A Letter To Me As A New Gardener

– Posted in: Miscellaneous

Fran deadheading on second level-resizedDear Fran (of 1979),

I’m writing this letter to you as a seasoned gardener who over the past 30 years of working the soil has made more than my share of mistakes: and has learned some things along the way. As your elder, I want to share some of what I’ve gleaned in the hope that it will make your ‘garden making’ less frustrating and more enjoyable.

Here’s what I want to tell you.

110905-Fall garden top level-amsonia, metasquoia, buddleia.jpg-resized1. Pay attention to the size of each plant at maturity and the distance needed between the plants when putting them into the ground. I know, it can be tough to visualize the plant at maturity if you haven’t used it before and you so badly want your garden to look lush and filled with color and texture. But trust me: you’re going to save a whole lot of money, because you won’t buy way more plants than you need. Your garden will look much better too, if it’s not overcrowded, and the plants will be healthier in the long run. I know it bothers you to have a lot of empty space between those properly spaced plants, but there’s an easy solution: tuck in your favorite annuals and tender perennials as fillers for the first few years.

2. When adding annuals for spring color to walkways, front of beds and around mailboxes or lightposts, try something different, rather than what’s popular in your neighborhood. I understand that it’s natural to think that if the neighbors are using these plants, they’re a good choice. Well, these plants may thrive in your area but do you really want your garden to be a replica of those folks who live around you? Take a few extra minutes at the nursery perusing the isles. Check out other annuals that will not only work in your yard but that grab your eye. Early spring herbs, cosmos, snapdragons, ageratums and pansies, when grouped together, can make a refreshing and colorful vignette.

3. Spend the extra dollars on sturdy, long lasting tools. I know it’s easy to think that all tools are the same. And you’d rather spend the money you’ve budgeted on plants. But the truth is, without high quality tools, life as a gardener can be pretty tough. After trying it on the cheap, I eventually went for quality. I’ve had my Smith and Hawken spade and fork for over 25 years. Each spring when I take them out to begin their season of work, I think to myself: ‘Aren’t I lucky to have these old friends back with me for another season’?

Chanticleer-melianthus, salvia and phormium.JPG-resized-square flagstone terrace

4. Until you become a more experienced gardener, keep the shape of beds simple and easy to work in. Rectangular and square shaped beds are the best choices. Once you have more experience, then you can create island and weaving beds. Don’t forget the width of pathways. Even if you want to cut narrow, secondary paths, they still need to be wide enough so that your wheelbarrow can pass through easily.

5. Try to control your impulse to buy every plant that you fall in love with at the nursery. I know that it’s difficult to do when you feel like you’re a kid in a candy shop. But being disciplined about your purchases will pay big dividends on the other end. As a matter of fact, you might want to make a rule with yourself that your first visit to the nursery is strictly one where you check out the plant material with no buying at all! Why don’t you make lists, go home, do some research, then go back and buy.

6. On that note, when it comes to designing and buying perennials, there are a few basic rules that can be helpful. First, limit the varieties of perennials that you use in your garden. Whatever the # is of perennials on your final list, cut it in half. So, if you initially had 12 varieties on your list, cut it to 6. Second, buy large numbers of one type of perennial. If you had written down originally that you were going to buy 3 of one perennial, buy at least 7. Seems like alot? Believe me, it won’t be! Now here’s the tough part. Try to select perennials in different shapes, sizes and colors (including leaf color). And make sure that each perennial still adds something to your garden even when it’s not in bloom.

3rd clevel beds-spring-resized-long view

7. Don’t plant in straight rows, except in a vegetable garden. They’re deadly! Think in terms of planting in waves, sideways circles or ovals nudging up against each other. It’s almost like doing a puzzle. You’ll know when all the pieces connect. And like everything in life, the more you practice, the better you’ll be at it. Remember as you lay the plants out in the garden to keep them in their containers so that you’re sure the design is what you want before you start plopping them in the ground.

8. Find some favorite plants that you can depend on in practically any situation. Over the years, Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’, Salvia nemerosa, Artemis ‘Powis Castle’, Dianthus sp. Echinacea sp. Molinia ‘Windspiel’, Panicum virgatum and Geranium sp. have become some of the perennials that I can use in a pinch and  they always come through for me.

9. Add shrubs to garden beds. There are so many magnificent ones from which to choose. The difficult part will be deciding which ones are the best to use for the location where they’re to be planted. Remember, shrubs can become quite tall and wide at maturity so make sure that your space can handle them. Try to envision where you’re going to plant them before buying them. I would suggest that you buy at least 3 of one type of shrub and either group them together or dot them throughout your garden to create a kind of rhythm. The eye loves repetition.

10. The most important thing that I learned throughout these decades of gardening is to trust my instincts. You can follow every rule in the book and although your garden may become a more cohesive landscape due to that, it can still lack soul. If you listen to your instincts, you have a much greater chance of creating a garden that is unique and personal: one that reflects the deepest of who you are.

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And one final note: be kind to yourself. The truth is, a huge part of gardening is making mistakes. If you can look at all of your mistakes and missteps as worthwhile lessons, you’ll experience less frustration and will have the opportunity to learn much more about gardening and yourself. Remember, gardening is a practice: no less so than studying a musical instrument or yoga. Use it for all it has to offer you.

With love,

The Elder Fran – December 2009 

So….that’s the advice that I would want to give to myself as a nascent gardener 30 years ago. How about all of you? What are some of your words of wisdom that you want to pass onto your earlier self?

Fran Sorin

Fran is the author of the highly-acclaimed book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, which Andrew Weil, M.D., recommends as "a profound and inspiring book."  

A graduate of the University of Chicago with Honors in Psychology, she is also a gardening and creativity expert, coach, inspirational speaker, CBS radio news gardening correspondent, and Huffington Post Contributor.

Learn more about Fran and get free resources that will help you improve your life at www.fransorin.com.

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Fran Sorin
15 comments… add one

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Carol December 6, 2009, 5:46 am

Very Clever! A great letter fill with essential advice. Lovely photos strewn about too. Carol

Am glad you enjoyed! It was fun to write. Fran

Jack Holloway December 6, 2009, 6:25 am

Great advice, Fran, but point 6 needs an addendum: If you don’t manage to restrict your choice, forgive yourself: THEN propagate!

I’d add the following, perhaps the first at number 1, because time is of the essence, always:
(a) Don’t dally, dig! The thing that pleases me most about myself as a gardener is that I started so young. At an age when many people are only discovering gardening, I have trees I planted 30 years ago. And I have put in “the bones” in places where I’ve had neither the money, nor the time, nor the certainty of how to finish and seldom regretted it. The most important element in any garden is TIME!
(b) Prepare and maintain your soil. Dig big! You can never do too much to encourage drainage and water retention. You can do too much to encourage growth; don’t overfeed your plants, just feed them well. Too much can result in soft, vulnerable growth, and any extra food is not going to hang around waiting to be eaten. Rather feed adequately before planting, and then continue feeding on a six-monthly or yearly basis with good compost, or more regularly with foliar feeds.
(c) Protect your soil against heat, cold, wind and water: mulch! Plants can also act as a mulch. You like a blanket; so do your plants.

Hmmm. I’m impressed. Now all I need do is heed all the advice. Yours and mine!


Dear Jack-
Lots of good ideas but my favorite one is ‘if you don’t restrict your plant choices then propogate’. Thanks so much for adding that one in. Fran

Eric Hegwer December 6, 2009, 8:04 am

One time, a boss told me: “One never learns until they make the mistake themselves”.

Great advice, especially the one about the tools.

Dear Eric-
Ain’t that the truth??? Similar to parenting, we want to prevent our children from making the same mistakes we made BUT we know that in order to mature and blossom into adulthood that it is critical that they fall on their face, make their mistakes, learn from them and keep on growing!! Thanks for your words of wisdom. Fran

Tatyana December 6, 2009, 10:37 am

Excellent! Just excellent! I wish I read such article long ago. Thank you! #5 is the most difficult for me to follow.

Dear Tatyana-
Believe me, it took me years to learn to control that impluse….most of the time. To this day when I go to my wholesaler to buy plants for gardens that I’m designing, I have a well detailed list with amounts, plants nomenclature, etc. I’m fine until I happen to see a row of plants next to the ones I’m planning to buy. They picque my interest, I check the tag, I mull it over, I walk away thinking that I don’t really need them for ‘my garden’ and then often I walk back after saying to myself: “OK…just buy 5 of them. It is important to continue experimenting AND you have that open space (in one of the beds) where they can easily be planted”. So much for discipline. I could think of worse addictions!! Am glad you enjoyed! Fran

Mr. McGregor's Daughter December 6, 2009, 11:07 am

Pair up ephemerals and bulbs with something that will camouflage their empty spaces and where you won’t be tempted to plant something during the summer after you’ve forgotten about the plant that lies dormant.
Search out plants that age/die gracefully. Autumn can be a very long season.
Try to include a dark backdrop to beds to make taking photos of plants much easier.

Dear MMD-
All are good ideas. The last one, though, about including a dark backdrop for photos, grabbed my interest. Thanks so much for sharing! Fran

Randy December 6, 2009, 1:09 pm

Well stated! Eric said it about right. My granddaddy always said if your not making mistakes your not doing anything!

Dear Randy-
As I said to Eric, this wise saying is a metaphor for trying to live a meaningful life. Fran

Joseph Tychonievich December 6, 2009, 3:11 pm

Good post — and right on target! I’m going to keep this one book marked and send it to friends who are starting in gardening.

Dear Joseph,
Gee, thanks. Am so glad that you thought it was on target. I would suggest adding some of the other ideas to mine before sending the list to your friends. Our readers have shared some excellent ones with us! Fran

Gail December 6, 2009, 3:24 pm

Fran, A wonderful post… I’ld like to think that ‘younger gail’ would have listened had an older wisher gardener sent it to me! gail

Dear Gail,
I agree about the ‘younger us’. I too hope I would have had the ‘smarts’ to listen. Fran

Gayle Madwin December 6, 2009, 5:40 pm

Wonderful advice! I would tell New Gardener Me (of a whole year and a half ago) the following:

1. Weeds and drainage are going to turn out ot be a much bigger deal than you’ve yet realized, and really ought to be completely resolved before you start putting plants in. I know you’re already trying to completely resolve the weed problem before you start planting, but the weeds are going to go dormant and you’re going to be fooled into thinking that the problem is solved.

2. For someone who was inspired to start gardening specifically because of your interest in garden design, you sometimes don’t give nearly enough thought to design when you plant. Try planning the paths ahead of time, instead of squeezing them in later as afterthoughts. Make a real scale drawing of the garden – don’t use the fact that it’s tiny and a rental as an excuse not to bother.

3. Your garden is a wetter place than you realize. Some of the drought-tolerant plants aren’t going to work there. You’re doing exactly the right thing by making spreadsheets of plant species that you think will work in the garden, but some of your guesses are going to be wrong, so keep researching and improving those guesses.

4. Annuals are not as useless as you think they are. They’re green for a majority of the year, they reseed themselves for future years, and they’re great for filling in space between more permanent plants. Stop avoiding them.

5. Congratulations on having numbers 2, 5, 7, and 9 on Fran’s list down perfectly from the very beginning!

Dear Gayle,

You have offered some great advice to yourself (and all of us). I especially like the fact that you congratulated your earlier ‘you’ about what you are doing right in the garden. Great reminder for all of us to be kind to ourselves! Fran

Town Mouse December 6, 2009, 5:58 pm

I might have started that letter with “Dear Fran! So happy that you’re getting interested in gardening. A path of adventure and excitement awaits you. Enjoy!”

(I’m not sure myself 30 years younger would have listened to some old lady, but maybe you were a more considerate person. Regardless, start with some praise! Tell her how much fun it all is!)

Town Mouse-
How right you are! The most important thing about gardening is that it is a tremendous amount of fun, a kind of play. Thanks for reminding us. Fran

Nicole December 7, 2009, 8:32 am

Great post-as I am about to start a new garden next month this is very timely, as well. I would add :
1. Research and get plants that are suited to your climate, soil and rainfall-saves lots of money in the long run.
2. Learn what plants look like at maturity-many trees, agaves and aloes and succulents look ordinary and the same as small plants/pups but grow into spectacular plants.
3. Don’t say no to freebies if you have the space. I am glad I “tried” several plants only out of politeness when they were offered as passalongs- which are now among my favorites.

Dear Nicole-
All are worthwhile points but #3 is a great reminder. I actually started my garden in large part by being given plants to me by friends. One of my favorite bearded irises, a brownish/purple one, I received as a clump several years ago from a neighbor. After more than a few years, it dotted a long winding spring border and was always a joy to witness each spring! Fran

Vanessa Nagel December 7, 2009, 4:29 pm

To all of the wonderful advice, as a professional landscape designer, I’d offer the following:
1. Learn as much as you can about basic design principles
2. Visit other gardens as often as possible and learn to see why things work well (or not).
3. Read good gardening books, too. My Timber Press book on garden design is expected to be out in Fall 2010.

Dear Vanessa-
You sure a right about learning as much about basic design principles as possible. The good news is that there are now daylong workshops that can now offer gardeners useful concepts about the ‘bones’ of the garden. After that, outside of practice, there are several great books on the structure of a garden.
Let us know when your book is published in Fall 2010. All the best- Fran

catmint December 8, 2009, 6:22 am

the wisdom of an elder – great advice, but can it protect those who need to make their own mistakes?

Dear Catmint,

You are certainly on target with that comment. We all need to make ALOT of mistakes in the garden and in life in order to learn and grow. BUT it’s a question of the amount of mistakes. I know that the garden mentors that I’ve had throughout my years of gardening have not only inspired me but saved me at least a couple of years or more of frustration by guiding me through the process….more or less like a music teacher. In no way does that mean that I still didn’t make a huge amount of mistakes….and I am grateful that I did. Thanks for your comments! Fran

healingmagichands December 8, 2009, 12:35 pm

I loved this post, it is so accurate and loving.

The advice about spacing has taken me years to grasp and employ successfully, but at long last I think I have finally “gotten it.” The new stroll garden reflects this newly acquired wisdom, and even now I am having a hard time sticking to it. The part about the annuals is very useful.

One of the things I have learned in the odyssey of the stroll garden is that you don’t HAVE to plant every bit of a bed the year you create it. Sometimes it is a good thing to wait and see what “needs” to be put into an empty space. I could not afford all the plants I wanted, so instead I put in a squash patch in one area, and I got a bumper crop of wonderful butternut squash as well as a very attractive bed all summer.

I would say to the novice gardener “Don’t overlook the vegetables as a possible annual in your new garden. Those plants can be quite beautiful in their own right, and you have the bonus of producing food.”

Another thing I would say is “Start looking at your garden chores as an avocation rather than a chore. Then weeding becomes a meditation rather than a trial.”

Last, but not least. This is something I learned as a Navy wife where I was forced to move on a regular basis. “Don’t hesitate to create beauty wherever you live. But once you have left that beautiful garden, moved away, and no longer have control over it, DON’T EVER GO BACK. Be as Lot and Lot’s wife, don’t look back, only forward.” One of the worst mistakes I ever made was to go back and visit the garden I created in San Francisco. The devastation, the wreck of my gorgeous creation due to neglect and actual destructive acts by uncontrolled drug and alcohol fueled “friends” of the new caretaker — it is a picture of destruction and death that stays with me to this day. Those people have some truly bad garden karma coming to them.

Dear Healing Magic Hands,

WHEW! Every single piece of advice that you offered are jewels. My favorite was the last one about moving and not returning. When I sold my house last spring where I had gardened for 29 years, I made a promise to myself that I would never return. Unless you know that the people who buy your home are true gardeners, I wouldn’t even chance it. You’re right…I know it would be heartbreaking. The last thing I did before leaving my home was to walk through the garden and say goodbye to everyone. Believe me when I departed, I was crying. So, thank you, thank you for those words! Fran

Benjamin December 9, 2009, 5:40 pm

Huzzah to #9 Fran! Wish more folks did that!

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