learning to garden | tips for beginners like me

Marian ParsonsDecorating, My House, Tips and Tricks36 Comments

Let me start off by saying that I have never been a gardener.  I would look with envy at beautiful yards, edged, green, blossoming, arranged in wild perfection.  I never “got” gardening.  It was too unpredictable and high maintenance and required too much patience for me.

When you drove up to our house, it was pretty evident that we were “inside people” and I always felt like I needed to preface our house with, “just wait until you get inside…”  When we put our house on the market last year, our realtor felt the same way.  She put out an “I’m Beautiful Inside” sign in the yard.  That’s realtor speak for, “It’s gets better once you walk through the front door.  Don’t pay attention to the pathetic attempt at flower boxes, the overgrown bushes and the bald spots in the grass.”

As we’re nearing the completion of the inside of the house, though, and as the boys are getting older and enjoy playing in the yard more, I have found I want to spruce up that space.  I want the outside of our home to be a better representation of the inside.  I think also raising babies into boys has helped develop the nurturing side of me, which, as the fiercely independent sort, didn’t come naturally.  I’ve always been annoyed with watering and weeding and anything that needed to be done over and over again, but now I’m finding rewards in it.  I’m even fertilizing, dead-heading and trying to troubleshoot diseases and pests, which are huge strides for me!

So, I decided to get a few more plants for the inside of the house.  I haven’t had live plants in my house for years.  YEARS!  I’ve gone to preserved boxwood, since it’s real and green, but it requires no maintenance.  Well, my house is about preserved-boxwooded-out and, while I still love it, I’m trying to go a little more diverse with my greenery.

I bought some French lavender topiaries to flank the kitchen sink…


….some moss for the kitchen counter…


…ivy for the living room…


…and myrtle topiaries for the dining room table.


Everyone is still alive and green and even growing, so I am ready for more.

I ran some errands on Friday and decided to look for some plants as well.  I bought a snowball (viburnum) bush and some herbs for the outside and some irish moss, thyme and a fern for the inside.


I did a little reading on Irish moss and it is meant to grow outside, but can live inside for a period of time.  A set of six was only a few dollars, so I figured I would give it a try and move them outside if they start looking sickly.

I planted three in this ironstone footed bowl.  Since it doesn’t have drainage, I lined the bottom with rocks and then potting soil.


I bunched the plants in together and then filled in the gaps with more potting soil.


We’ll see how long it lasts, but I like the way it looks at the moment.

mms-7752 mms-7750

I also potted some thyme in an antique English clay pot and an ironstone pudding mold.  Another bit of Irish moss is tucked into an ironstone mug.

mms-7747 mms-7749

Here are a few tips for people like me, who are trying to be better with gardening and greenery…

  • Know that it is a commitment when you buy a plant.  It needs to be properly planted, watered, fed, pruned, etc., so it can thrive.  I can’t tell you how many times I have bought plants, totally ignored them and then laughed about how terrible I was at gardening.  It’s not that I was terrible at gardening.  I just totally neglected to meet the basic needs of the plants.
  • Keep the tags and make notes on what plants do well and which ones meet their demise.  This is helping me already, with learning the variety of plants I have, so I can research how to best care for them and make them thrive.  I’ve never even looked at the tags, so I most certainly planted something where it wouldn’t do well and then I’m starting over each year, because I have no idea what I’ve planted before.  Now, I actually know what dusty miller, petunias and alyssum are.
  • It’s okay if something doesn’t make it.  A few varieties of flowers in my window boxes didn’t do well, but others have done great.  I just replaced the ones that didn’t make it with another variety, to see how those do.  That’s why keeping the tags and taking notes is important.  Next year, I can buy only plants that did really well based on my notes from this year.
  • Gardening is a learned skill.  I always tell people that very thing with photography and decorating.  There are certainly people who have a natural design eye or can make anything grow, but decorating and photography and gardening are skills, not inherent talents.  They can be practiced and learned.  So, I’m making an effort to learn.
  • Talk to seasoned gardeners.  I’ve been asking people who seem to do well with plants for tips, what kind of flowers they like, etc. I’ve also looked around for tips online.  There’s a lot of great information out there!
  • Scope out the neighborhood.  Looking at what does well in your neighbor’s yards can pinpoint what will grow well for you.  I saw a beautiful snowball bush in my neighbor’s yard, so I looked it up, found what plant it was and then bought one.  Another neighbor has a gorgeous peony bush that’s producing dozens of blooms, so I’m planning to get one next year.

I’ll keep you posted on how my garden grows…

learning to garden | tips for beginners like me

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36 Comments on “learning to garden | tips for beginners like me”

  1. I’m not a gardener either, but I do know peonies. If you plant them from rhizomes, it can take 2-3 years before they’re established enough to bloom, so don’t get discouraged when you only get greenery the first couple years. Leave 2-3 feet between plants because they will get overcrowded once they’re big enough to bloom. If they start getting too thick in one place, they’re easily divided. Most important, be sure to cut the flowers for inside bouquets – the fragrance is heavenly 🙂

    1. I would buy a large potted Peony this year, and you may have flowers next year. Just don’t plant it too deep, or it will take years to bloom. Also, don’t fertilize Peonies, they thrive on neglect. Some of mine are 30+ years old and I have never fertilized them. They are huge and full of blooms.

  2. I’m SO with you! Gardening takes work!! It comes naturally to my mom but not to me. I just want to sit outside and relax or play with my boys, not get all sweaty and itchy pulling weeds and pruning bushes. But we moved to a house on 12 acres last year and there is PLENTY to take care of! I’m getting there too… house plants on the other hand, I love. I have over a dozen and they are easier to keep alive, in my opinion. 🙂 Good luck!!

  3. I, on the other hand, would prefer being outside in the garden to almost anything else. If you want to just sit inside and view some gardening, come on over and visit. 🙂 I will do the hot and dirty work and you can just enjoy.
    Totally agree that anyone can do it, if you enjoy it, it isn’t work at all. My garden is my Happy Place and all my stresses disappear when I am in the garden elbow deep in weeding, planting and maintaining.
    Of course, when I am done for the day I seriously need a big bathtub filled with hot water and some Epsom Salt.

    1. Pamela…no one believed i would enjoy gardening. Heaven forbid I might break a nail. But once the gardening bug bit I have found that I really love it. Great exercise and you are right about reducing stress. Now about that dirt under my fingernails…..

  4. I can relate to not being a gardener, Marian. Then, when we moved 2 years ago, the house that we bought had a completely overgrown backyard with all sorts of plants, including an old grapevine. Since we can’t afford to hire a landscaper, I had to “fight” the overgrowth myself. True, the early winter storm Atlas helped with part of that the first year, breaking quite a few trees and shrubs. I have been learning how to care for the grapevine myself over these past couple of years. I had enough grapes both years to make some grape jelly, and this year, I have pruned the vines all the way back in order to start growing the poor thing right, maybe for the very first time since it had been planted many years ago. I also planted a couple of raspberries and some everbearing strawberries last week, so we’ll see if we get some of our own berries next summer.

    By the way, I also inherited a bunch of peonies from the previous owner of our house. Don’t be afraid to get some for your yard. The only thing I do is deadhead them and then, come late fall, cut everything all the way down to the ground. They have been producing abundant blooms every year with no special care. The only problem with peonies is that you probably wouldn’t want to use them as cut flowers inside your house. Peony buds need help from ants to open into flowers, and once there are ants on the plant, there are spiders, too (spiders feed on ants). So, if you are bringing peony blooms inside, you have to be extra careful not to bring a bunch of ants and spiders in with them. 🙂

    1. My (late) Mom also advised planting them a distance from the house. The ants are further away, you can enjoy the flowers from a distance, and you are enticed to walk out to them to enjoy them up close.
      Mom also said Peonies tend to “pout” for a year or two when you first transplant them, be patient.

      Study your yard to find suitable spot for plants and for what you want to see of NOT see from your windows. Also be aware of leaf texture, the flowers last only so long the leaves are there longer. Choose various leaf shapes and colors for interest.
      When we get compliments my wife says it’s Rick’s mom helping us. Mom keeps whispering in my ear what to plant.


  5. Your plants look lovely. I think live greenery really make a house come alive. Great tips too. I think if you start out small and consult with your local nursery it will make the experience much more enjoyable. I did want to add one thing, planting directly into ironstone can damage the container. If this is a concern plant in another pot or plastic liner and place inside the ironstone. Years ago I had a really pretty crock damaged by the roots of the plant I planted directly in it. Keep us up to date on your gardening progress too.

  6. My children and I used to joke about how we are “inside people” too! My new apartment has a good size patio with a little earth too! Encouraged by my recent houseplant successes, I think I’ll try tomatoes in my “garden”. I love your choices for indoors- I may go looking for lavender topiaries myself!

  7. Bravo for stepping outside your comfort zone and experimenting with gardening! Like many beginning gardeners, I was attracted first to blooming plants, but alas, most blooms are of fairly short duration. Gradually, I became more intetestef in the foliage color and texture and realized these were much longer lasting than blooms, which can be changed easily and inexpensively by using annuals, as the seasons and ones desire for a new color scheme changes.
    Think of foliage as your staging backdrop . The wonderful and amazing variety of green shades is beautiful. Select some shrubs for your planting beds that are attractive and perhaps give more than one season interest with color or shape and use them as the exclamation marks to surround your other plantings. Good luck! You have an artist’s eye and I’m sure garden will be lovely.

    1. Annuals bloom for a longer period than perennials. Succession planting of perennials makes the flowering season last longer. I use a lot of nasturtiums to make a longer season. They will go until late in the summer and they cover bare and unlovely spots nicely. Good in garden or in pots.

    2. You are so right. The textures, colors and shapes are endless. Some repitition is great, but enjoy the different and unique.
      i love the varigated leaves and the endless shapes and colors of Coleus (annual) .
      I have great luck with planters of annuas placed in between my Hostas and shade plants. The planters can be moved if not getting right light or getting to big for space. In shady spots leaves with white or white flowers stand out and can be enjoyed longer, even dusk.

      have fun.

  8. Love your plant choices from a decorative viewpoint, but, from a horticultural viewpoint, most of them are out door plants and will not tolerate the low light of an indoor environment. Even the most brightly lit house is still dimmer than the shady parts of your yard to a plant. Those topiaries, in particular, will need to go out side if you want them to last for any amount of time.

  9. I would add that when planting outside, start just around the perimeter of your home, so you don’t get overwhelmed. Find out your USDA Planting Zone, then start to pay attention to where your yard is mostly shady and where it’s mostly sunny. Good (expensive) nurseries usually have some great people you can quiz for easy to grow, easy to maintain plants. It’s a wonderful feeling of accomplishment to look at your yard in mid-summer and know you had a hand in making it happen.

  10. In our last house we had 1/3 of a acre most of which was grass with unexciting borders around the edges…what you might call a typical english garden…my husband who is Canadian liked the idea of having land, but his idea of gardening was paving, adding a bit of gravel and then leaving it! He hates gardening! Although I love a really nice garden I am not much of a gardener myself…I prefer that wild colourful garden that attracts butterflies and other insects and doesn’t need any help/hindrance from me. I also have a problem with indoor plants because of course they do need water! The only plants that I can keep indoors are orchids…I can grow orchids like you would not believe, in fact they love me…probably because i don’t water them unless i remember…we now have a new house built on the side of a hill with gardens on both sides and a pool at the bottom so we are going for the terracing with lots of colour and we are hiring a gardener…cause if it were left up to me it would be brown weeds!

    1. Diane, had you been to England, you would not think your unexciting borders and lawn a
      “typical english garden.”
      Many of my english relations compete with the neighbors to have the best gardens and since most are small plots, it’t not all that much work– in the small space. And people in posh houses often open the gardens to tourists for a small charitable donation. (There is an active govt. program to encourage people to collect for charity by allowing self-guided tours of their gardens).

      I’d hire a gardener, too if i had the cash…..so most of mine is going back to lawn. Wouldn’t you know that the roses are doing splendidly this year with not a bit of spraying. And the veronica, iris, peonies, daisies, hostas and sweet william. With a mulch of pine needles, no labor at all. Not to mention the blueberries. But since i want to sell my place, there will be a lot of garden turned into lawn, lest i scare off the non-gareneners.

  11. We are moving shortly back into a house after 10+ years in a condo. While we had a garden area, it was not a yard. I can’t wait to have a real yard again!

    My “trick” has always been a garden notebook. I tape the plant markers on the pages, add drawings or photos and lots of comments. Each fall I would write a plan for the next year – what to add, projects, etc. it was always great to open it in February and start looking at seed catalogs and get planning!

  12. I’m so not a gardener either but I love plants. I have been successful with outdoors plants it is the inside plants that do not fair well with me. I found a potted lavender plant yesterday at Trader Joes. It looked so pretty when I went to bed last night. I got up this morning and it was all wilted I did take it outside and it is doing much better. I’m thinking the house was to cold. Would you please share where you found the lavender topiaries? I love lavender and the topiaries is different from anything I have seen. I would love to have one in hopes that it would live for me.

  13. Marian, you will succeed with gardening and growing houseplants. I just know you will, because that is the kind of girl you are! When you take on a new task and put your mind to it,you will learn to do it well. I hope that you will really enjoy working with plants. I have had houseplants for years and modest flower beds outside for years, but I am still devoted to learning more and succeeding more often. I love to look at gardening magazines for ideas and information, as well as books for more detailed articles. One of my favorite magazines is Mid-West Gardener which talks about the plants that are best for your particular planting zone. My guess is that your zone is different than mine which is 5 up here in Michigan. I don’t know your specific location in PA, but I know it is south of me, so you are probably in zone 4 which means you can grow more of the plants that can’t survive colder temperatures.

    Just in closing, I hope you learn to really love working/playing with plants. For me, it is a really important part of exercising my creativity and I know you are a “rather” creative person!

  14. It took me many years before I realized how to treat indoor plants. If a plant leaves are deep green, it needs more sun. If a plant is very light green, it needs to moved to a shadier spot. If a plant turns yellow on the leaves, you’ve over watered it (make sure your pots have enough drainage). See what kinds of light the plant needs. If it is indirect light, think about investing in a Venetian blind to partially block full sun. Find out where the morning sun is in your house, and put the plants there. Never put the plants where the evening sun is because it is too bright and it will burn your plants to death. I check the water everyday on my plants, but generally only water once every 3-4 days. Each plant is different so the key to successfully growing a plant is creating the right environment for the plant to thrive.

  15. I can remember a time when we joked that the Adams Family lives there (our house, with grass way too high). Now I am a master gardener, but all that means is I know where to go to find the information I need and have a few clues to get what I need. Right now, I only wish I had more knowledge on identifying the poisonous weeds. I am sitting here, wanting to scratch my eyeball out of its socket due to inflammation of some poison ivy, oak or sumac that I couldn’t identify that found its way to my eyelid and more. I even did a post on how I use poison ivy soap (yes, they make it, and you might want to get some!), washing my hands & gloves sometimes 2-3X in each outing. I guess I just didn’t properly id one, then wiped my brow, then only washed afterward, and the rest is my story. I end up with a shot and prednisone rollpak usually once a year. And the first time I ever got it was when I was 40.

    One thing’s for certain, gardening is an experiment, and it does feed the soul. When you’re out talking to neighbors, ask if they’ll be thinning out any of their plants, and you could end up with some free landscape plants, like hostas, black-eyed Susans, daisies, etc. for fall planting.

    Btw, I was hoping those little ironstone mugs (3 on that bottom wire rack you bought) would be up for sale and I could get my hands on them through your online shop. Seriously.

    Have a great week.

  16. You’re doing great! I love to garden and have a lot of plants in my home and in my yard. For inside, I love a Peace Lily….I don’t have a lot of light in several of my rooms, but a peace lily always does well for me. I just water them. I have to rotate my ivy to outside and only a brief few days to a week inside-spider mites-they will look like little spider webs. So you’re doing great with that ivy. I have a moss like yours ( in the kitchen), but mine is outside. It won’t be happy if I let it dry out. Try a pathos….they are not a bit fussy at all for another nice go-to plant for inside. They also come in variegated varieties.
    I love to plant in containers outside. We have a lot of red clay and it is unpleasant for gardening. You’re right about seeing what grows well in nearby yards (that’s what we did when we landscaped our yard). You might also look to see what is growing at the entrances to shopping centers and other stores. These plants don’t always receive the best attention, so they are usually hardy selections.
    My goal has been to plant bulbs and other plants (hostas, day lilies) that will come back each spring and summer. I’m planning for the future when I might not want to dig as much as I do now. Another popular showy plant for outside is a knock out rose. They bloom all summer and do well in the heat.
    I hope you’ll keep trying–you’re off to a great start!

  17. I have a lot of shade in my tiered garden. Weeds seem to have no problem growing there. I choose flowering plants that give me a certain color and now more varieties will bloom and bloom. I also noticed your salt and pepper shakers. I have the same ones from Pottery Barn. In fact I bought all the pieces from their vintage style collection.

  18. Marian- the secret to gardening success is to make your home’s outside reflect your style just as you’ve done inside and it will always make you happy. My planting beds are decorated with things I love in among the perennials (peonies, hydrangeas, rhodies, strawberries) like an old washer wringer, a galvanized chicken waterer, a buggy bench, an old window, a spinning wheel, etc. I buy things at estate auctions (never more than $10) and sometimes paint them. The dogwalkers in my neighborhood look forward to each season in my yard. Also, ask anyone whose garden you admire if they have perennials to be split or shared. I constantly give away daylilies n strawberries. Love helping new gardeners and young families save money. Have fun and add perennials and bulbs this fall…spring will make your heart sing.

  19. I am a decorator/designer, and over the years learned I like growing flowers I can cut and bring inside for fresh flowers all spring and summer. I have a snowball viburnum, too, and everyone asks about it! It’s spectacular to cut the branches and display in an unusual vintage container! I also grow green limelight hydrangeas, pale pink peonies, garden vintage roses, and lilacs. Each one is delightful indoors and most of them smell heavenly! Welcome to the next level of inside plant design!!
    P.S. Baby tears is my fav for putting in the ironstone.

  20. I’m definitely an outside person more than an inside one. I love working with plants and soil; I hate working with tools and wood unless I have to (which has been more than I like since we bought a fixer). I find it really exciting to see the transformation of our property over the years. Every year gets better (which I can’t really say with the inside as there always seems to be something that needs repair). I don’t do a lot of entertaining, so not a lot of people see the inside of my house, but many see the outside and I get many rewarding compliments. With my large family, the house never looks like a magazine spread, but my garden does! I’ve always had plants in the house too. The color green makes me happy! I do like painting furniture and decorating, but I don’t find it as relaxing as gardening.

  21. That is actually Spanish lavender. I’ve never liked it before (it’s common here) and I prefer the longer-stemmed French, English, and other varieties. Seeing it in your topiaries was the first time I ever liked the shorter stems! It made me reconsider Spanish lavender after seeing it in your kitchen.

    1. This variety actually is Anouk French Lavender. It says that on the tag and when I look it up, it’s exactly what I have. Maybe two countries claim it?! 🙂

  22. I have a recommendation for you. Limelight hydrangeas! They are gorgeous when they bloom. The blooms last quite a long time for a perennial. They require almost no care whatsoever, just prune off the dead flower heads in the spring. Or better yet, cut them in the fall and use them in your outdoor window boxes along with some evergreen branches for a lovely winter display. Plant them in a location where they can be left to grow to their maximum size (and they will grow quickly) so there is no need to prune them for size.

  23. Welcome to the wonderful world of gardening Marion! You sound as if you are going at this at a pace that will let you get your feet wet before diving in. Just a little suggestion that you water your plants with a weak fertilizer solution every watering. Buy yourself some liquid fertilizer and whatever is recommended for fertilizing (usually every other week or something such), just cut the amount in 1/2 and keep your fertilizer solution in a Rubbermaid jug, mixed and ready to apply WHEN THE SOIL IS DRY TO JUST BELOW THE SURFACE. Over watering is the death knell for many plants especially like the plant that you have in the lovely ironstone that doesn’t have the greatest drainage. Any plant likes being outside in the summer…the natural sunlight, air circulation and rain does wonder for kids and plants so don’t be afraid to move them outside for the summer to really establish their growth. And if you plant annuals (which bloom and die at the end of the summer), fertilize the bejeebers out of them that way you will always have blooms and since they will die anyway…who cares???? Good luck!

  24. I don’t see any mention of geraniums? With your connection to Germany, these are wonderful for window boxes! I’m not terribly patient either, so I want plants and flowers that are more self-sustaining. I choose the ones with thicker stems, and besides geraniums, that includes kalanchoe and hydrangea. These types hold water so just in case I don’t remember a weekly check for water, I’m pretty sure they’re okay. Here in California, we’re in a serious drought situation, so the idea of a lawn is crazy (the local utility company is offering cash back to those who rip out their lawns and replace with drought tolerant species! Another option you can consider, in addition to driving neighborhoods for ideas of what grows best in your area, is look at what the city plants in the medians of public roads. These are meant to tolerate all kinds of weather and environmental issues (car exhaust, baking sun, etc, at least in this area) and to see the combinations in full bloom gives you an idea of the scale you’ll want to plant.

    How about posting some “before” photos, and we can submit more ideas for the “after” shots? 🙂

  25. As a child we always had a huge veg. garden, strawberry patch and flower beds…I thought everyone did. HA….My father was a bricklayer worked long hard hours but enjoyed growing our own vegetables. He raised enough for our friends and family. Even in my first apt, I had a tomato plant in a container on the front stoop….I have a 3 acre yard now. My husband farms 500 acres and works a full time job. We enjoy our time in the dirt and love to see the seedlings grow into beautiful plants & flowers…my adult children all have a small garden with peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers….YOu should really try your hand at a couple veg. plants…simple and can be grown in a container….My grandkids. water for me when they are here and know a ripe tomato when they see one…you are never too young or old to grown enjoy gardening…

  26. Hooray for you! Gardening is such a joy. We were blessed with abundant flower beds when we bought our home – and I mean Abundant! There are so many different plants that I am finally determined to document as many as I can and when they bloom so I can keep better track of what’s planted where. We’re a few zones north of you, but if you’d like to see what’s blooming, here’s the last garden post I did – http://everaftercottage.com/?p=2148

  27. I am so glad that I am not the only one who doesn’t seem to have a knack for gardening. But I do get a little better each year. You gave some really good tips! I have to look into getting a snowball bush now. Not just because its pretty, but it will be fun to say and point out to guests!

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