wally-World, or the Ag. Co-Op or the internet, are freeze-tolerant to only a certain extent. That extent is ranked by USDA zones. Knowing your USDA hardiness zone (a very easy exercise thanks to GardenWeb - search by zip code) will automatically rule out the purchase of many plants (including many stocked at your local Home Supply Super Store) as complete wastes of time and money (unless you have a greenhouse or want to buy the same plant again next year).
Now let's set up an important set of "sideboards" - honestly think about your potential garden space and prioritize the following in the order that's right for you:
*human use (consumption - food, cut flowers, etc)
*human use (aesthetic value)
*wildlife use (hunting, fishing, or viewing)
*land stewardship / soil conservation
That's right - the order in which you rank these will significantly affect the outcome of your garden project. I want you to remember those, because the next thing you need to do is call your local Extension Agent and discuss your vision and your priorities. This step is just as valuable, and much cheaper (free) than consulting a landscape architect or a wildlife consultant. Do NOT be afraid to call because your project is too small, or because you think your priorities are unusual. No matter how strange your vision & priorities, the agent has heard stranger, and he/she is paid a decent state salary to help you. Now, to save you a few steps, the extension agent is going to ask you some questions before you ask him/her any questions - so know the answers to these questions:
*how big of an area do you want to plant?
*what type of soil do you have (clay, sand, etc)?
*how steep is it?
*is there a water source (pond, spring, well, etc)?
*how do you feel about the use of fertilizer, pesticides, etc?
This is where it just barely starts to get fun! If you dreamt of huge patches of sunflowers along the woods edge, the extension agent will likely tell you what variety is popular in your county, when to plant it, and how much the deer will eat. If you are interested in vegetable gardening, the extension agent will be able to tell you what types of vegetables are likely to work on your site. If you are interested in only planting purple flowers, he/she may have some suggestions.
If this fails (which can happen if your land/planting area is far above/below the scale of "average" in your county, your local chapter of Master Gardeners is there to help you. In fact, that's the only reason they exist - to help non-commercial gardeners.
After these conversations, and some good internet searches, you should have a pretty good idea of why you want to grow plants, and what you'd like to grow. Sadly, this puts you in the top 25% or so of gardeners and landowners. Let's make something clear - this doesn't mean you'll be successful, and (as my experience will show in a future post), your priorities can change. But by following this exercise to this point, any failures (or just mediocrity) you encounter in your first year of planting will turn into very valuable lessons. Those lessons pay very large dividends in future years....if you stick with it.
An example, perhaps? I grow sunflowers for birds, specifically, goldfinches. In 3 years I have planted the seeds at least 5 different ways to prevent them from being gobbled up by rabbits and squirrels. This year, I was finally successful. I found a way - partly because I was not distracted by other goals or priorities.
How do I remember? I keep a record - and you should too. I remember every lousy wildflower seed mix that didn't work, and the nursery source of the amazing habaneros I had "one year," and what month the squirrels stop burying peanuts in my yard (accidentally finding and eating seeds I have planted).
Again, you will fail - you must fail. Maybe only one plant, or one part of your garden or wildlife plot. I can't stress enough how important it is to be adaptive and go with what works. This will often mean finding out what works, and planting the same thing every year as your staple. Continuing to experiment is very important - but not at the risk of total failure, year after year. If you love fresh squash, and you plant 6 varieties this year, 5 of which become infested with beetles and don't produce good squash, you might want to focus next year's planting efforts on the type that seemed resistant (while perhaps trying some new varieties).
In some cases, you will learn (from someone else or from your experience) that your primary goal may not be achievable, given outside constraints like the site itself, your budget, or the 3,000 deer that live in the woods just beyond your yard. Again - be adaptable. Change your objective, change your budget, or if possible, select a new site that meets your original goal.
Most importantly, don't turn your back on meager successes - build on them. That happens every year, almost everywhere I plant or manage habitat: "Why did THAT work? Of all things?" Tickseed (a native wildflower) first sprouted in one of my beds because my duck hunting gear was covered in the seeds. I let it grow, and loved the flowers, and the birds loved the seeds. Why tickseed? It wasn't as showy as the asters I was trying to grow. But it I use it every year in my seed mixes and look forward to those 5' tall bushes of yellow flowers every September.
Your "tickseed" may be a dwarf watermelon, an organic eggplant, an oat, a radish, or a sunflower. It will not be where you were looking for it, but you will be successful with it - and by doing so, you will become a real gardener. So go find it.


tugboatdude said...

I remeber I grew corn a few years back in the Ghetto Garden and veryone thought I was insane.When it grew to six feet tall and we were eating it fresh off the stalk they changed there tune.I wish I was home enough to grow one,keep up the good work.The rub you gave me was way to hot,damn man.

mizlan said...

nice work !

Kristine Shreve said...

Good advice. I bought my first house last year and have my first official backyard. I'm going to try container gardening on my deck and I'm planting some flowers. I'm completely clueless, but it's fun.

Swamp Thing said...

"All you have to do, is do it." One of my favorite quotes. If you just do a minimum amount of google "research" and you try 5 plants, at least 1 will work. Buy lots of that variety next year! And look for unrelated plants with the same demands/tolerance. Good luck Kristine!

disa said...

I love it ! Very creative ! That's actually really cool Thanks.