Gardening 101 – Getting Started

By CHERYL B. WILSON; Amherst Bulletin Contributing Writer; Wednesday, April 29, 2015

How do you learn to be a successful gardener? Basically, by trial and error. Getting your hands in the dirt (pardon, me — soil) is the best way to learn, even though you are bound to make mistakes.

However, there are resources readily available to help you avoid the pitfalls and make your landscape beautiful and productive. There are neighbors who already garden and know this climate. There are books and magazines with inspiring articles. There are good Internet sites — and some that are not so good. There are telephone and email hot lines where you can get ready advice about specific problems. There is knowledgeable staff at local garden centers and nurseries. Grab every nugget of information you can get.

The basic advice is to start small. Dig up a small area in your yard, improve the soil and plant a few things as an experiment. Before you start digging, ask yourself a few questions: Do I want to grow edibles or ornamentals? How much sun reaches this spot? Is the soil sandy or like a bog?


It all starts with the soil. Roots need oxygen as well as nutrients to support the top growth. Getting the soil tested is an excellent first step. You can do a simple test for acidity level or pH or a full-scale soil test at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Acidity level is important because blueberries require a very acid soil while tomatoes need a “sweeter” soil, often with lime added. Directions on taking a soil sample are available online at

JERREY ROBERTS Michele Pietras, left, of Granby, and Christine Bergquist, of Amherst, test a soil sample at the Western Massachusetts Master Gardeners Association tent Saturday at the Amherst Farmers Market. Bergquist is a master gardener; Pietras is an intern.
Michele Pietras, left, of Granby, and Christine Bergquist, of Amherst, test a soil sample at the Western Massachusetts Master Gardeners Association tent Saturday at the Amherst Farmers Market. Bergquist is a master gardener; Pietras is an intern.
 If your soil needs help, don’t expect big changes overnight. Soil took years to develop and it will take time to improve.

Adding organic matter is always helpful, whether your soil is sandy or claylike. Start a compost pile for future use. Meanwhile, buy a few bags of “black gold” (compost) to get you started. Most people don’t use peat moss anymore to amend soil since the peat bogs are in trouble. Lobster compost is very popular as is cowpost, which is essentially rotted cow manure.

Right plant, right place

Once you have determined the condition of the soil and made appropriate amendments you can start planting. After soil, the most important factor is sun. Tomatoes need at least six hours of sun every day (unless it rains). Lettuce and root crops can succeed on less sun. Most daisy-like flowers are like tomatoes. They need sun. Ferns like shade as do choice trilliums and certain other wildflowers. Hostas also thrive in shade, although a few, usually those with yellow-tinted leaves, do enjoy sun. The old adage is “right plant, right place.” Don’t expect tomatoes to produce fruit in shade and don’t expect shade-lovers to endure too much sun.

And don’t be afraid to move a plant that seems unhappy. Sometimes even a few feet more or less into a sunny area is all that’s needed for a plant to thrive. Most perennials actually require dividing every few years. Peonies are an exception. They don’t like to be moved and will happily stay for decades in the same spot.

Early spring is the best time to divide most perennials. Some can be easily dug up and their roots and crowns pulled apart to make several small plants from one big one. Others like daylilies require a lot of effort and ornamental grasses often are best divided with a chain saw! One reason there are so many non-profit plant sales in May is that good gardeners know their perennials thrive on regular division. (See the weekly Get Growing column in the Gazette for upcoming sales.)


So how do you learn which plants are the right plants for your spot? Look around your neighborhood and ask your neighbors what they grow and why. When I first started gardening in Washington, D.C., in 1970 I was a total novice. I relied on elderly neighbors to teach me how to garden. I fell in love with primroses and sundrops in Washington. Neighbors in Amherst introduced me to gardening in the north. I love daffodils because they remind me of Jean Manfredi who lived on the South Amherst Common and grew more than 400 varieties. Her neighbor Carol Cornish was also a garden mentor.

DAN LITTLE Karen Chrisman, left, and Meredith Michaels dig up plants to divide and sell at the Amherst Garden Club's annual plant sale at Chrisman's home Wednesday in Belchertown.
Karen Chrisman, left, and Meredith Michaels dig up plants to divide and sell at the Amherst Garden Club’s annual plant sale at Chrisman’s home Wednesday in Belchertown.

Books and magazines

My next source of gardening teachers was the library. My first memorable garden book was Vita Sackville-West’s compilation of her garden columns in The Observer newspaper in England, “V. Sackville-West’s Garden Book,” Her garden, Sissinghurst Castle, has been a Mecca for me for decades. Yes, she gardened in a different climate and with a larger budget, but I learned from her to seek out the best variety of whatever plant I wanted rather than settle for mediocre.

The books I usually recommend to new gardeners are: Ron and Jennifer Kujawski’s “Week –by- Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook” and “The Garden Primer” by Barbara Damrosch. They will get you started on the right foot.

There are fewer garden magazines than there used to be but still they are helpful. My big indulgence is membership in the Royal Horticultural Society in England because it has a gorgeous monthly magazine, The Garden. Its website is very informative ( Fine Gardening is my other standby because it is filled with practical advice.

DAN LITTLE Gardening Books
Gardening Books

Catalogs/seed packets/hang tags

While it is usually best to shop locally for plants, including bulbs and seeds, there are two mail-order catalogs that are worth requesting just for the information they include. Johnny’s Seeds in Maine is a reliable source, especially for vegetable seeds, and it has wonderful information and advice on growing everything from beans to tomatoes to zucchini. Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in Virginia not only indicates the best growing situations for various bulbs, it also suggests bulb and herbaceous perennial partners for your landscape.

Most seed packets have a lot of useful information such as how deep to plant the seeds, how soon in the spring is safe, and when to harvest vegetables. Save the hang tags from trees and shrubs and the labels from perennials, herbs, house plants and annuals so you know how to care for your purchases.

The Internet

The Internet has a wealth of information. There are several university and botanical garden sites that are especially helpful. The Missouri Botanical Garden’s,, is wonderful as is the Cornell University website, UMass Extension’s not only has loads of local information but also a weekly landscape message ( during the growing season, which can alert you to problems like hemlock woolly adelgid, salt injury on evergreens and late blight on tomatoes.

Dave’s Garden ( is filled with anecdotal information and a good rating system on mail-order nurseries. Just realize that the people who post on this website are amateur gardeners, like you, with varied experience and knowledge.

A number of good gardeners have websites or blogs. Bookmarked on my computer are Pat Leuchtman’s “Commonweeder” ( and Matt Mattus’ “Growing With Plants” ( Leuchtman gardens in Heath and writes the weekly column for the Greenfield Recorder. Mattus is the newly elected president of the North American Rock Garden Society and lives in Worcester. He has a gorgeous greenhouse and wonderful primroses. I met him through the American Primrose Society.

Speaking of plant societies — there is one for almost every kind of ornamental plant. If you develop an obsession with daylilies or roses, dahlias or primroses, there is a national society, usually with a quarterly journal and regional meetings that is just for you. Google your favorite plant and find out.


The Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association has been a fixture in my life since I took the training course in 1986. Trained volunteers do pH soil testing at farmers markets, maintain demonstration gardens at the Northampton and South Hadley Community Gardens, help with the landscaping for such nonprofit groups as Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst and Grandmother’s Garden in Westfield. We all learn together how to be better gardeners. A new “crop” of 48 trainees just finished classes and will be out in the four western counties helping other gardeners learn to do better.

The volunteers maintain two hot lines where home gardeners can get answers to their particular questions. First, there is the email hot line on the website Click on Ask a Gardener and type in your problem and your contact information and expect to get an email answer within a couple of days. A volunteer will research the problem and respond by email. The master gardeners also staff a telephone hot line at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge on Mondays. Call 298-5355 between 9 a.m. and noon and talk directly to a master gardener. If they can’t solve your problem immediately, they will do research and call you back.


Botanical gardens offer frequent workshops on everything from pruning shrubs to saving seeds from native plants. Check out Nasami Farm in Whately, the nursery of the New England Wild Flower Society, the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge and the Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston. Workshops cost $25 or more and are taught be experienced professionals. In the winter, Hadley Garden Center offers weekly free workshops that draw more than 50 people each week.

There are so many ways to learn to garden successfully. Just don’t get discouraged when plants fail. Tony Avent, the loquacious owner of Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina, says that you haven’t learned how to grow a plant until you have killed it several times!

Cheryl Wilson can be reached at

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