As many of you already know I used to suck at gardening. I didn’t know what to plant ,how to plant it, where to plant it… nothing. Over time, I learned. It just took a lot of time (way too much time).
So I decided to put together a beginner’s guide to flower gardening to give you the answers to the questions that you don’t even know you need to ask, yet. I’m going to cover everything from gardening zones, to basic plant terminology, to sun and shade requirements, to how to care for your plants… and much more.
- Gardening Zones
- Perennials, Annuals and Biennials
- Sun Requirements
- Soil Types
- Plant Spacing
- Caring For Your Plants (water, food, shelter)
- Planting Your First Plant
Let’s get started!
1- Where you live matters… a lot; know your gardening zone
I’ve come across so many new gardeners that are baffled when I ask, what’s your gardening zone? So, if you aren’t sure what a gardening zone is, I’m happy to introduce you to this VERY IMPORTANT piece of information :).
Gardening zones are determined by the USDA in order to have a universal way to determine what plants will survive in different regions across the United States. There’s a handy gardening zone map that you can use to figure out what gardening zone you’re in.
Quick Tip: If you go to the USDA website’s zone map, you can type in your zip code and it will tell you what gardening zone you live in!
The Zones in the USA go from Zone 1 all the way to Zone 12. Each Zone number changes based on a 10 degree temperature difference in how cold it gets in that region. So if you are in Zone 6 that means that it gets 10 degrees (Farenheight) colder where you live then someone who Gardens in Zone 7.
Why is your zone important? The biggest reason is because plants cannot survive in ALL conditions. Some plants are better suited for where you live than others. So, when you know your gardening zone, you’re able to choose plants that will survive (and hopefully thrive) in the climate where you live (i.e. how cold it gets).
This is especially important if you’re doing research for plants or purchasing your plants online. Because, if you are just Googling the phrase “plants with purple flowers” you’re going to get results that may or may not work for the region in which you live. Once you know your zone, you can begin to narrow down the plants you can grow.
Most gardening websites will provide a zonal range for you to go by if you come upon a list (like in many of my plant list articles). If you like a particular plant in the list and it says “Zones 5-7″, this means that you must live in a region that falls into Zones 5, 6 or 7. Otherwise it’s either too warm or too cold for you to grow that plant outside all year round.
What if you don’t live in the USA? You can always google “Gardening Zone for X” with X being where you live. Other countries don’t have the standardized zones like we do in America, but there are a lot of websites that will be able to tell you what it would be if you were to live in the USA.
2- There are different classifications for plants; perennials, annuals and biennials
The next thing that you need to understand is the difference between perennial, annual and biennial plants. These are just fancy terms that explain the life cycles of the plants and flowers that you may want to grow.
What are Perennial Plants?
A perennial plant is a plant that comes back year after year. So you plant this once and each year it may or may not die back but then it will grow again in the next season. Most shrubs (and trees) “come back” each year like perennials do, even if they lose their leaves over winter. There are also many perennial plants as well as flowers that come back year after year and this is a great way to create a low-maintenance landscape that you don’t have to replace every spring.
Check out some of my favorite perennial plants and flowers.
What are Annual Plants?
Annuals are pretty much self-explanatory. If you plant an annual it will grow and bloom in the year that you’ve planted it. So most annuals you’ll want to purchase and plant in the spring or early summer. At the end of the growing season you’ll have to dig this plant up and throw it in your compost pile. It will not come back next year for you, even if you leave it in the ground.
Annuals are great to fill in your garden because most annual plants bloom longer and more prolifically than a lot of perennial plants and flowers.
Some annuals are even “self-sowing” — which is something to be aware of. These are technically annual plants but they produce seed before they die and the seeds drop and create new plants in your garden next spring. This can be great or it can be really troublesome, depending on your situation.
Read my article on self-sowing annuals for beginners to learn more about it!
“Perennial” and “Annual” is dependent upon your gardening zone
Another interesting thing about annual plants is that a plant may be grown as an annual plant where I live, while considered a perennial where you live. Again, it goes back to gardening zones. The correct term for this is “tender perennial” but it basically means that the plant will not survive the cold temperatures in a particular climate.
So how can this happen? Well I live in northeastern Pennsylvania and I garden in Zone 6. It gets pretty cold here in the winter and the cold winter may actually kill a plant that can’t take that cold weather. But if you live in a warmer climate like Zone 8 or 9 it’s possible that a plant that would not survive the winter here where I live actually would survive winter where you live.
That’s another reason why gardening zones are so important. The zonal range will tell you whether a certain plant or flower can survive the coldest winter temperatures where you live. If you are in Zone 5 and purchase a perennial that is hardy in Zones 6-9, there’s a very high chance it will die in the winter and not come back for you.
What are Biennial Plants?
Biennial is another category of plants that you should be aware of. However, biennials are much less common than perennials or annuals. Biennial plants will come back every OTHER year. So, it will grow the year you plant it, then the next year it won’t grow, but it will come back the year after that. They are tricky little buggers and I always forget that I planted them! it’s best to just focus on perennials and annuals for now since you’re new to gardening.
3- You can’t grow plants without sun… and they all need different amounts.
Another thing I really wish I knew when I started gardening is that different plants require different amounts of sunlight per day. So, if you have a sunny garden you’ll have to choose plants that thrive in the sun. If your garden is a little shady or really shady you’ll have to choose much different plants. Note that different areas of your yard may receive different amounts of sunlight each day!
You can’t mix shade plants with plants that grow in full sun. If it’s too sunny, the shade loving plants will struggle. And visa versa.
So, just watch the sun in that particular area (for a full day) and try to determine how many hours of sun the area gets. You’ll quickly realize that the sun gets blocked by lots of things like large trees, your house, the neighbors house, etc.
- Full Sun: the area gets at 6 hours or more of sun each day.
- Part Sun: some people divide part sun and part shade into different categories but I like to keep it simple. So, any area that gets between 3-6 hours of sun in a day is considered “Part Sun”.
- Shade: If the area gets 3 hours or less of sun each day.
Once you know how much sun or shade the planting area gets, you’ll be able to narrow down your plant choices!
4- Pick plants based on your soil contents… don’t modify your soil to suit your plants.
Different areas and regions of the world have different soil contents. Your soil could be very sandy, be very rocky, have a high clay content, or a combination of all of the above.
And, there’s different plants that will grow and thrive in the soil conditions that you have. And, these “ideal” plants are the ones that were looking for because we want to keep things easy on ourselves and we don’t want to have to struggle. So it’s always a good idea to learn about the type of soil that you have.
You can purchase a soil test kit online and it’s very easy to do. Some test kits allow you to test the soil right at home (like this one).
There are also test kits where you provide a sample of your soil and then mail the kit out to the lab (like this one). It’s pretty similar to using those DNA test kits to figure out where your family is from! Also, a lot of local gardening extensions will also perform a comprehensive soil test for you for free or a small fee.
Don’t over complicate this. Even if you don’t want to test your soil right now, you can still get an idea about its contents today. Just take a shovel and dig into your soil (told you it was easy). Grab a handful of the dirt that’s a few inches down and rub it in your hands. You can learn a lot from doing this!
- Very sandy, grainy soil will drain well. So, plants that need good drainage (like lavender) will grow well here. But plants that need a lot of water (like hosta) will probably not do well in your soil unless you’re willing to water it often.
- If you the soil clumps in your hand and makes a big sticky ball, it likely has a lot of clay content and won’t drain very well. So, plants that like good drainage, like lavender, won’t grow well here. But, plants that can handle having their roots a little wet, like hostas, will thrive!
These are the types of things that you’re looking for when you “test” your soil.
And, it is true that you can “amend” your soil in order to grow certain plants. But I’ve honestly found this to be more trouble than it’s worth. It’s better to choose plants that are already suited for your conditions unless you want to pick a fight with mother nature. So, learn more about your soil contents so you can pick your plants accordingly.
Right plant, right place is the motto here.
Quick Tip: You may like my favorite soiil improvement tips article that goes into a whole lot more detail about the importance of soil. !
5- Simple math will help you to space your plants properly.
I think the biggest issue for me when I was new, was figuring out the spacing of my plants. It seemed impossible to me that a tiny little plant I purchased at the nursery could possibly grow to 8-12 feet high and wide. What I see so often is new gardeners planting monster shrubs like this about 1 foot from the foundation of their home and way too close together.
And I’m not trying to embarrass or discourage any new gardeners, here. I made these same mistakes when I was a beginner and it cost me years and lots of money because I had to remove so many things.
It’s definitely worth reading the plant tag and doing some research on the particular shrub you’re looking at before doing so.
Here’s a post I saw in a gardening group recently that it very typical.
My concern with this planting is that even if these are dwarf hydrangeas that only get to be 3-4′ high and wide, they are still incredibly close to the foundation of the home. And, most of the non-dwarf common varieties can reach anywhere from 6-12′ high and wide. If that’s the case, these shrubs have the potential to affect the home’s foundation. And, they will definitely grow over the window and block out natural light from the home. So it’s something to take into consideration for sure.
So, how to do you space out the plants correctly?
If you have a shrub that will grow 4′ high and 5′ wide according to the plant label, but you plant from the trunk or center of the plant, you would really only need a 2.5′ circle around the entire shrub because the radius is 2.5′. When it comes to a foundation planting, I would definitely add another 1-2′ if I had the space to do so. So, the shrub’s trunk would be planted approximately 3.5-4.5′ from the home, with a minimum of 2.5′ around it on all other sides. Just try to picture the shrub at full size and draw a line in the dirt to mark that off.
Here is a guide for how to space 4’H x 5’W shrubs along a 25′ foundation.
As a minimum, you would want at least 1′ of open space between the full sized plant and the foundation. From shrub to shrub, you’d want a minimum of 5′ from trunk to trunk when planting. Here, the shrub foliage would touch the plant next to it, but would not become so overcrowded that the shrubs would suffer.
In an ideal world, we would make our beds larger and plant even further from the foundation, leaving about 2′ of space between the full grown shrub and the foundation. This would mean planting the center of the shrub 4.5′ from the foundation. Spacing 5′ shrubs 6′ apart from trunk to trunk will allow them to grow to full size without touching one another.
And, if you’ve planted too close together or too close to your foundation, you can always move your shrubs and other plants. But, it’s much easier to do this while they are still young and the weather is cooler to reduce the risk of shock/losing your shrubs.
6- You need to water, feed and shelter your plants (just like babies).
It’s really no secret that plants need water to survive. Most of us know this, right? But, exactly how much water do they need? A good rule of thumb is to water your plants and flowers regularly when you first plant them, for at least a few weeks. If they are larger trees or shrubs you’ll want to consistently water for at least the first year. Once your plants are established, most need about 1” of water each week… and this amount includes the amount of water from the rain, too.
So how do you know how many inches of water you’ve received? It’s simple — a rain gauge! They are very inexpensive (buy on Amazon). And, if you empty it out once a week, you’ll always know how much water your plants received. If it’s less than 1” of water, you’ll have to supplement the watering the garden hose. Otherwise, mother nature did the work for you.
Calculating Watering Time
So how do you know how much water is 1″ of water? Great question! A nifty trick is to use an empty 1″ can (like from tuna fish or cat food). Place the empty can next to the plant you need to water. Set a timer and begin watering using the hose or your watering can. When the can fills up, stop your timer. You now know how long it takes to provide 1″ of water using whatever method of watering you prefer.
Feed your plants
When you put a plant in the ground, especially if it’s a flower with ongoing blooms, it’s going to need to be fed. Plants feed themselves through a process called photosynthesis. In basic terms the plant absorbs the suns light through the leaves and turns it into food. This is why it’s so important that your plant gets the right amount of sun. But when a plant is flowering or blooming, it uses a lot of that energy. The best way to keep the plant going is to feed it!
Types of plant food/fertilizer
There are many different types of plant food you can try… many are specific to the plant (like rose food or fruit and citrus plant food). There are also general fertilizers that you can use on most of your plants. I like Espoma’s Plant Tone (buy on Amazon) for an all-around good general fertilizer. Compost is also a great option. Plus you can make it yourself with kitchen and yard scraps or purchase a few bags at a very reasonable price. Providing this extra food to your plant will give it the energy and strength it needs to be super pretty for you. So… be sure to nurture it.
How much to feed?
Wondering how much food your plant needs? Most fertilizers will give you instructions right on the package so always follow the instructions, there. For compost, a 1-2″ layer around your plants each spring will work. Even if you just work a little bit into the soil each spring it’s better than nothing.
Quick tip: If you want to learn more about caring for your plants, check out my article, How to make a flower bloom more (and longer).
Sheltering your plants
You may also need to provide shelter for your plants. Many beginners don’t think about this. But plants don’t have feet or legs. Wherever you plant them, they must stay and they can’t escape that area. So, there are times when plants may need some kind of protection.
Wait for the right time to plant
First things first DO NOT PLANT until the last frost date of the year in your region. Even if you are planting perennials that are suited to handle cold winter conditions, you need to wait. As your plant matures it will be able to handle more severe temperatures, but when it’s tiny and new, a frosty night is enough to kill it.
The Farmers Almanac website has a handy frost date tool that will tell you the approximate date of the year that you can expect to have overnight frost where you live. So, now you won’t plant too early!
When the plant is on the “edge” of your gardening zone, it may require some extra protection. If you choose a plant, shrub or tree that’s on the edge of your gardening zone (i.e. if you are zone 6 and the plant is hardy in zones 6-9), I refer to it as a “delicate” plant.
So, if you want to risk planting something that’s not quite suited for your conditions, you may need to provide a little extra TLC. Sometimes, enough shelter and protection can be achieved by planting it in a protected area — like near the house or where it’s not completely exposed to the cold and wind. In other cases, you may have to cover delicate plants when the temperatures are extreme (see below).
Shelter from extreme temperatures
Even if you’ve waited until after the last expected frost date, sometimes Mother Nature can be unpredictable. If you’re expecting unseasonably cold temperatures (like an overnight frost), you may need to cover your delicate and newly planted friends to keep them warm and safe.
You can purchase plant frost protection cloth (buy on Amazon) to cover your plants in the frosty weather. Other things work too, like creating a tent with a stick or stake and draping a blanket, sheet or even some burlap over the plant for the night. Just make sure you cover your plant before it gets cold so that you trap some of the heat from the day into its cover.
Putting your first plant into the ground: planting basics
So by now you’ve probably chosen a plant and you want to actually plant in your landscape. But I bet you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, nervous, anxious… wondering if you’re doing it correctly.
Well, you’re in luck because if you’ve followed everything in this post then you are going to be just fine.
And I also have another post that you can read that will walk you step-by-step through planting your first plant into the ground. You can follow these instructions whether you are starting a completely new garden bed or just planting your plant into an established garden bed.
Planting is not permanent; so don’t stress
Lastly, I want to point out that this does not have to be permanent. So if you are worried about making a mistake, it’s best to plant your plant now instead of leaving it in its plastic plant pot from the store. Choose a location for your plant and get it planted in the ground as fast as possible.
If you don’t like how it looks, you can always dig it up and transplant it later (in the spring or fall is the best time). You can move most of your plants… even if they’ve been in the same location for years.
But, if you’re planting larger shrubs or trees you should try to site them correctly the first time… they can be a bit more difficult to move later (although it can be done).
So, don’t get nervous. Just pick a spot, plant it and see how it goes.
I think we’ve successfully covered a lot of important things for beginner gardeners. We learned about gardening zones, some plant terminology, the importance of soil, tricks for spacing out plants and even how to feed, water, shelter and plant your plants.
So, what is your favorite gardening tip? You know… that thing you wish you knew before you got started gardening? I’d love to hear from you!
If you liked this article and this is all new to you, you may want to check out my free gardening video training. I’ll teach you some of my big gardening “secrets” so you don’t make the same mistakes that I did! I’ll see you over there!
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