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You CAN Have a Green Thumb

Experts and experienced gardeners share their top tips for successful gardening

By Rashelle Brown

Editor’s note: This is the second of three articles by Rashelle Brown that we'll be featuring in April about the many benefits of gardening. The first is "Gardening Helps You Grow - At Any Age."

Are you garden-curious? A timid, wannabe gardener? A dispirited, failed gardener? Do you gaze with envy at your neighbors' lush floral landscapes or bountiful beds of vegetables and think, "Why can't I do that?" If so, take heart — this article is for you.

A color hour with a front porch and a patio full of plants and flowers. Next Avenue, green thumb, gardening for dummies, first time gardener
Dorit Hudson's garden  |  Credit: Dorit Hudson

Whether you're thinking of planting a garden for the first time, or coming back to it after a long layoff, gardening is an ideal activity for people over 50. At this stage in life, many people find they have a little more time, money and space for gardening, but according to the people we interviewed, those things aren't essential to gardening success.

If you dream of turning your brown thumb green, what you really need is curiosity, creativity, planning and patience. We'll reveal the the top tips for gardening success from three experts.

Read This Before You Buy a Single Seed

If you know the phrase, "Your eyes are bigger than your stomach," then you understand a common problem among avid gardeners. But whereas planting too many things presents only a modest burden for the experienced gardener, it can spell doom for the newbie.

"Have a think about what you really enjoy eating and potentially choose two or three fruit, veg or herbs and just start off with that."

"You've got to start out small and concentrate on only a few things," Huw Richards, the gardening author and YouTuber advised in a gentle Welsh accent that says no matter what happens in the garden, it'll all be okay.

For Richards, gardening success comes down to considered, focused simplicity.

"Have a think about what you really enjoy eating and potentially choose two or three fruit, veg or herbs and just start off with that. It's not going to cost a lot of money or take a lot of time, and it's very motivating," he said.

Right there are the first two keys to gardening success: start small, and have a plan.

In developing that plan, it's helpful to ask yourself three key questions:

  • What do I want? If you’re a beginner, follow Richards’s advice and start off with only two or three things you love. Then, when that’s going well, consider adding one or two more.
  • What do I need? Be exhaustive here. Think about every aspect of gardening: space, soil, sun/shade, seeds/plants, water, and protection from wind, hail, frost, pests and other threats. Oh, and don’t forget about containers, tools, time and money. Now aren’t you glad you’re starting with just a few plants?
  • What do I have? Rather than buying everything you need to start your garden, have a look around and see what you’ve already got on hand. Many plastic jars and bottles that end up in the recycling bin can first serve a stint as a seedling tray, and in his first book, “Grow Food For Free,” Richards notes than many vegetables can be grown from seeds saved from food bought at the grocery store. Borrowing tools and materials from other gardeners and sharing seeds is another great way to cut down on the cost of getting started.

Once you've answered those three questions, it's time to design your garden and get planting.

The Art and Science of Beautiful Gardens

For Dorit Hudson, of St. Petersburg, Florida, garden planning became a creative project.

"When we moved in here, there wasn't much for plants," the 60-year-old said. "I knew I wanted water and a tropical look with palm trees, so I talked to the neighbor's gardener, and then sat down and made sketches and planned where to put things."

The result has been stunning, yet Hudson is overly humble. "I really don't consider myself a gardener. I don't even know what all of the plants in my yard are," she said. "My mom had this incredible green thumb, but after she passed away and we moved to Florida, I feel like I'm channeling her."

A green garden with plants and flowers on the patio. Next Avenue, green thumb, gardening for dummies, first time gardener
Dorit Hudson's patio garden  |  Credit: Dorit Hudson

When pressed for details, however, it's evident that Hudson puts in the work. "I'm out there every day. I pull weeds, pinch back the impatiens so they bloom more, deadhead flowers, check for insects. And I hate wearing gloves, so you should see my nails!" she joked.

Equally important, she employs the methodical approach scientists know well: try something new, see what works, adjust for what doesn't and try again.

"I love orchids, but in Florida it rains every day in the summer," Hudson said. "So I took them all out of their pots and hung them in the trees and now every single one is coming back and will bloom again."

For Year One Success, Connect with a Community

All of that trial and error makes for a steep learning curve in the garden. What you learn in your first season will make your subsequent gardens so much better, but you can skip a lot of the early mistakes by seeking out experts in your area.

"Figure out how you're going to water before you build your beds. Because watering by hand gets real old, real quick."

Gardening is incredibly localized. Different neighborhoods in the same city can experience dramatically different temperatures, rainfall and pests over a single season, so look first to your next door neighbors. Then, to gain a wider breadth of gardening knowledge, seek out a gardening club.

Trish Griffin, 64, is president of Front Range Organic Gardeners (F. R. O. G.), in Denver. F.R.O.G. is a network of around 50 gardeners in the Denver area who connect to discuss all things gardening. Organized monthly meetings typically feature a guest speaker (a local entomologist has visited a few times to talk about pests), and the members often help one another.

"Not deliberately, but our members tend to be a little bit older," Griffin said, "so we help each other out, not in any organized way, we just have each other's phone numbers. It's more like, 'Hey, can you help me dig my garden in?' or 'Are you having the same trouble with this pest?'"

Griffin said that an online visit to your university extension's website can be a good source of information on specific topics, and a good regional gardening book is indispensable, but she adds, "The best way to learn is hands on. Join a club or volunteer with a charity like Grow Local."

The other big tip Griffin had for newbies: "Figure out how you're going to water before you build your beds. Because watering by hand gets real old, real quick."

Ten Practical Tips for Having a Green Thumb

Huw Richards says:

1. There's no such thing as too much compost. Make as much as you possibly can.

2. Create a small herb garden because herbs are easy, a little goes a long way, elevate the food you cook at home.

3. Create a space you want to be in, like a seating area, BBQ area, etc. When you spend time there, you'll see little garden jobs to do.

4. Use no-till gardening. Just apply compost on top every year. You won't need to worry about any digging, which will also save your back.

5. Every year choose one really weird, interesting, fascinating variety that looks cool but you have no idea if it'll work, and give it a go. Even if it doesn't work, it'll be a great conversation piece when people come over.

Dorit Hudson says:

6. Spend time on the front end creating your design. Envision the space you want to be in.

7. Be curious. Experiment and keep what works, try to find creative solutions to problems, discard what doesn't.

Trish Griffin says:

8. Think about your watering needs before you plant.

9. Connect with other gardeners to share labor and information.

10. There is no better teacher than doing, so get out there.

Rashelle Brown
Rashelle Brown is a long-time fitness professional and freelance writer with hundreds of bylines in print and online. She is a regular contributor for NextAvenue and the Active Network, and is the author of Reboot Your Body: Unlocking the Genetic Secrets to Permanent Weight Loss (Turner Publishing). Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @RashelleBrownMN. Read More
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