7 Tips for Beginning Flower Gardeners

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Thomas Jefferson was one of our country’s most ardent and knowledgeable gardeners. In addition to writing the Declaration of Independence, serving as a governor, senator, diplomat and the third president of the United States, he tended a 1000 ft long garden in Virginia that was packed with vegetables, fruit and flowers. Jefferson gardened his entire life, yet at 68 years old, this brilliant and incredibly accomplished man said that when it came to gardening “…but though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”

Jefferson knew firsthand that gardening is a life-long adventure: part art, part science and part mystery.  It doesn’t matter where or when you begin. The key is to jump in and get started. If you are new to flower gardening, here are seven timeless tips that will help you get off to a great start.

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Thomas Jefferson’s garden at Monticello in Charlottesville, VA. Photo courtesy of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.

CHOOSE A GOOD LOCATION

Flowering plants use sunlight to produce the energy they need to make flowers. In most cases, more sun means more blossoms, so the best place for a flower garden is one that gets at least 6 hours of sun per day.

Once you have identified a location, watch how the sun hits that area over the course of the day. Is it shaded by trees or a nearby fence or building? Also keep in mind that the angle of the sun changes over the course of the summer and is at its highest in late June.

Soil is the next important factor. Great garden soil is usually made, not found. Over time, you can improve poor soil by adding compost and other organic matter. But there’s one problem that can’t be overcome: bad drainage. In well-drained soil, it’s easy for water to percolate down to the roots. In poorly drained soil, water collects near the surface and can suffocate plant roots. Make sure you don’t choose a planting area with soggy soil.

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It’s very easy to get excited about your first garden, but try not to make it bigger than you can manage.  The best way to be a successful newby is to start relatively small. Your garden will look better and grow better if you can stay on top of weeding, watering and deadheading. You’ll be surprised how many flowers you can grow in a 3’ x 6’ garden.

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TAKE TIME TO PREPARE THE SOIL

Fall is the ideal time to prepare a new garden area, but you can also do it in the spring. In spring, wait until the soil is dry enough to crumble in your hands. Working soil that’s too wet can leave you with hard clumps that are difficult to break apart.

Begin by removing sod, weeds and large stones. Take time to carefully remove all grass and weeds. Starting with a weedless garden will save many hours of work down the road. Use a shovel or garden fork to loosen the soil in the planting area, digging down a minimum of 10 to 12”. Spread 2 to 4” of compost over the entire area, (the more the better) and mix it into the top 6”. This is also a good time to incorporate an organic, all-purpose granular fertilizer, following the application rates on the package. Rake the area smooth, stepping on the prepared soil as little as possible.

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START WITH EASY PLANTS

When you are a beginning flower gardener, it’s tempting to plant a little bit of everything. But using some restraint will give you a garden that’s far more satisfying because it looks neater and more pulled together. Stick with 6 or 10 types of plants that represent different heights (short, medium and tall) and different bloom times (early, mid and late summer).

For a flower garden that’s colorful from spring to fall, include a mix of perennials, annuals and bulbs. Most perennials bloom at a specific time during the season (iris, peonies, mums), while most annuals (zinnias, petunias) flower continuously from early summer to fall. Some bulbs flower only in spring (tulips, daffodils) and others bloom from summer through fall (dahlias). For ideas, check out our Bloom Time Chart for Spring and Summer Bulbs.

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Perennials for beginners: lamb’s ears, rudbeckia, echinacea, daylilies, sedum, peonies, astilbe, hosta.

Annuals for beginners: zinnias, petunias, alyssum, cosmos, coleus, marigolds, nasturtiums, sunflowers.

Bulbs for beginners: daffodils, tulips, muscari, alliums, dahlias, cannas, liatris.

Once you have your plant list, sketch out a simple planting map, indicating approximately where the various plants will be located. Position taller plants in back and shorter ones in front.

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PLANT WITH CARE

Transplanting is stressful on plants, especially if it’s sunny, windy or hot. For best results, plant on a cloudy or rainy day. If that’s not possible, plant at the end of the day, when the wind is calm and your plants will have a cool night to settle in.

Bring your planting map out to the garden and position your plants, making adjustments as needed. Once the plants are in their proper places, dig a hole for each one. Gently ease potted plants out of their pots and set them into the center of the planting hole. If necessary, mound up the soil so the plant sits at the same level in the garden as it did in the pot. If you are planting bare root plants or bulbs, follow instructions on the package to get the correct planting depth.

Refill the hole and use your fingertips to very gently press soil the around the roots. Then water slowly and deeply so moisture reaches all the way down into the root zone and also fill any gaps in the soil.

After transplanting, plants need a month or so to grow the new “feeder” roots for absorbing water and nutrients. During this time, you’ll need to water consistently so the roots don’t dry out.

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KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT

You will see that most perennials flower at a certain time during the growing season. Lupines and peonies, for example, bloom in early summer. Asters and ornamental grasses bloom in late summer. This is why it’s good to choose perennials with different bloom times.

Expect newly planted perennials to take at least one full year to settle in. Some, like peonies and clematis, require 2 or 3 years to mature. Bare root perennials take a bit longer to fill out than potted plants but they usually catch up by the end of the first growing season.

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Annuals and summer-blooming bulbs grow quickly and will make your garden look full while the perennials are getting established. Annuals that are grown from seed or from transplants, usually start blooming in early summer and continue until late summer – as long as you keep them watered and fertilized, and deadhead often to remove spent flowers. Most summer-blooming bulbs such as dahlias, cannas and gladiolus are planted in spring and treated as annuals, with new bulbs planted each spring.

Spring-blooming flower bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and alliums, are planted in fall and flower only in spring. Some of these bulbs (daffodils, crocus) will return year after year. Treat others (tulips, hyacinths) as annuals and replant fresh bulbs each fall.

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SPEND TIME IN YOUR GARDEN EVERY DAY

During the first growing season, try to spend as much time in your garden as you can. Focus on keeping your plants healthy and observing how they grow. This is the part of gardening that you can’t learn from a book!

Watering. An established perennial garden rarely needs watering, especially if you choose plants that are well suited to your climate. But during the first growing season, you will need to make sure your plants don’t dry out. Depending on the weather, you may need to water as often as once or twice a week.

Weeding. The first year of a new garden is the weediest. Turning the soil brings dormant weed seeds up to the surface where they can germinate. Try to weed your garden a little bit every few days throughout the summer and early fall. Preventing new weeds from going to seed will reduce your weeding chores in future years.

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Mulching. Keeping the soil surface covered with leaf mold, compost or shredded leaves will discourage new weeds from germinating and make weeds that do appear, easier to pull out. In flower gardens, it’s generally good to avoid using bark chips or shredded bark. As these materials break down, the available soil nutrients actually decrease.

Fertilizing. Feed annuals monthly with a dose of liquid, all-purpose fertilizer. Use the same liquid fertilizer on perennials, feeding them twice during their first summer, a month after planting and then again in early July. In future years, fertilize perennials just once in early spring, with a combination of compost and granular all-purpose fertilizer.

Deadheading. A flowering plant’s purpose is reproduction and once it has successfully set seed, it produces fewer flowers and eventually stops blooming altogether. But, if you remove the flowers right after they wilt and before they set seed, you can encourage the plant to continue producing new flowers. This doesn’t work for all plants, but it does work for most annuals, some perennials and some bulbs. Cutting plants back after they bloom will also keep your garden looking neater and help to discourage disease and pest problems.

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THINK AHEAD TO NEXT YEAR

Late summer is a good time to take stock of what happened and make notes for next year. After a long winter, it’s difficult to think back and remember which plants did well, which plants failed, and even where some plants are located. This is also a good time to relocate perennials that wound up being too tall, too short, too crowded, or just in the wrong place.

As the weather cools down, you can start tidying up your garden. Though this job is not essential, it will minimize disease problems and keep the area looking neat during the winter months. Wait until the annuals and tender perennials have withered and then pull out the entire plant. When hardy perennials turn yellow or brown, you can cut them back to a height of 2 to 3”. Exceptions include ornamental grasses, which are attractive in late fall, some perennials (like tree peonies) and flowers with seed heads that attract birds (echinacea, rudbeckia).

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Fall is also the time to plant spring-blooming bulbs such as daffodils, tulips and alliums. Planting can begin in early October and continue right through November.

To learn more, read: How to Prepare Soil for Planting, How and Why to Fertilize Your Plants, Fall Checklist for Flower Gardens, and 6 Tips for a More Colorful Flower Garden.