"The single most important thing to remember is that plants that will grow the best for you will be adapted to our unique climate," said Palo Alto Master Gardener Roberta Barnes. "We have dry, warm summers and wet, mild winters. Plants that grow well in other parts of the country may need a colder winter or wetter summer to thrive," she said, so if you grew up on the East Coast and loved lilacs or blueberries, make sure those are things that can tolerate mild winters. "Also, our soil is fertile, but often a heavy clay," Barnes said. "Plants that will thrive in our soil and climate are the best choices for success."
Barnes said it's good to spend time getting to know your yard before jumping into gardening. Notice how much sun or shade your yard gets throughout the day and the seasons. Some plants need sun to thrive, others need shade. Also, check out the soil. Most plants do best with soils that water will drain through. Barnes suggests digging a hole about 1-foot deep and wide, then filling it with water. Repeat. How quickly did your water drain out? Did it drain out completely? If the soil didn't drain well, you may need to do extra soil preparation.
Doing a little research will help you determine what kind of sun or shade a particular plant needs. One of her favorite gardening websites is called "Arboretum All-Stars," which has different symbols to show how much sun or shade a plant needs. Another great reference is Sunset's "Western Garden Book." It lists a huge variety of plants and specifies their sun/shade needs.
"In your garden, a plant will show you if it's getting too much sun by getting leaf scorch or drying up on the edges," Barnes said. "Too much shade and the plant will get long lanky stems and will not bloom well. A lot of gardening is just trying things and then watching what the plant does."
The next mistake many novice gardeners make is watering plants too much when the plants seem like they're struggling.
Most plants that die, Barnes said, actually had too much water, which can cause roots to rot. As the roots rot, the plant won't be able to pull up the water it needs, and it will begin to wilt. This is why it's important to get a sense of how well your soil drains.
Barnes said the soil in her garden drains very quickly.
"I probably couldn't even fill up the hole with water. But some soils will still have water in them after 12 hours. Those soils need to be dug and have organic amendments added. It also helps to plant in a mound or berm to increase drainage."
Barnes' colleague, master gardener Candace Simpson, teaches a six-week beginning gardening class. One of the first questions she asks her students (some of whom are beginners, some of whom are more experienced but haven't taken a formal class) is how they water their plants.
"They think about adding water instead of thinking about what's happening to the soil. If you just spill water onto the soil, it can go down or it can glide off and go somewhere else."
One student, she recalled, said she watered her vegetables by tossing water from a teacup.
Beginning gardeners often think about the above-ground part, she said, but they don't think about the below-ground part.
Since you can't see below the soil, she said, you have to use a trowel beside the plant and look or stick your hand down and see whether it's moist.
The easiest kind of garden, Simpson said, is called the "easy-care bag garden," and is literally a bag of potting soil, tipped on its side. You tear open the plastic, and put seeds or plants right into the soil.
She said "cast iron" vegetable plants are bush beans (a summer plant), lettuce (fall), or cherry tomatoes (spring). Pick a table-sized plot of dirt, loosen it with a digging fork or shovel when the soil is moist, and plunge the tool about one foot down to turn the soil. Then, spread compost (buy it in bags) or use leaves from your yard, and have fertilizer standing by to keep the right nutrients in your soil once water begins to wash them away.
There are many ways, Simpson said, to learn to garden. One way is to take a class, another is to read a book or go online. Another is to watch videos produced by your local university cooperative extension (the University of California has one in every county). Another, she said, is "just do it." One of the biggest mistakes beginners make is not to protect their plants from weeds, animals and insects. Planting in a container can solve that, or simply preparing the space properly. Ornamental plants that don't produce fruit or vegetables don't need as much fertilizer or hands-one care, so those are an option if you're not ready to grow food.
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