Flower Gardening for Beginners
There’s more to planting a flower garden than digging a hole and adding plants, but it’s still easy enough that anyone can have their own bountiful bed of blooms to adorn their home. Here’s what you need to know.
Unless you’re planting enough flowers to fill a large space, try to keep your flowerbed where it can be appreciated up close by yourself and passersby, such as along your front walk or around the mailbox.
Another reason to plant in an accessible area is so that you can easily water during dry weeks or cover during frosts. You can also expand existing borders, such as against hedges or around small trees, adding interest to areas that would otherwise go overlooked.
The most important consideration is that the flowers can thrive where they’re planted. Most plants need good drainage, meaning a spot where water will not collect, since soggy soil may rot the plants. Six or more hours of direct sunlight is also a must for most annual bedding plants.
However, if you choose the right plants, there are always exceptions. If you don’t have a well-draining place to plant, select coleus, impatiens or pansies, which can tolerate wet feet for short periods.
While most flowers require lots of sun, begonias, impatiens, coleus and salvia can handle shade. Violas, petunias, pansies and alyssum can even handle light frosts!
You may choose to grow perennials in addition to the usual annual bedding plants, since they’ll likely return and get bigger in the following years.
It’s cheaper to start plants from seed if possible, but the downside is that it takes more time. And some plants, like sunflowers and morning glories, don’t handle transplanting from pots well. Before you check out at the garden center, slide the plants and their root masses out of their pots and ensure that the roots are white — and not so firmly packed that they won’t budge. Do not buy plants with obvious pests or signs of disease, as they may spread to your garden.
Preparing the bed
A well-prepared bed is the key to a successful flower garden, so don’t rush this step. There are two ways to prepare a bed.
One is to remove the grass and cover your future garden bed with compost. Then dig a trench along the edge of the bed, place the dug-up soil inside the bed and work your way inward until you’ve reached the middle. This way there will be plenty of room for roots to establish.
The other way to plant a bed is to smother the grass with layers of newspaper, then a few inches of compost, and wait a few seasons for the existing grass to die. This is more time consuming, but is the best option if you have a tough turfgrass (like St. Augustine grass) or persistent weeds, and it also preserves the soil structure and beneficial organisms like earthworms.
Before planting, thoroughly water the plants you bought from the nursery so that they won’t suffer transplant shock. Arrange the plants, still in their pots, where you’d like to plant them in the garden. Play around with different designs and see which one you like best.
Dig a hole for each plant that is as deep as the plant’s root ball and twice as wide, fluffing up the soil at the bottom of the hole with your trowel. This will help the plant put out long, strong roots. Place the plant in the hole, ensuring that the top of the root ball is level with the surrounding soil.
Fill the hole with either the soil you dug up or, better yet, compost. After planting, add a one- to three-inch layer of mulch over the garden bed and water thoroughly to help the soil settle in around the roots.
It might not seem as important as say, watering, but feeding your plants will make them fuller and more resilient to drought, pests and other abuses. Not all fertilizers are great for flowers, though, so either choose one labeled for flower gardening or one that is low in nitrogen, since nitrogen promotes leaf growth at the expense of flowers.
Both synthetic and organic fertilizers will work, but each has its strengths and weaknesses. Synthetic fertilizers are fast acting, but can also quickly leach away from the soil or burn plants. Organic fertilizers may cost more and take a little longer to show results, but they’re generally considered safer for plants and gardeners.
Since each fertilizer is unique, feed plants according to package instructions.
Even a well-prepared bed has its weeds, but a badly prepared one will have a lot more. Weeds are not just unattractive; they steal water and nutrients from your plants, and foster pests and diseases.
Do not use chemical sprays to kill weeds, since they can damage or kill surrounding plants. Instead, just use your hands. Grip the weed at the base of the soil and pull up firmly, disposing of the weed (the compost pile is best) so that it doesn’t resprout in the bed later. You can quickly and easily dislodge new weeds with a hoe or cultivator, but be sure to get the roots so that they don’t come back.
All garden beds need to be watered in the weeks following planting, since they haven’t yet established a sufficient network of roots. The best ways to water are with drip irrigation or by hand.
With drip irrigation or soaker hoses, you are watering the soil itself rather than the leaves, where the moisture can evaporate or cause diseases.
The other way to water is by hand, with a hose and nozzle. This is useful since you have more control over which plants get watered and how much. After the plants have become established, water only when they show signs of drought stress — such as limp, wilting leaves.
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