10 tips for gardening beginners from a former plant killer

I used to kill plants regularly. I used to joke that plants in nurseries would cower in fear when I walked past, hoping they wouldn’t be chosen to come home with me. When I first became interested in plants, I despaired of ever having a lush, beautiful garden. Eventually I got there, and you can too. Here are some beginner gardener tips to help you stack the deck in your favor and maybe have a shorter path to a great garden.

1. Don’t worry if you’re not good with houseplants. I think it’s easier to start gardening with plants that are in larger pots and outdoors or just planted in the ground. Plants are simply not meant to live indoors and our climate makes it difficult for them to survive, especially as houseplants typically originate from shady, humid environments. Containers also make it difficult for plants to survive.

2. Start with native or at least drought tolerant plants. Again, just because you’re killing houseplants doesn’t mean you won’t have success with other plants. Native and drought tolerant plants cope with our climate and are easiest for beginners. You can always move on to exotic plants like roses or irises after you gain some gardening experience.

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3. Set up your irrigation or other water supply before planting. This is vital in our region. It just takes a day of forgetting to hand water your new plants and then you have a garden full of wilted canes. If you’re new to gardening, you don’t necessarily have those ingrained habits of checking in on your new friends on a daily basis, and you may not be able to accurately identify water-stressed plants. It’s easiest to set up an irrigation system so you’re less likely to lose plants due to lack of water.

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4. Check your soil before planting. You may have a great floor, or you may not. There’s only one way to find out: Check out this graphical guide for a quick, free soil test at home. Don’t forget to also check how well your soil drains. Soil with poor drainage or poor nutrition is a recipe for dead plants.

5. If you have soil that needs some work, there are a number of strategies. The best way to improve it is to add organic matter like compost or manure and water it from time to time to encourage incorporation of those matter. You can also add plants that are very tolerant of poor soil conditions. These slowly improve the soil for you by shedding organic matter, breaking up compacted soil, shading the soil, and helping to retain water in your landscape. Many of our native plants are great for this, especially our native mesquite and palo verde trees.

6. Watch your garden every day, even if it’s just a few minutes at a time. It’s great when you can get out a few times a day. Notice where the sun sets and where there is shade, if any creatures can get through and the like. You’ll be amazed at how much information you can absorb just by sitting down and looking around for a few minutes. Even within a garden, there can be multiple microclimates, and learning about them can inform your planting decisions and set you on the path to success.

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7. As you watch your garden, make it a habit to check on your plants every day. Not only does this let you relax in your garden, but it is also an opportunity to learn about your plants. They start to notice when they look happy and well-watered, or when they look stressed due to drought or poor nutrition. They also have the opportunity to observe whether they are in the right place – are they getting too much sun or wind? Too small? Do they have enough room to grow? Don’t be afraid to move plants that aren’t doing well.

8th. Find out about gardening in our region. Your best information comes from other gardeners and especially from Pima County’s master gardeners. They have great resources including their many helpful free online talks they give several times a month on various gardening topics. If they don’t have an answer to your dilemma, they’ll help you find one. Most importantly, they are trained to look for science-based, accurate answers. You can also read some local gardening books and talk to people at local nurseries like Desert Survivors and Spadefoot Nursery.

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9. Visit successful gardens. This could be your friends’ or neighbors’ yards, or local organizations like Tohono Chul, Mission Garden, and the Tucson Botanical Gardens. You’ll learn what works, notice garden designs you like, get planting ideas, and meet people who can teach you local gardening wisdom.

10 Above all, don’t be too hard on yourself. Gardening is not a hobby for perfectionist attitudes. You will make mistakes, sometimes big ones and potentially expensive ones. You plant things in the wrong place, or you have an irrigation outage and lose a bunch of plants. You’ll find yourself hating that shrub you’ve planted and watered dearly. Even lifelong gardeners with ultra-green thumbs have these problems, so you’re not alone. Just accept that this is all part of the journey and that you learn from every setback, including how to be less of a perfectionist.

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Do you have gardening topics you want the Tucson Garden Guide to cover? Email me at [email protected] with your suggestions and questions. Thank you for reading!

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