My wife Nancy and I have been growing a garden on our Cape Elizabeth property for 41 years. After four decades in the dirt, what advice would I give new gardeners?

The most important thing to start with is attitude. Gardening is work, in the sense of using physical labor to accomplish a task, but it also should be pleasure. If you dread heading outside for some task, you are doing something wrong.

Along the same lines – just about every garden job can be delayed a bit. If some garden writer says you should put out your tomatoes on Memorial Day but you have an invitation to go out to a good restaurant with friends – go to the restaurant. Planting the tomatoes a week or two later won’t hurt your harvest.

Right off, make a plan for the entire property, even if you’ve just moved into a new home and have stretched your finances to do so. You don’t need – and probably can’t afford – to plant everything the first year, but you have to know where the sitting areas, sheds and larger trees eventually will be so you don’t plant anything else there. Being forced to move plants you put in last year is depressing and a waste of time and energy.

Your garden plan should consider existing views and create new ones. For instance, if you spend a lot of time in the kitchen, you’ll want to look out the kitchen window at attractive plants. If you work from home, you’ll want to be able to see pretty plants from your home office window. The plan doesn’t need to be an architectural masterpiece. It could be just a rough sketch of your house on your lot with driveway, garage and trees penciled in.

Once you start buying plants, remember to pick those with multiple answers to your landscaping questions. When Nancy and I started our garden in 1976, a local nursery made us a foundation plantings design that included yews on each side of the front door, different viburnums at the house corners and fillers such as potentilla along the rest of the front.


The viburnums were great choices because Nancy loved the snowball viburnums at her grandmother’s house, and the highbush cranberry viburnum had good flowers and berries for the wildlife. Neither we nor the designer could have known the viburnum leaf beetle would come to Maine gardens and make those plants impossible to maintain without chemicals.

The designer put two yews on either side of our front steps. They are still there, but we’ve been dissatisfied with them for the last 20 years. Of course it’s your house, but if you ask me, you do not need needled evergreens at each side of the front door. They are simply green, and gardens have enough green, and in the winter – when green might be welcome – you are going to be shoveling snow onto the plants beside your front steps anyway.

Potentilla, although it does blossom, has no fragrance and does not work for cut flowers. And since you want to get the most value out of your property (and who doesn’t enjoy cut flowers inside the house?) consider a plant’s “vase value” when assigning it a space in your garden. If I could talk to my young self, I’d suggest replacing the potentilla with something like a spirea, an excellent cut flower.

While we began with traditional foundation plantings, they make little sense for how most people garden now. Foundation plantings look good for people passing by – and after four decades as a gardener, I think people should have their gardens look good for themselves.

Around outside sitting areas put a few plants to block the wind and, perhaps, provide privacy. Also, grow fragrant plants, such as lilies of the valley, clethra, dianthus and lilacs, near where you sit.

Edible landscaping was not a major trend when we started our garden, but if you’re starting now you may want to incorporate food into the landscape. For starters, plant a garden close to the kitchen for herbs, onions, tomatoes and similar edibles.


Get as much out of your plants as you can. For instance, highbush blueberries are an attractive shrub with small white blossoms in the spring and foliage that turns a bright red-orange in the fall, plus, of course, they’ll give you berries. Bramblefruit, like raspberries and blackberries, can be at the edges of the property. In addition to the berries you’ll get, they make fairly impenetrable hedges.

These plants are welcoming to pollinators and other wildlife (which is why nurseries sell bird netting for the blueberry bushes).

Nancy and I were in our late 20s when we moved into our home, and after moving something like five times in six years, we intended to stay put. Few people stay in a home as long as we have. But your house will be there for decades, and a garden will increase its resale value even if you won’t be there to enjoy it.

So plan and plant for the future. Pick plants that will spread and can be divided, so you don’t have to fill the entire yard in the first couple of years. Buy pots of peonies and delphiniums, space them far apart and put annuals in between for the first few years. Also, use a lot of self-seeding plants (see my Feb. 7 article on the subject).

And while you should have a plan for the garden, remember that the plan is not steel and concrete. If you change your mind, as your vision for your home changes, plants can be moved or removed.

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 [email protected].

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