Let me tell you about an exceptional person. His name was Allen Doong, and he worked at Behnke's for over 25 years. In fact, Al actually started out doing manual labor at the nursery with some of his high school friends in the 1980’s.
Behnke’s closed just over a year ago, and I took advantage of that to retire. So, I’ve been home a lot more than I used to be, but then again, so is nearly everyone else. A young couple bought a home nearby and since they have been working at home they’ve become quite interested in the yard. I’ve been offering advice and the occasional extended email, now that they’ve discovered that I’m not a pest (and vice versa).
A lot of the conversations revolve around: “I want to do this; I like this; or I bought this.” And I am thinking or writing or saying: “Great; that might work; or, well…”
If you are getting Stephanie’s weekly email Beyond Behnke’s, then you are likely either a hard-core gardener or a former Behnke employee, or both, so what I am writing about probably seems like old hat to you. But if you’re not, then here is the thought process I would suggest to the new gardener.
First: understand your yard and the surrounding environment, including neighborhood covenants. You may want to grow a hundred feet of sweet corn, but you are almost certainly going to have to locate that in the back yard. Or if you have a garden pond, unless it’s very shallow, by law it’s going to have to be fenced in.
So, after understanding where you can actually place things, you can develop some larger goals: I want to grow fruit trees, I want to grow herbs, I want to grow vegetables, I want to grow native plants, I want to grow a beautiful perennial garden, I want a deep green lawn…whatever. It’s likely that you want more than one result. A big concern is how much time you want to devote to the yard. If the answer is, not much, then you can go with the classic suburban approach of a few shrubs and a lot of lawn, and a lawn service.
To grow something like fruit trees, you are going to have to do a lot of week-to-week maintenance, and probably all or most of it yourself. That means not only being willing to go out and pull weeds, for example, but also learning about which plants are weeds and which are not. Or, if you want to grow tomatoes, learning when you can plant them and what varieties you should try.
Next, especially if you are in an older home with established shade trees, you must consider how much sun you have. You can’t grow a productive vegetable garden if you don’t have direct, un-shaded sunlight for most of the day. If you happen to love daylilies, you can grow them with just a couple of hours of sun, but they will bloom much more heavily in six or more hours of sun.
Sunlight is the engine of the garden. My biggest concern with my new gardeners has been light. They have shade and virtually everything they want to do requires full sun (minimum of six hours of direct sunlight.) If you have a shady yard, then your palette is much more limited. I’ve grown in the shade for most of my gardening career, and have learned the hard way.
With the wide-eyed confidence of the new gardener, my neighbors are proceeding with planting select perennials in shadier places than they should go. They may survive; however, in my squinty-old-guy-eyed experience, they will not thrive. But, we learn by doing, and maybe they will work out fine, and I’ll learn something too! They are moving potted lavender plants around to catch an hour of sun here and then there later in the day, so they are paying attention.
Second: after having the right amount of sunlight comes water. Are you willing to apply supplemental water as needed (that is, are you going to water dry plants in the usual summer droughts), and can you discipline yourself to not water when it isn’t needed? The latter is hard; it’s so easy to water a little bit every day, rather than allowing plants to dry and stress a bit before watering thoroughly. That’s something that comes with experience. Hand-in-hand with proper watering is selecting plants that will work with your drainage patterns, especially in the winter. Soil in low areas that retain water are not good spots for plants that “require good drainage.”
So bearing that in mind, you can go through the steps if you are planning a large project: Example…
1. I want to plant a vegetable garden in the back yard.
2. It has to be in the eastern corner of the yard because the rest of the yard is too shady and has too many tree roots.
3. I have read about the maintenance requirements of vegetable gardens and I understand that they need decent drainage but don’t have to be on a slope. I will add amendments to the soil to create a well-drained bed (or I will install raised beds or whatever other options are there for vegetable growers).
4. I’ve made a garden plan, laying out where things will go, and the proper seasons and times for planting.
5. I understand that deer, squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, and birds like my fruits and vegetables as well, and I am prepared to install fencing and or netting to protect my crops.
6. I know that my garden will attract aphids, caterpillars and other insects, and that plant diseases may also be a problem, so I will learn to deal with them as they arise in a manner that is least disruptive to the ecosystem that is my garden.
7. By the end of the season I will have so many zucchinis to give away that the neighbors will stop answering their doors.
For me it’s always been easier, sort of the Cliff Notes version of a plan: “Oh, look! A new perennial that tolerates shade. I have a spot where something else must have died. I’ll give it a try!” That works, too.
Larry Hurley: Retired Behnke Horticulturist