Fear of gardening?

Fear of gardening?

The Emily Post House in Edgartown has an old-fashioned cottage garden. — Photo by Alison Shaw

Gardening is easy. For gardeners. For the rest of us — a plot overflowing with flowers, or a bed full of tomatoes come summer  (or, let’s face it — even a few shrubs around the foundation) is, well, like some far-off dream. And the longer we go garden-free, the more anxious and insecure we become. Where do you start if your thumbs aren’t green? We invite gardening questions, large or small at onisland@mvtimes.com. Our gardening columnist, Abigail Higgins, will do her best to answer. Happy tomatoes…

Dear Abigail,

I have a great old cottage on Farm Pond, across from Hart Haven. I’ve done lots of work on it over the years, and am quite proud of it, except for one thing: the only “garden” I have is one that came with the house, a patch of daylilies that bloom in a tangled mess, with a single annual poppy in the middle. Other than that, no hedges, no veggies, no flowers. My house looks naked.

The problem, as you might have guessed, is that I’m an idiot when it comes to gardening. Not only do I not know what to do to get a garden started, I swear that plants die just being near me.

So, here’s my question: How could I begin to garden this spring? I’d love a small vegetable patch, some flowers or plantings around part of the house, and maybe a small additional flower garden.

My house gets sun all day in certain areas, but it is whipped by breezes and sea air much of the time as well.

What’s an idiot-proof way to start a garden, and then keep it growing?

Thank you!

Fear of Gardening, Oak Bluffs

Dear Fear of Gardening,

Luckily for you, gardening is one of the few activities where everyone starts out at the same level. No one was born knowing how to garden, and, as with many things, our mistakes are often our best teachers.

If I were you, I would first ask myself what kind of garden I want. Flowerbeds with colorful perennials? Cutting garden of annuals to provide flowers for the house? Mixed flowers and vegetables: the old-fashioned “cottage garden”? Curbside garden for public enjoyment, or screening garden to provide privacy in a built-up neighborhood? Are rabbits going to become a problem?

Then, visit the library to look at garden books liberally illustrated with color photographs, to see what takes your eye. Keep in mind that as a novice a small garden is more manageable and initially better; you can always expand.

The next step is to locate the garden site on your lot to take a soil sample, once you have clarified what kind of garden you would like. A colorful flowerbed, vegetables, or cutting garden requires all the sunlight you can provide. Site accordingly.

Take the soil sample according to directions on the web site soiltest.umass.edu, and send in to the UMass Soil Testing lab ASAP noting how you intend to use the garden.

Depending upon the results of your soil test, prepare and amend the soil as suggested in a shape that pleases you. Beds sited next to buildings may receive shelter from wind; they are often rectilinear and angular. Free-standing islands may be more exposed, but freeform and flowing shapes suit them. Consider lattice panels to provide windbreaks.

Or, build a raised bed right on top of the existing soil level, using the best topsoil/compost you can obtain. (Quality topsoil and composts may be accompanied by a soil analysis, analogous to a soil test.) If possible, lay down a base layer of manure, but not so that roots come into contact with it. Raised beds may be contained by structures of wood or masonry, or created by building up the soil to a bed with sloping sides as high as you want it. These are likely to be rectangular. Again, keep size in mind: expect the plant cost to be at least $20/per square foot, and quality topsoil upwards of $60/yd. Anything you start yourself is usually more economical however.

Perennial plants come back each year, such as daylilies and phlox. The existing daylilies may be mowed or clipped down next fall and covered with mulch (if they are not up too high they can be mulched this season, making a neat outline). The following year the “tangled mess” will be neater and you could add other perennials to it. Annual plants grow and die all in one season, such as zinnias and cosmos, leaving the bed able to be totally cleared out in the fall. If perennials and annuals are mixed together it is called a mixed bed. Choose what you like; some will undoubtedly displease you eventually, but this cannot be planned for. Gardening friends will inevitably have divisions of their own perennials to share with you. Accept all gratefully, but remember to ask if it spreads!

Tools good to have include a comfortable, sturdy trowel; secateurs (garden clippers) for pruning/dead-heading; a narrow shovel or spade — long-handled is best for avoid back-stress — for digging in close quarters; a spading fork; and a collapsible rake, for raking out wide/tight spots. A ball of twine and a sleeve of bamboo stakes may become useful eventually for staking plants. Nice to have are a claw and stirrup hoe for cultivating and weeding. A trash barrel can serve as a receptacle for debris, which may be composted in a pile in a concealed spot. Compost pile surrounds may be made from five shipping pallets (free at several places) lashed together with wire or baling twine: one to form the base, and four to create the four walls.

Happy gardening!