Lessons Learned in My Garden

As I reflect on the New Year, I realize I have been gardening in some capacity for over 25 years! Here are a few lessons I have learned (mostly through trial and error …and killing a lot of plants), and a few tips to make gardening easier and more fun in 2021.

Plant for practicality

Most gardeners cannot resist adding a new plant (or two or three) to the garden. But before long, what started out as a few innocent additions turns into a massive maintenance headache. I have had to do major cuts in my garden over the years to better suit my schedule, my age and my ability or willingness to maintain. Plants that are fussy or take too much maintenance—gone! I have downsized to a few garden beds and added more shrubs. I grow a few herbs and vegetables in pots on my back deck. Don’t be afraid to edit your garden. I want to enjoy my garden, not be enslaved to its upkeep. Even if you decide to simplify or downsize your garden, you can still grow vegetables or herbs in containers on your back deck.

Plant for our southern environment

One of the easiest ways to garden in the South is in raised beds—frames that sit on top of the soil and are filled with a mixture of native clay soil, top soil, potting mix (a soilless mix of peat moss, vermiculite and perlite) and compost. I have two raised beds in my shade garden, so I don’t have to dig around large tree roots. In these beds, I grow hydrangeas, camellias, fern, and hellebores. I just add a top dressing of compost each year to the beds and my plants are thriving. Raised beds are a wonderful solution for vegetable gardening as well.

Happy plants are “hardy” plants in our Southern environment. We are in hardiness zones 7b/8a. Read the plant tag when you buy a new plant. Plant tags will give you a plethora of information on hardiness zones, sun/shade requirements, spacing, and if a plant is drought tolerant or deer resistant. Do a search online to learn more on planting and maintaining your new purchase.

It’s all about the dirt!

It really is all about the dirt! When I think of gardening in the South, I think first of the challenges of planting in clay soil. While it contains high amounts of soil nutrients, clay compacts easily, making it tough to dig, and retains water, making it tough to drain. Amending your garden beds with compost and other organic matter will make it easier to dig and for plants to take up soil nutrients.

One of the best things you can do to enhance your garden soil is to start a compost bin. Add organic materials such as chopped leaves, grass and small twigs, and you will create your own “black gold” for your garden beds! This two-bin system allows you to turn the pile occasionally for faster results.

Plant for your personality

Share your personal style and family history in your garden by adding vintage pieces like this rusted wheelbarrow, used as a container for ferns. Be practical, but also have fun and express your unique personality. Want to grow the biggest tomato, create a fairy garden, collect gnomes, or grow prize-winning roses? Then find a place in your garden for these endeavors. Take a few risks—experiment with propagating your own plants or start your own beehive! Don’t be afraid to kill a few plants along the way as you experiment.

I love to visit gardens where the homeowners have stamped their own personal style on their outside space. In my garden sits an old, rusted Franklin stove, filled with autumn ferns, that my grandparents used to warm the sun porch of their farmhouse back in the day. A portion of our wooden fence is lined with vintage tools from the farm where my husband grew up. These pieces remind us of the people we love and of our history. Make sure there is something in your garden that you treasure, that holds sweet memories, and that makes you smile!

Plant for wildlife

Provide a place for wildlife and your garden will come alive! Birds, bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects are crucial to a healthy garden and provide entertainment and joy all year. You can encourage wildlife by providing food, cover, water, and space to raise young.

Native plants are important to our native wildlife species and offer the best food sources—nuts, berries, grasses, and seeds. Large trees provide protection and places to raise young, and simple water features like birdbaths and fountains offer a water source. Plant a pollinator garden and watch the butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds flock to your space. Add bird feeders and a water source and you may be visited by the stunning red-breasted grosbeak and other colorful birds. Plant a native oak tree (Quercus), which according to research, supports the needs of more wildlife than any other tree.

Plant for Seasonal Interest

Your garden needs to inspire you year-round. Sure azaleas and dogwoods are spectacular in the spring, but what about the rest of the year? Many of us neglect the winter months in the garden, yet it is during these long, cold weeks that we most need some beauty and inspiration. There are several plants that bloom in the winter or offer interesting foliage or structure. Think about adding winter jasmine, hellebores (Lenten rose), American holly, or early spring bulbs.

Make a design plan for each season that ensures your garden will be alive with beauty all year. Use containers where you need a pop of color and add focal points like garden statues outside your windows for added interest.