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Gardening for Beginners, Season by Season

Planning In The Winter To Create Your Garden

Like many new gardeners, Donna Dawson of St. Albert, Canada, has made her share of mistakes. "[My] biggest mistake was impatience," she says. "Also weeding too soon, planting too close to each other and planting in the wrong places." Dawson learned from these early mistakes and went on to become a master gardener and founder of IcanGarden.com, an online community for gardening enthusiasts.

Beginning gardeners often assume they can simply throw a few seeds in the soil and up sprout seedlings. Nothing could be further from the truth. An experienced gardener knows that the real project begins months earlier, during the chilly winter months of the garden's dormant season when plants rest or die out, when trees, shrubs and grasses often sleep and when the gardener dreams of next summer's creation.

If you're a new gardener, winter is the season for planning. Now is the time to browse seed and plant catalogs, plot out next summer's garden beds and dream of beautiful creations for your yard.

The Slow Season

"The quiet times in winter and early spring are ideal for research and getting inspiration," say Nancy and Lewis Hill, authors of The Flower Gardener's Bible: Time-Tested Techniques, Creative Designs and Perfect Plants for Colorful Gardens (Storey Books, 2003). The Hills recommend joining a garden club, visiting flower shows or reading some of the many garden books and magazines during this slow season.

Katie Bloome, landscape architect for Monrovia, recommends using this season to make a plan. "One mistake beginning gardeners make is to not plan their garden," she says. "So take this time to look at gardening books, magazines and Web sites. See what kind of garden you like and start making lists of plants."

There are many seed, plant and garden supply Web sites online (see sidebar), some of which offer free catalogs. Since many experienced gardeners use the winter to plan their garden, most catalogs for the following summer are available now.

Perfect Plants

Selecting a plant simply because you like the look or color may result in wasted money and dead plants. When selecting plants for your garden, think zone and sunlight.

Each section of the country is divided into hardiness zones based on the climate. According to Bloome, there are two zone designations: the USDA cold hardiness zone and the AHS heat tolerance zone. "Most people assume that if their local garden center is selling a plant, it must be good for that area," she says. "But more and more, gardeners in all climates are demanding tropical [plants] and things that need to be over-wintered in a cold climate. Learn your zone so you can choose the right plants for your garden."

The amount of sunlight your garden bed receives is another consideration. If your garden bed receives on average six to eight hours of direct sunlight, choose plants geared toward full-to-partial sun. If your garden bed receives less than six hours of sunlight, chose plants for full-to-partial shade. Most plants come equipped with a plant-identifying insert that lists the plant's information, including zone number and sunlight requirements.

Bloome also recommends using this season to visit your local garden shop. "They have the most knowledgeable staff who can advise you on the types of plants that are easy to grow in your climate," she says. "After the holiday season and before the spring rush, they'll have time to spend with you. They can be a valuable resource."

Once you have a good idea of the plants for your area, browse through those seed and plant catalogs. "Make long lists of 'must haves,'" says Lewis Hill. "It's a good idea to send orders in early to be sure of getting the varieties you want."

Garden Design


There are many different ways to lay out a garden. Some prefer rows, similar to a farmer's field, since watering and mulching are easier when plants are perfectly lined up. Others prefer sections, dividing their garden into a grid pattern and devoting a section to each type of plant. Still others prefer a haphazard approach, mixing different plants together. Whatever method you choose, there are two things to keep in mind: garden size and plant height.

"Keeping the size manageable is most important," says Hill. The size of your garden will dictate the amount of effort that will be needed for upkeep. Weeding becomes an enormous chore with a large garden. As a new gardener, you may want to start small your first year, as you can always expand the size in later years.

Draw a map of the plot to scale, recommends Hill. "Having a plan is essential so you won't crowd in too many plants, which would make the garden overcrowded as the season progresses," he says. When drawing the position of each plant's location on your garden map, determine the full-grown height of your plants and plot them from smallest to largest going east to west. This way, when your garden is full-grown, the plants won't create shade for each other.

During this winter hiatus, spend a cold, wintry morning on the Internet searching for free garden catalogs. While you're waiting for them to arrive, visit the library and pick up a book on garden design. Then, break out the paper and pencil, sketch out your garden beds and build something beautiful.

Order These Free Online Gardening Catalogs:

  • White Flower Farm is the premiere American mail-order source for plants, bulbs and gardening supplies.
  • Territorial offers vegetable seeds, flower seeds, sunflower seeds, a few specialty items and more than 100 transplants.
  • Jackson & Perkins is a full-service nursery specializing in roses and also offering flowers, trees, shrubs, ground coverings, bulbs, decorative garden gifts, tools, garden accessories and plant care products.
  • For a list of all online gardening Web sites, visit Mail Order Gardening.com.

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