Becoming a better gardener

I'm thinking again about what you really need to know to become a better gardener (and maybe what I mean is a good garden steward). I love learning more about plants and gardening (that's what makes it fun) and the images with Thomas Jefferson's quote at the end of my wildlife gardening talks reflect that (hmm, notice the rabbit!)

I mused about this some months ago, largely because one of our local extension offices was offering a class for the public on 'home horticulture' that was a less-intensive version of our SC Master Gardener program.

But I had a significant 'stirring-the-pot' experience this morning looking over Ann Lovejoy's excellent book 'Organic Garden Design School' -- she wonderfully describes what my gardening companion and I have bumbled into doing in our formerly large grassy expanse.

We've created our garden landscape not from a horticultural perspective but an ecological one, and our garden landscape has been inspired by admiration of natural landscapes and a keen interest in mimicking their best attributes. Lovejoy writes about creating successful gardens by understanding what thrives there (a mix of natives and well-adapted non-natives), and not trying to grow plants that won't. There's a significant European gardening trend to mimic natural landscapes (from all over the world) to create sustainable garden designs. A fabulous city garden landscape (the Lurie Garden) in Chicago was envisioned by a Dutch garden designer (Piet Oudolf) based on North American prairie landscapes.

So, what we know about plant life histories, reproductive strategies, plant adaptations, pollinator behavior, native plant communities, as well as all sorts of stuff about botany in general (from many years of study) has actually been the underpinning to a home garden that pleases us a great deal.

So, I'm trying to think again about what is it that someone really needs to know to become a better gardener as I think about how best I can encourage folks in our Garden classes to learn about plants and gardening.

I'm coming back to the idea that it's really about understanding plants, where they come from (that is, what part of the world and what sort of habitat), why you're growing them, and whether they're suited to where you want to grow them. Vegetables need something quite different than prairie wildflowers like purple coneflower (Echinacea), rattlesnake master (Eryngium), and blazing star (Liatris), but it's still about learning about plants.

I'd welcome your thoughts!


  1. I think the most important component to becoming a better gardener is to read the experiences of others. And besides garden books and magazines can get you through the cold time when it is way too early to start seeds.

  2. Great points. Also there is the question of When to grow them. When to plant. In our mild climate here, there are opportunities to succeed based on the proper planting cycles. And it's still a learning process for us.

  3. Lisa, I think the comment you quoted about mixing natives and non-natives that have adapted is the key. I was trying to reflect on when the last time I used a pesticide.... I don't know. I try to let my garden be full and lush and chemical free. Therefore, plants that are needy don't really have a place here, yet there is plenty bloom and fragrance and color...things that most gardeners look for.
    So I suppose knowing what choices are out there for planting makes all the difference (besides the right plant right place philosophy). There was a speaker who gave examples of what to use in place of the commonly planted plants-- for example...instead of forsythia use- witch hazel or fothergilla or Korean spice viburnum. Instead of english ivy use pachysandra terminalis or sweetbox (sarcococca hookeriana) or creeping St. John's Wort (Hypericum calycinum)
    Just a few ideas.

  4. What a thought-provoking post.
    I think that we begin by looking at natural plant and animal communities (especially those that appear locally) and to try and replicate these.
    I am beginning a talk next week by looking at factors that have reduced our common frog population (intensive, non-organic monoculture) and contrasting this with the biodiverse richness of an unimproved flower meadow. I know which of these two models I would rather my garden resembled!


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