In some ways, new gardeners today are better off than people who started gardening decades ago. New gardeners with a question, or three or five, can find instantaneous answers to just about anything on the internet.

On the other hand, the internet offers more information than anyone could possibly read, and many of the sources – on gardening and otherwise – conflict.

Maybe things were better years ago. If people developed an interest in gardening, they likely had a relative, friend or neighbor they could go to for advice. That person would not be an expert, necessarily, but perhaps just a person who had gardened with some degree of success.

This week, I am going to play that role of reassuring gardening buddy. Everything I say will be my opinion, of course, but based on a fair bit of experience and reading.

The most important thing I can tell you is to experiment and relax. If something fails, and a plant doesn’t do well, at least you’ve learned. You can move it somewhere else or, if it dies, buy another plant. None of this is a life-and-death matter – for humans, anyway.

Next, gardening starts with the soil. Every plant you buy will come with information about the kind of soil that plant prefers. The key word is “prefers,” which is different from “requires.” Most gardeners plant mixed beds with a wide variety of plants, some grown for their pretty flowers, others for their striking foliage, and still others because they produce food. Each plant has slightly different soil preferences, but you’ll find that they mostly grow reasonably well together as long as the soil isn’t too soggy or on either extreme of the pH scale, which measures how acid or basic your soil is.


Most Maine soil is slightly acidic, although you should get a soil test to determine your own soil type. If you are planting something that prefers sweeter (alkaline) soil, add lime when planting. It will help, but the plant will probably survive without it.

You can also add compost and fertilizer, but don’t do it if you are planting in the fall, because they’ll promote tender growth, and such tender growth won’t survive the cold winter ahead. Bear in mind that just as some people can’t handle rich food, native plants may not be able to handle soil that is too rich, too full of organic matter.

Some soil is exceptionally tough to deal with. Your soil may be filled with rocks or roots, as ours is. Frankly, you have to expect that. This is the rockbound state of Maine, after all, and in case you didn’t know, tree roots extend through the soil well beyond the area directly under the tree’s branches.

Rocks are the easiest to deal with, unless it is ledge. Our property had some rock walls when we moved in, and we added to them as we pulled rocks out of our soil. Dig around them and pry them out; a nice crowbar nicely supplements your garden tools for this.

With roots, cut them if you can. I have an old pruning saw that I reserve for roots. If I can’t cut them with a saw, I use an ax. Once you’ve dug a hole deep enough, and planted your new plant, its roots will find their way around any remaining obstacles. At the same time, cutting a few roots from a large tree or bush won’t kill it.

New gardeners often worry that the trees, shrubs and perennials they have just planted aren’t doing well. Newbies say they haven’t been growing, and maybe the leaves are turning a bit yellow. This is normal. The plants you buy at a nursery, if they were grown in a field, have had a lot of their roots cut off before they could be balled and burlapped and shipped to your home. Plants grown in pots have been watered daily, kept in fertile soil and treated with tender affection. Moving to your home is a shock.


Almost all of a plant’s job its first year is to develop a root system. Gardeners have two rhyming triplets that describe a plant’s first three years: “Survive, strive and thrive” or “Keep, creep and leap.”

If the plant lives but doesn’t seem to grow the first year, that is a victory. The roots are growing. The second year it will look a bit better and grow slowly. The third year it will be growing well.

The rhymes don’t address this one, but if gardeners put the plantings too closely together, in year five they are likely to say, “What do I do about this plant? It’s going wild and taking over my whole garden.”

Next question: What do you do with old seed? Generally, if seed is kept in a cool, dry spot, it will be usable for several years. Larger seeds typically last longer than small ones, but I have planted 4-year-old seed successfully. If the seed doesn’t sprout, buy new seed and plant again. You’ll be a week or so behind where you would have been, but that isn’t a big deal. If you do have seeds you didn’t use this year, store them in an airtight container in a cool spot (think cool cellar, not freezing garage). I use several coffee cans with their plastic lids to store seeds.

Now, what do you do with the pots your plants came in? All sorts of things. Some are sturdy, and can be used as ornamental planters on a patio or along the driveway. Some can be used for plants you have dug and divided and plan to give to neighbors. I use them to store potatoes and other vegetables in the root cellar. Many nurseries will take them back and reuse them. Otherwise just put them out with your plastic recycling.

Are you a new gardener? Do you have more questions? Call or email me using the information at the end of this column, and I’ll reprise my gardening buddy role. If I get enough interesting questions, maybe I’ll write another column.

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: