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9 tips for gardening beginners from a former plant killer


I used to kill plants regularly. I would joke that plants in nurseries cowered in fear when I walked by, hoping they wouldn’t be chosen to come home with me. When I became interested in plants, I despaired of ever having a lush, beautiful garden. I got there, though, eventually, and you can, too. Here are some tips for beginner gardeners, so you can stack the deck in your favor, and maybe have a shorter journey to a great garden.

1. Don’t worry if you aren’t great with houseplants. I think it’s easier to start gardening with plants that are in larger pots and outside, or just planted in the soil. Plants just weren’t meant to live indoors, and our climate makes it hard for them to survive, particularly since indoor plants are usually from shady, humid environments. Containers, too, make it more difficult for plants to survive.

2. Start with native plants or at least drought-tolerant ones. Again, just because you kill houseplants doesn’t mean you won’t have success with other plants. Native and drought-tolerant plants can handle our climate, and will be easiest for beginners. You can always move on to exotic plants like roses or irises after you’ve got some gardening experience.

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3. Set up your irrigation or other water supply before you plant. This is critical in our region. It only takes one day of forgetting to hand-water your new plants and then you have a yard full of withered sticks. If you’re new to gardening, you won’t necessarily have those ingrained habits of checking on your new friends daily, and you may not be able to accurately recognize water-stressed plants. It’s easiest to set up an irrigation system so you are less likely to lose plants to lack of water.

4. Check your soil before you plant. Maybe you have great soil, or maybe not. There’s only one way to find out: check out this graphical guide to doing a quick, free at-home soil test. Don’t forget to check how well your soil drains, too. Soil with poor drainage or poor nutrition is a recipe for dead plants. 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 the incorporation of that matter. You can also add plants that are very tolerant of poor soil conditions. These will slowly improve the soil for you, by shedding organic matter, breaking up compacted soil, shading the soil, and helping retain water in your landscape. Many of our native plants are great at doing this, particularly our native mesquite and palo verde trees.

5. Observe your yard every day, even if it’s for a few minutes at a time. It’s great if you can get out there a few times per day. Notice where the sun falls and where there’s shade, if you have any critters coming through, and the like. You’ll be surprised at how much information you can pick up just from sitting down for a few minutes and looking around with some attention. Even within one garden there can be several microclimates, and learning about them can inform your planting decisions and set you up for success.

6. While you’re observing your yard, make a habit of checking your plants every day. Not only does that let you unwind in your garden, it’s also an opportunity to start learning about your plants. You begin to notice when they look happy and well-watered, or stressed due to drought or poor nutrition. You also have a chance to observe whether they are in the right place — are they getting too much sun or wind? Too little? Do they have enough room to grow? Don’t be afraid to move plants that aren’t doing well.

7. Seek out information about gardening in our area. Your best information will be other gardeners, and particularly the Pima County Master Gardeners. They have great resources, including their many helpful free online lectures, which they have multiple times a month on various gardening topics. If they don’t have an answer to your dilemma, they will help you find one. Most importantly, they are trained to look for science-based, accurate answers. You can also check out some books on local gardening, and talk to folks at native plant nurseries like Desert Survivors and Spadefoot Nursery. And, if you’re not already subscribed to the Tucson Garden Guide, sign up!

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

9. Above all, don’t be too hard on yourself. Gardening is not a hobby well-suited to perfectionist attitudes. You will make mistakes, sometimes large and potentially expensive ones. You will plant things in the wrong place, or have an irrigation failure and lose a bunch of plants. You will find out you hate that shrub you put in and watered at great expense. Even lifelong ultra green-thumb gardeners have these issues, so you’re not alone. Just accept that these are all part of the journey and that you learn something from each setback, including how to be less of a perfectionist.

For more gardening information and articles on gardening in the Tucson area, subscribe to the free Tucson Garden Guide newsletter!

Do you have any gardening topics you’d like to see covered in the Tucson Garden Guide? Email me at [email protected] with your suggestions and questions. Thanks for reading!

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