1. If you don't already own one, buy a good garden encyclopedia. I use the "Sunset Western Garden Book," the "American Horticultural Society Encyclopedia" and the Royal Horticultural Society's encyclopedias. You can get good prices for these online. Try a search for booksellers on your favorite search engine.
2. Start a life list and make a file card or database entry for every plant you learn. Be sure to include the Latin name, common name or names, some characteristics such as sun, water and soil needs and something interesting that will help you to remember each plant.
3. Take at least two pictures of each plant you are learning — one of the flower and or fruit and one of the overall plant. Try to pick a healthy specimen to photograph.
4. Collect a leaf sample, a flower and if possible some seeds. Dry them by pressing between sheets of paper and stacking books on top. Then you can place them in a page protector with a label giving the plant's Latin and common name.
5. Learn what plant zone you are in. Your encyclopedia can teach you by looking at the map in the front or back of the book. Knowing this will help you to select plants that can tolerate your climate. It will also give you information on other climate zones in case you want to create special environments for plants that may not normally grow here.
6. Read the "How to use this book" part of your encyclopedia to learn how the plant selector works. This may seem confusing but as soon as you look at the plant selector section it will make more sense.
7. Study a plant by reading all about it in as many books as you can find or go online and do a search (using the Latin name) and read up on your plant there. I like to go into the university websites first before tackling any of the club sites or commercial sites. The universities such as UC Berkeley or UC Davis are usually pretty accurate and up to date.
8. Go to an arboretum to learn new plants. The reason I suggest this is because most of the different genus and species of plants (Latin term for plant names) are labeled at arboretums. There is a very good one in Golden Gate Park called Strybing Arboretum.
9. Take a plant identification class. They are a lot of fun and you will learn about 100 plants per class. You will learn some trees, shrubs, vines, groundcovers and flowering plants. The class teaches some plant identification history and how plants are named, and gives some basic botany (the different parts of plants) so you can identify them better.
10. Go to nurseries and see what is available. I like to visit several nurseries a month and talk to the nursery people. They are a wealth of information. And you can always buy a new plant for your garden.
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