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Urbanites in the Suburbs Find Your Green Thumb

Having lived my life in cities with no outdoor space to speak of, purchasing a home in the suburbs with an ample back yard presented me with an unfamiliar yet intriguing canvas. I was cautiously curious about the possibilities of the property I inherited – a deep lot with patchy grass, about 50 % shaded by tall trees – a proverbial blank slate.

My first trip to the nursery invoked in me feelings of exhilaration and excitement!  I salivated over the variety of colors, textures, heights, and shapes. I was seduced by anything bright or unusual looking. I grabbed everything I considered beautiful without reading any of the information on the labels, and proceeded to plant stuff arbitrarily. It didn’t go well. Poison ivy happened, on my face, and not much else.

Fast forward eight years, I have what I consider to be a beautiful garden. To be clear, this is largely due to the professional landscaper I hired to provide a foundation for my plantings, after a few years of unfocused efforts. Oh, and thanks also to mother nature…and time…the garden project can take lots of time. It takes years of trial and error to understand the tenets of landscape design, especially if you are not a “how-to” reader (and have the sensibilities of an abstract expressionist painter, like I do). It can also take time for a perennial to show up in full abundance.

Here are the hard-earned lessons I learned. Some of this might seem obvious, I realize, but as a novice gardener…

No.1 Labels, Read Them!

Labels that list the basics; bloom time, zone, how much sun and water, and soil conditions, actually exist for a reason. Just because you plant a thing doesn’t mean it will grow. It might seem mysterious at first, especially if you are an inexperienced gardener, and not tickled by the idea of reading up on soil types, clay, drainage, etc. It is likely that you will learn a lot by process of elimination – what types of plants don’t work in given areas, and/or by altering the qualities of the conditions you are planting in.

No. 2 Good Design is Multiple Choice

Landscape design is design:
a) a skill
b) an art
c) a means of creative expression

Spend some time reading up on how to compose a garden – not just plant plants.

garden plants

No. 3 If You Love Something, Let It Go

Of the plants/flowers/trees that do grow, a) some are overly enthusiastic, b) others lack life-force. If b), check in with #1…then let go of it and try something else because there are some things we might not have the time, patience or bandwidth to understand.

No. 4 Remember those Hippie Kids in Easy Rider?

Growing food requires diligence and commitment. Some vegetables like squash and tomatoes (in my experience) can be overly enthusiastic (see #3a), even aggressive, depending on the variables of your situation. Other vegetables lack elan. (See #3b). Some food you grow gets eaten by bugs and animals, which can evoke feelings of anger. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that the bugs and animals were there first, and, nature. Then figure out how to deal with it. I haven’t figured it out myself.

tomatoes in a box suburban gardening

No. 5 Death Never takes Wise Man By Surprise

Sometimes a plant dies despite your best efforts. There is disappointment and even sadness. Other times a plant dies because you killed it. There is guilt and regret.

No. 6 Location, Location, Location

Just because you plant something in a given location does not mean it needs to stay there. Your back yard garden can and likely will be ever-evolving.

Carrots pulled from the earth suburban gardening

No.7 Slow & Steady Wins the Race

Growing a garden is not an immediate gratification kind of endeavor. But, the years of cultivating a garden can offer immense joy and satisfaction, beyond what any fast-fix can offer.

No. 8 Every Artist was First an Amateur

Landscape design is an art form, and gardening is not everyone’s talent. But a garden is a gift of life. So if it is not working out, and you have the means, hire a professional!

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