The Foolproof Way to Stick to Your Gardening Schedule (Plus, 7 Other Expert Plant Tips)

published Jun 13, 2023
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A young woman transplants a flower into a terracotta textured pot.
Credit: Mariya Borisova / Getty Images

Having a green thumb isn’t something that comes naturally to me. I grew up in the sweltering, year-round heat of Miami, so backyard gardens weren’t all that practical. When I moved to New York City, I barely had windows in my tiny, shoebox-sized apartments, let alone enough sunlight for flowers in a vase to thrive. So, when I finally moved to the suburbs of Connecticut and had it all — a backyard, sunlight, four seasons, and space — my first order of business was to grow a garden

I went on Amazon to treat myself to a vertical, tiered garden planter box for my deck. I went to a local nursery and presented myself to the lovely and knowledgeable salesperson as an enthusiastic gardener-to-be. She sent me home with soil, fertilizer, gardening tools, and seeds for flowers, plus a handful of herbs I would use in my kitchen (basil, cilantro, and rosemary). 

It was overwhelming, but from May until early July, I decided to dedicate myself to tending to my small but mighty deck garden, and be diligent about watering, pruning, and fertilizing. On a taco night, I proudly served homegrown cilantro and made bespoke cocktails with rosemary I’d carefully tended. 

Then it rained, throwing off my watering and fertilizing schedule. Then, we went on vacation, and I didn’t ask anyone to water my plants while I was gone. Then, I got busy with work and wasn’t spending as much free time outside. And then, before I knew it, the weather turned colder and well, you see where I’m going. I lost my mojo and my garden slowly slipped away — that was two years ago.

But with summer rapidly approaching, I was cleaning and organizing our outdoor furniture and was saddened by the dirty mess of dead weeds, rainwater, and soil my deck boxes had turned into. Birds used it as a bathtub and squirrels turned it into a playground. I found my gardening bag stained, with my tools rusted and unusable. It made me ready to start anew — but was I really going to succeed this time? It’s a lot of money, energy, and labor to eventually watch my garden die another slow death. Yet, a summer of eating dinner al fresco with my family, serving fresh basil that I grew myself, sounded really enticing. 

Credit: Lauren Brown West-Rosenthal

So, before this summer begins, I went to the experts for an education on what I did wrong, what I must do better, and tips on getting me on track. As I begin transforming my hot mess of deck boxes into a bounty of herbs and flowers, I need all the advice and encouragement I can get. So, if you’re thinking about trying your hand at gardening for the first time — or coming back to it after several failed attempts, like me — here’s what the gardening experts want you to know. 

1. Start small.

As it turns out, one thing I did right was go with small planting boxes rather than attempt to turn my entire backyard into a garden. Bryan Clayton, CEO of GreenPal, an on-demand landscaping app, compares gardening to running a marathon. “You wouldn’t start without some training, right?” he asks. That’s why Clayton notes that it’s imperative to start with a couple of pots or a small patch of land. “It’s much easier to manage, especially when you’re just starting to get your hands dirty.” 

2. Choose your plants wisely.

We all have plants and flowers we love — but that doesn’t mean you should grow them right out of the gate, especially as a newbie gardener. “There are some plants — basil, parsley, sunflowers, and marigolds, for instance — that are practically foolproof. They’re great for boosting your confidence,” suggests Clayton. I can attest to that, as basil was one of my first successes! But Clayton says orchids, roses, and azaleas are a bit trickier to keep happy, and should be saved for when you have more gardening experience under your belt.

3. Good soil is key.

Aaditya Bhatta, editor and founder of Plants Craze says, “A good garden starts with healthy soil.” Before planting, amend your soil with organic material, such as compost or well-rotted manure. “It encourages healthy root growth, enhances drainage, and adds nutrients,” he explains. 

4. Get in a watering and fertilizing groove.

Perhaps one of my biggest mistakes was beginning my gardening journey right on the cusp of the hottest summer months. As Bhatta reminded me, “watering plants regularly is essential for their growth, particularly during the hot summer months.” For plants to develop robust roots, it is necessary to water them deeply, but less frequently. “To keep moisture in your plants and prevent weed growth, think about spreading mulch around them. Most plants should benefit from a slow-release organic fertilizer used by the directions on the box for fertilizing,” he explains.

5. Follow the sun.

My planter was not positioned in the sunniest section of my deck — a mistake, according to Ben Hilton, founder and editor of The Gardening Fix. He says you must pay attention to how much sun each area of your garden receives, and position plants in areas that suit them. “Most vegetables and blooming flowers need at least six hours of sunlight [per day], but there are also plants that do extremely well in the shade, like ferns, astilbe, and hostas,” Hilton says.

6. Space your plants out.

Truth be told, I didn’t pay much attention to how much space was between each seed I planted. But according to Hilton, you really should avoid planting your plants and crops too close together. “They need room to grow, and to allow air to circulate around them to prevent fungal diseases,” he says. “As a basic rule of thumb, give each small plant 12 inches of space, and for larger plants, check the label to see their mature width and allow for it.”

7. Stick to a schedule. 

I know that if I’m finally going to have a successful garden, I must keep track of all my required tasks — which has definitely been a challenge in the past. “Use a gardening calendar, or make a quick chart to remember when and how to care for each plant,” suggests Bhatta. “Use gardening applications that offer advice and notifications, or set reminders on your phone.”

8. Enjoy the journey.

The most important thing for me is that gardening feels fun and not like a chore. It’s a hobby that I’m choosing — no one is making me do it — so I want to enjoy it and take pride in my efforts. Which is why I’m really heeding Bhatta’s final words of wisdom: “Gardening is a learning process, and it’s normal to encounter challenges along the way. Embrace the experience and have fun with it. With patience, care, and the right approach, you’ll increase your chances of having a successful garden this summer.”