Basic Steps for Beginning Gardeners
Guest Article for the Tallahassee Democrat
Photo by Penny Gilmer, Master Gardener: pink, purple and white larkspur.
Friday, May 24, 2013
By Linda H. Yates
“You need to do something about your yard.” The young career woman had just purchased and moved into the first home of her own. Startled by the abrupt advice, she took a long look at the large expanse of what once had been grass, a tree with broken limbs and three azaleas near the front windows.
She loved flowers, shrubs and shade trees but knew very little about them. Any extra resources vanished when she bought the house. She wondered what she could do and where to start.
A new gardener must start with the basics: Learn to identify plants and where to place them. Let “right plant in the right place” be your motto and your efforts will be rewarded.
Flowering plants include annuals—those that begin small, grow into vigorous plants, flower, and then die at season’s end—and perennials—those that bloom several months or all year, die back over winter but send up new green growth each spring. Rather than having to replace every plant each year, start with many perennials that can be combined with annuals for short seasonal bursts of color.
Select those shrubs, trees and perennials that grow well in North Florida. The country is divided into zones according to their heat index, humidity and other factors that affect plants. Tallahassee is in Zone 8B. If you are shopping from a catalog or in another area, make sure the plant can be grown in this zone. You would not grow lilacs here, for example, nor tropical plants in North Carolina, except in a green house.
To learn about plants, visit local nurseries, read plant labels; visit public and private gardens; read gardening books and magazines. Garden catalogs can be educational since many give complete information about plants, including whether they require sun or shade.
As you cultivate the soil of a flowerbed, it is best to learn if it will be suitable for your plants. Check with the Leon County Extension Office at 615 Paul Russell Road to learn how to have your soil tested for nutrients. Look in a gardening book or an Internet source for a discussion of acidity and alkalinity of soil (pH) and which one each plant needs.
Soil usually needs additional fertilizer, compost and other nutrients to grow vigorous plants. Which to use will be provided by soil test results. In general, slow release fertilizer is recommended, or one may choose to use compost and the valuable microorganisms it contains. There are fertilizers specialized for many plants and lawn grasses; read the labels for the uses of each and how much to apply.
Plants need water in differing amounts. Learn their needs and group like plants together for ease of watering. Water early in the morning to reduce evaporation; water deeply but never leave a plant in standing water. Water when the soil is dry and before the plant wilts. Mulch around the plant with pine straw, leaves or similar organic matter to help keep the soil moist.
Start small. Gardening can be fun if the beginner takes on one project at a time, learning along the way. Resource material is plentiful. The University of Florida Agricultural Extension Service offers information for area gardeners on its webpage and through its Master Gardener program. Check these sites: Solutionsforyourlife.ufl.ed/lawnandgarden, and leon.ifas.ufl.edu. Use your computer search engine to find information on specific topics and to locate garden information provided by magazines such as Southern Living, Better Homes and Gardens, Horticulture and others. Another useful site is gardeningabout.com. As someone once said, “Half of knowledge is knowing where to find it.”
Linda H. Yates is a Master Gardener volunteer with the Leon County Cooperative Extension Service and a member of the Leon County/UF IFAS Extension Urban Forestry/Horticulture Advisory Committee. For more information about gardening in our area, visit the UF/ IFAS Leon County Extension website at http://leon.ifas.ufl.edu. For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov