9 Gardening Secrets Every Beginner Should Live By

Avoid the worst mistakes new gardeners tend to make by following these simple tips from Margaret Roach, gleaned from 30 years of experience.

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 through her seminal book, A Way to Garden: A Hands-On Primer for Every Season. In it, she shares insights she's gleaned from working her patch of land in New York's Hudson Valley over three decades. Among her many pearls of wisdom for beginners, here are a few that will guide you into a successful experience, no matter where you garden.

margaret roach garden
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 the space in the meantime.

3. Limit the width of your beds.

Whether for edible or cutting flowers, 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, and reaching the midpoint is possible 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 the University of Minnesota have good ones.) Once you've identified your weeds, photograph them and make notes to refer to next year.

6. Make use of desirable volunteer plants.

I shop in my own garden each spring, relocating baby nicotiana, foxglove, and hellebores to better spots. So learning to recognize seedlings 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 bugguide.net, 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 plums 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.

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