Margaret Roach has learned plenty during her 30 years of planting. With the rerelease of her seminal book, A Way to Garden, she shares her advice for beginners.

By Margaret Roach
August 06, 2019
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There's a joke that Margaret Roach often replays with a friend who's also a longtime gardener: "What's the best garden advice you ever got?" one asks. "Green side up," the other replies. It's a solid tip, but Roach hopes to hand down more textured advice to new gardeners. These are the insights she's gleaned from working her patch of land over three decades.

margaret roach garden
Photo by Erica Berger
| Credit: Erica Berger

1. Don't buy every plant you crave at the nursery.

This often leads to a polka-dot garden of onesies, not a coherent landscape. Purchase fewer things in greater numbers to plant in drifts, and repeat elsewhere in the garden.

2. Plants grow.

Like "green side up," this should be obvious but sometimes isn't. Planting trees and shrubs too near a path, a structure, or one another can be costly. Space woody plants no closer than two-thirds of their mature width apart, using annuals and perennials to fill in in the meantime.

3. Limit the width of your beds.

If for edible or cutting flowers, whether in-ground or raised, a bed that's 6 feet wide or larger is impractical. Crawling in to plant and weed the middle compacts the soil. Four or 5 feet wide is plenty, enough to reach the midpoint from either side.

4. It's never too soon to install drip irrigation.

This is especially true for intensively cultivated crops like vegetables. Save time and water by installing a drip irrigation system.

5. Get to know your weeds.

Learning the names and growth habits of your weeds is critical to garden management. Are you up against a prodigious self-sowing annual like crabgrass, where efforts must be timed to prevent seeding? Or does your opponent run underground like perennial goutweed? Many local extension services have online tools for identifying weeds. (Rutgers and University of Minnesota have good ones.) Once you've identified your weeds, photograph them with notes to reference for next year.

6. Make use of desireable volunteer plants.

I shop in my own garden each spring, relocating baby nicotiana, foxglove, and hellebores to better spots. So learning to recognize seedlines of volunteers is valuable; if I couldn't identify them, I'd waste money on more of each at the nursery.

7. There are no "deer-proof" plants.

By that I mean deer will at least browse any plant, taking a nibble or more. The best investment I ever made was a fence.

8. The vast majority of insects aren't pests.

Most insects are beneficial or harmless, nothing to worry about. A shelf of regional field guides, a browser bookmarked to, and apps like iNaturalist are among a gardener's best companions.

9. The number of seeds in a packet bears little relation to how many to sow.

With tomatoes, for example, a packet might have 40 seeds when all you need are six plum for sauce and two slicers. Don't make the same mistake I did early on and wind up with more than you can keep up with.

a way to garden book cover
Credit: Marty Baldwin

Smarter Bulb Shopping

As you voraciously flip through bulb catalogs this time of year, consider this advice from Roach's book, A Way to Garden: A Hands-On Primer for Every Season.

It's bulb-shopping and planting season—or more accurately, geophyte-planting season because not all dormant storage organs sold in bulb catalogs are technically bulbs. But all are clever stockpiles of water and carbohydrates stashed for when there's not a rainy day. Whether you use technical or generic terminology, if you plant tubers and corms and tuberous roots and rhizomes and, yes, even some true bulbs now, they will provide years of enjoyment. But which ones and how? Some advice:

Get animal-resistant bulbs: Tired of waking up in spring to beheaded tulips and disappearing crocus? Shop for animal-resistant flower bulbs like daffodils, allium, and snowdrops. If it's crocus you are losing specifically, try Crocus tommasinianus. They're more animal-resistant than Dutch crocus.

Try bulbs for the shade garden: Is your garden (like mine) a place of increasing shade as deciduous trees and shrubs mature? Some bulbs, including Spanish bluebells, winter aconite, snowdrops, and trout lily, among others, manage in that situation; they do their thing early then shut down as the leaves above fill in.

Add extra-early-blooming bulbs: Minor (mostly small) bulbs like winter aconite, snowdrops, and crocus expand your garden bloom time to weeks before the official start of spring.

Remember: Early, middle, late: One of my mantras is "Early, middle, late." Don't shop only for color or size in the tulip or daffodil or other bulb listings. Consider bloom time, too, to have the longest possible succession of each genus.

Look for the word naturalizingGenerally speaking, daffodils will be longer lived than, say, tulips. But even some daffodils will falter in the wrong climate. Certain ones prefer the cooler or warmer ends of their hardiness range. Given the right conditions, lilies, Spanish bluebells, Scilla, Camassia, snowdrops, snowflakes, glory-of-the-snow, winter aconite, and trout lily stick around. Scan catalogs for "bulbs for naturalizing" to find longer-lasting ones.

Mix it up: Be daring: Go ahead, order a flowering bulb you've never grown before (I dare you)—like a foxtail lily or some oddball Fritillaria—and order more than you usually do for greater impact. If we don't widen our palettes and plant more lavishly, how will we ever grow as gardeners?

Compare prices, but read the fine print: Prices may vary widely by catalog, but don't be fooled. Some deals in mass-market catalogs are too good to be true. Read the fine print about what size bulb you'll be receiving. Another budget tip: Naturalizing mixture (a mix of varieties) can be good value if you want a less formal massed look.

Plan for plants to show off, then conceal bulbs: I am inspired by public gardens like Chanticleer in Pennsylvania where careful thought is given to what adjacent plant will provide a foil for bulb blooms (when the garden is mostly still asleep). Example inspired by Chanticleer: 'Angelina' sedum or Mexican hair grass. Leave them standing from last year through bulb bloom, then cut back as fresh growth begins.

Comments (1)

August 31, 2019
What great advice! "Don't buy every plant you see at the nursery". I typically buy three of each, but my garden always blooms lopsided or one section at a time. After 24 years I am finally starting to learn to plant more of the same and repeat in different areas.