The first thing new gardeners should undertake is research. They should find out some things before they visit a nursery or landscaping center, before they put a shovel in the soil and certainly before they spend any money.
The first research, said Kerry Ratigan, a horticultural employee at O’Donal’s Nursery in Gorham, should be on yourself.
“What kind of gardener are you?” she asked participants of a program for new gardeners. “Are you going to want to spend some time in your garden every day? Do you enjoy working there? Or do you want to put in a landscape and do almost nothing there ever again?”
And if you want to spend time in your garden, what are your physical abilities? If you have a bad back or bad knees, you will have to decide how much work you can do with those difficulties. If you can’t do the work yourself, do you have enough money to hire someone to do it for you?
Next, Ratigan said, you have to find out information about the site. Is it on a hill or in a marsh, is it sunny or shady, is it on a slope or flat, does it get road salt or sea spray? What zone is it in? Most coastal areas of Maine are Zone 5, while areas further inland are Zone 4. The zone will tell you what plants you can grow. And within a zone, there are microclimates. A place might be protected from the wind, and you could grow more tender plants than the zone would say. If you have deer in the area, you will have to pick plants that deer don’t like to eat.
And then there is the soil. Is it good topsoil, or does it have a lot of clay or sand in the mix? Some plants will tolerate clay or sand, but there also are things you can do to mitigate the problems with soil.
The next step is to find out what plants you already have on your site.
“If you want, you can rip everything out right away, but it probably is better to wait a year and do your research,” Ratigan said. “You can see what blooms in the spring, then summer and fall. That way you will know what you have, and you can decide what you like.”
If you like it, keep it. If not, remove it. And Ratigan believes strongly that people should not put up with landscapes, or even individual plants, that they do not like.
“People should really like, even love, their landscaping,” she said. “People come here (to O’Donal’s) all the time and say, ‘I hate that plant. The landscaper put it in 20 years ago and I’ve always hated it.’ So remove it. There are so many other options.”
Once you have decided what you don’t want, you decide what you do want. Even beginning gardeners have some ideas on that, she said.
“Are there some plants that have a special meaning to you?” she asked. “Did your grandmother have a mock orange that you liked?” You can plant that so you can think of her.
She suggested going to gardens, mentioning Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, the gardens at the University of Southern Maine and other schools to see what they have. And then you can go to nurseries. And go many times a year. If you go only once, you might pick plants that are in bloom that one time you visit, and that’s when all the plants in your garden will bloom.
Once you have decided on what kinds of plants you like, you have to know where to plant them.
“If you bring in a photo of your home, we can create a design for your site for $100,” Ratigan said. If you want someone to come to your site before creating the plan, it will cost more, around $275, she said. Professional landscaping firms will not only design the site, but plant it for you, and that costs even more.
She said if you are going to want hardscaping such as a patio, decide where that is going first. You don’t want to put plants in, decide you want a patio, and then have to move the plants.
Finally after all of this, you get to choose your plants and – once you have arranged to get them to your house – start planting. And, if you are doing it yourself, you should do it in phases – to spread out both the cost and the labor.
“Put in the large stuff first,” she said. “They are harder, and you don’t want to be tripping over all of the smaller shrubs while you get the big trees in place.”
When you get your plants, put them around your yard before you plant them. After looking at them for a while, you might want to move them a bit and it’s easier to do if they’re still in the pots. After that, you can start planting.
Ratigan had some interesting things to say about landscape fabric, which some people put around their plants to prevent weeds.
“It does keep weeds down, but it is not perfect,” she said. “At some point you are going to have to weed. And if you are going to move your plants around, it’s not so good. It makes moving plants a lot more difficult.”
You are going to want to amend your soil with compost, and there are a wide variety of options – from biosolids to organic products that include seashells. They all work.
And then there is a decision of mulch. Ratigan prefers compost as a mulch, but says there advantages to both mulch and compost. Mostly, she said, it is about the look you like best.
Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: