Garden Variety: Tips for first-time gardeners

The idea of growing your own food and spending more time working in the yard might seem more appealing than ever — the arrival of spring in Kansas is a great time to get started.

Gardening can seem daunting if you lack experience, but there are plenty of reliable resources out there to help. Also, even the most experienced gardeners continue to learn through trial and error, and sometimes things go differently than expected. Be patient, be flexible and be ready to evaluate successes and failures later in the season. Learn from the process and the results. This is part of the beauty of gardening.

The most important thing to know is that you can buy seeds or plants and put them in the ground and they will grow. How long they survive depends on where and how they are planted, how they are cared for after planting, and the weather. Planting and care are within your control, and this is where resources and experience come in handy. Certain practices can also help plants withstand the challenges that weather brings.

Start small the first year. Almost everyone plants more than they can care for and grows more than they can consume the first time they plant vegetables. Used wisely, a 4-foot by 8-foot raised garden bed can produce enough veggies for a small family in a season.

If flowers, shrubs, and trees sound more appealing than veggies, the “start small” concept still applies. Plant a few things, see how they do and learn from the experiences. Expand each fall and spring as needed. Flowers, shrubs and trees can make yards more appealing, provide food for wildlife, make outdoor spaces more private and provide other benefits.

With all plants, the most important thing to know is if they can be successfully grown in this area. Perennials (plants that survive the winter) must be hardy. Although there are microclimates and oddities, most of Douglas County is in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 6A. Plants with lower numbers should survive here, but plants that are listed as Zone 7 and up are unlikely to survive Kansas winters. For annuals (plants that only grow one season), weather and climate still play a role.

Location appropriateness is also key when looking at resources. There is a lot of gardening information on social media, but it might not be reliable. Gardening blogs are the same. The authors may be giving the best gardening practices for Florida or Maine or the United Kingdom without making it immediately known.

Look for local resources first, such as gardening guides published by K-State Research and Extension and neighboring states’ extension universities.

There are many gardening books out there covering every aspect of growing vegetables, fruit, flowers, shrubs and trees. Look for ones that include general planting and maintenance practices and acknowledge regional differences.

Try not to get bogged down in the details of recommendations. Take what you can from them and take a chance on the plants. They will grow if you give them a chance.

— Jennifer Smith works in regulatory horticulture and has worked as a horticulturist for various government entities. She has experience in landscape design and maintenance and as an educator.


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