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Thanks to all of this amazing warm weather going on in Georgia this week, I have become THAT person… the one who’s been taking pictures of every flower I pass on my runs, walks, and trips to the coffee shop. If you see one of my fellow amateur smartphone photographers out in the open and blocking you on the sidewalk, resist the urge to “accidentally” spill your drink on them or to push them into the pile of flowers they are proudly posting to Instagram. While I can sympathize with that impulse, just remember that they, too, are simply excited about the newness of the evening sun, and they will soon begin to take it for granted once more (and okay, a sneer in their direction is still fine).

daylight savings

These first few weeks of spring always seem to spur my list-making habits. After realizing how productive 2015 really was, I’m getting so excited about all of my plans for DIYing over the next few months, and I’m toiling away behind the scenes to try to align everything just right for some major changes (especially to the back yard!). I just came inside the house from planting and fertilizing a bunch of new flowers in the garden beds, so a post is coming on that soon, too. But as I was busy planting, a thought occurred to me that I actually garden a bit differently these days than how I used to when I started with this house six years ago (wow, six years?!?). Since I know there are a number of brand-new homeowners reading along, I wanted to share these thoughts with you. It was a lesson that took a few years to learn, so hopefully, you can skip to the front of the class a little faster than I did!

When you’re learning how to garden, don’t forget that plants are freaking zombies. It sounds weird, but that’s an easy way to remember that sometimes, you might need to walk away and come back later… rather than start over completely.

hydrangea bud

The Biggest Mistake I Made When Learning How to Garden

The biggest mistake I kept making when I first began planting? My lack of patience. No, wait. Doubt. Ah, hell. It’s some kind of combination of doubting that you did things right, your garden’s dried and ragged carcasses convincing you that you failed completely, then not having the patience to see if it’s really working.

mailbox garden bed

It was no secret when I began DIYing that I killed a lot of plants. I tried, though. At least, I really wanted to try… hard enough to have a few flowers and fresh herbs to show for it, but not hard enough that I needed to maintain things but a few times per year (I was, after all, renovating a whole house, working, attending school, trying to still have a social life as a single twenty-something, etc.). I would plant something I thought I could (maybe?) grow, get excited, think I was getting somewhere, only to learn that it wasn’t really working out after all. I didn’t understand my house enough yet. I didn’t understand the kind of light it got each season, and I didn’t have the right instincts on what to buy. Basically, before this house, I’d never really planted anything or even bothered to learn much about gardening in general. So, I had to experiment. A lot. Most of what I learned at first was outside, slowly figuring out which plants thrived from neglect, which ones were recommended by garden centers for their “low-maintenance” attributes (but were wrong for my house), and what my own level of effort was with each area (spoiler: it ain’t much). Eventually, I found a few species that I know I can rely on without batting an eye… and some of them, I even really like to have in my garden (vinca, yes… marigolds, no).

But the thing is, plants can look like the dead — and it’s all a trick. Because some really are dead, and some are just about to explode into something awesome. And I had to learn to stop self-sabotage by being patient.

Take this little garden area I added last year to the side of the house, for example. I still have a lot to do in the garden opposite this one (more on that later), but shortly after planting, two out of the three seemed to be doing just fine… while the third drooped, dried up, and looked like it was on its way to landscape heaven.

2015 new garden area

My old instincts would have told me to rip it out as soon as it dried up, then try again later. The plant was only a dollar thanks to knowing when to shop for perennials, and I was confident the other two were thriving just fine, so even at full price to replace the third, it would be an inexpensive upgrade. But over the winter, things were looking a lot more bleak. I didn’t really do much to the area except the initial newspaper and mulch for weed control, and the first few warm weekends this spring still looked ragged. The flowers themselves had all dried out into sickly, brittle sticks. Perhaps, more than likely, they all died and the weeds are all that was left.

weeds taking over

Again, my old instincts (or lack of them) said to yank the weeds out of the ground to create a blank slate for new plants. Maybe the ones I planted were all wrong for this spot after all? But I started with the outermost weeds and worked my way to the center of each plant. As expected, the dried and spindly parts of each (now certainly dead) flower stem broke apart just from being brushed aside. But then… it was the ZOMBIE effect in action!

weeds and new plant

Upon closer inspection, it looks like this is one of the many plants in my yard that look nearly-dead or all-dead in the winter. I first learned about this with my hydrangeas when a guy I hired to clean it up thought they were dead and cut them down to the root (when I asked him why he cut down my hydrangea, he insisted it was dead… given that he was the expert and I wasn’t, I believed him… NOPE!). Thankfully, the plant grew back, and I learned to wait a little longer before ripping “dead” plants out of the ground. Once I peeled away some of the weeds, I could see that the root of the old “dead” flower was exactly where one of these new plants popped up.

developing gardening skills

And once all the weeds were gone (and I’d snapped off the dead parts), it was a healthy, vibrant plant.

healthy phlox 2

It needs some new mulch, but any day where I go from some expense to $0 is a good day!

garden weeds removed

I guess that when you don’t have a lot of natural instincts of your own to rely on, you have to go at your own pace to learn the things that others seem to just “get” without much effort. But after a little trial and error, I realized that if things look scraggly, it’s okay; as long as I set up the beds properly, fertilized them, etc., the next best thing I could do was to back off and give them time to establish themselves. Eventually, you take all of those lessons on how not to do something and actually figure out what works. And then you have a yard full of hydrangeas to show for it. ;)

hydrangea

What was the biggest mistake you’ve made while learning how to maintain your gardens?

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7 Comments

  1. I’m lucky, in that where I live outside of Seattle, I think stuff grows pretty easily. I also have a ton of mature plants on my property and spent the first 3 years here mostly cutting things back to a manageable size rather than having to add landscaping. But in the one area where I did want to plant, I of course made a big mistake. I had a sunny corner of the yard, near my garden shed, that I hastily thought would be a great place for some raised beds for veggies. Nearby was a mature wisteria. I did not account for the fact that even an established mature wisteria would need room to grow, so I put in my raised beds, only to wait a year and realize that the wisteria was beautiful, needed a new pergola, and that my raised beds were exactly in the way of where I needed to build. I’m happy with the end result, but wish I hadn’t wasted all that time building, digging, moving sod for those raised beds.

  2. Well speaking of hydrangeas, it depends on whether you have big leaf or pannicle. Big leaf bloom on old wood and every spring I’d prune all the old dead twigs back and so mine never bloome . Couldn’t figure out what the problem was. Never did until we moved away. Pannicle bloom on new wood so those can be pruned as soon as they finish blooming. Actally I just stopped pruning them altogether because I want them to get nice and big. I’m not sure what you have. If the flowers are large mop head type they are big leaf. If they have tapered pointed blooms they are pannicle.

  3. I have yet to figure out why only one of the identical shrubs on each side of my front steps flourished and the other I had to replace 3 times. Talk about frustrating! They’ve both been moved to the side of the driveway as of last summer. Done with patience! 9 years long enough! They’re both thriving in the new area and I am now trying to decide what to do with the steps.

  4. I too have killed many plants and had struggled to find low maintenance, easy plants. Then a couple of years ago, I found an amazing gardening book: “Easy Gardens for the South” by Pamela Crawford. It’s super easy to follow and describes the best plants that are low maintenance in the south. I figured out that I had been doing pretty much everything wrong with gardening. Since following this book, I’ve been able to get great looking hostas two years in a row; I planted a dwarf magnolia, azaleas, hydrangeas, and other perennials fall of 2014… so far everything is holding up great and I only have to tend to the plants once or twice a year. Great book. The author has some other great gardening books for container planters and veggies, and online how-to videos as well.

  5. Hello! Just found your blog and am loving it! I don’t know where you are in GA but I’m in Savannah and our biggest thing, especially this time of year, is the wicked wicked sun and heat and the insane flooding rains that happen many evenings in the summer time.

    Being a teacher who just got released into freedom (aka summer) I have had a week to begin sprucing up our new rental home. I, too, have been notorious for continuing to torture plant life in my struggle to keep just one thing alive. I love love love plants and greenery, and have this drive to never give up despite all outcomes. I had an aloe plant once that was thriving and suddenly it actually physically disappeared (still can’t get my bf to admit any foul!).

    So, after many years struggling, I finally admitted to myself, it’s not so much about emotionally purchasing anything I want to eat or color I want to see. So, I just made a raised bed last week (hopefully correctly) and chose specifically only plants we (A) actually use and eat regularly, and (B) plants that all require the same amount of sun and water. . So far, so good! Though the rain may prove debilitating. I also chose to pot my herbs, planted a blueberry bush and got a strawberry plant that is already looking a bit…sour. At this point of learning, I also try to get stuff from a bigger chain like Home Depot bc you can actually return the plants, like, even if you kill them. True life tip for the budding plant sadist.

    1. Yep, all good lessons to learn! And good luck on your plants; I hope they’re (literally) fruitful. It’s a good idea to start small and then add on as you learn to master them.