The Hippo


Mar 19, 2018








Become a great gardener
10 tips from a seasoned pro


 If you want to become a great gardener, you can. Here are 10 things you can do that will help you achieve that goal.

Take classes. The flower shows are starting up, and they all have classes with speakers who have been selected for their knowledge and life experiences. Yes, it’s great fun to wander up and down the aisles buying things and ogling flowers. But take a break: get off your feet, sit down and attend a nice talk. Bring a notebook and take notes.
Read gardening books. Yes, the internet has millions of people who want to tell you things. But real books that are published by reputable publishers are dependable in ways the internet may not be. Go to a bookstore on a cold day and spend an hour in the gardening section. Buy a book and bring it home.
Improve your soil. OK, you can’t work on this one now. But, come spring, think about what you can do to improve your soil. Adding compost or aged manure is a great way to improve your soil. Chemical fertilizers are, at best, a quick fix. Decades ago I turned a field of brambles and alders by my brook into a vegetable garden. I cut down the brush by hand, mowed it, and dug out roots. But most importantly, I had a farmer bring in truckloads of aged manure. I worked it into the soil, and then did it again the next year. And the next. And so on. Now my soil is rich and black, and my potatoes voted me their favorite gardener many years running!
Pay attention. Being a great gardener means, in part, that you spend lots of time in the garden, and that you really look at what is happening. Are there insects laying eggs on the underneath side of leaves? If so, are they good bugs or bad bugs? Are new tomato transplants showing signs of dehydration on Day 2 in the garden? Of course you may not know the signs of dehydration. But gardening is not rocket science. You can figure it out.
Go on garden tours. Most garden clubs sponsor a tour of their best members’ gardens in the summer. Join a garden club; you can do this now and attend lectures and slide shows. Then, come summer, go to as many “Open Garden” events as you possibly can. See what a mature specimen of a tree looks like. Ask questions. Find out who did their stonework, or what local nursery has the best perennials. Need someone to help you in the garden? Ask your host if she can make a recommendation.
Learn to plant seeds. Start seedlings indoors in flats and nurture them until you can plant them outdoors in late spring. Starting from seeds does a couple of things: First, success at this gives one great confidence. See that tomato? I grew it from a seed. You really feel like a serious gardener, which is important. Second, starting plants from seeds allows you to have many more plants. Starting an English cottage garden from scratch can be expensive if you buy every plant as a mature perennial at $10 each. Last year I planted a packet of hollyhock seeds and got 100 percent germination. I then had 32 hollyhocks to fit in my flower beds for about $3. They bloom in their second year, and I can’t wait to see them.
Learn how to divide perennials. This is a way to create more plants for free. But you must do your homework and know which ones can be divided, and when. Go back to No. 2 and read up. A book like Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s The Well-Tended Perennial Garden will give you that information.
Learn to prune trees and shrubs. This is a skill you must have if you want to be a great gardener. Trees and shrubs are the bones of a garden. But an un-pruned tree is as messy as an unmade bed. Think of pruning as sculpting. There are some very basic rules that you can learn from a book, or you can take a class. Trees and shrubs are healthier and more beautiful if you prune them. And anyone who tours your garden will compliment you if you’ve done a good job pruning. Pruning season will soon be upon us.
Take chances. Not every plant I buy will survive in my climate, or with the soil that I have. But if I love a plant, I will buy it, and see if I can make it flourish. I use the baseball guide: if I kill a perennial three times, it’s out! Trees and shrubs, I often give just two tries. I have had two peach trees die in cold winters, and I have given up on the idea of growing my own peaches. One lived five years before a bad winter killed it.
Give away plants and vegetables. I think of my grandfather as a great gardener. He had a regular vegetable route — as a widower he visited the widows in town each week in the summer, sharing tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and flowers. They all loved him. Give plants to friends and acquaintances and they will sing your praises every time those flowers bloom! 
Henry may be reached at See his blog posts at 

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