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How to plan the ‘starter garden’

Julie Halzel

Whether it’s a park bench just off to the side of a winding garden path or a window box filled with colorful flowers beneath curtains blowing lightly in the breeze, flowers and gardens have the power to sooth. One of the best parts of gardening is that nearly anyone can participate in it. Though there are tricks to the gardening trade, the good news is they are not too complicated and there are plenty of people around to help.

So where’s a beginner gardener to begin? A good place is the very spot where you plan to create a garden, says Marty Jones, garden expert and co-owner of The Wildflower Farm Garden Center and Gift Shop in Edwards.

“The first step is planning. How big is the garden going to be and where is it located?” says Jones. “A garden can be anywhere you want, in the sun or the shade, but the plants have to be adaptable to the conditions you’re planting them in.”



Laurel Potts from the CSU Extension Office recommends monitoring the area for a day, stepping outside and evaluating the lighting every couple of hours.

“Map out a day’s time, and every two-hour interval, see what sids are sunny and hot and mark it down,” says Potts. If an area is in shade all day, it’s going to require different kinds of plants and irrigation systems than an area that has sunlight for half the day.



The second step, Jones says, is considering proper irrigation. Gardens require less water than a lawn, shrubs or trees, but no matter what you decide to plant, you’re going to need water. It takes most of the season for newly-planted perennials to get established, but choosing plants that specifically require less water than others can save water in the long run.

Jones explains that there are lists that rate plants based on how much water they require. Every category has 1X, 2X or 3X ratings. A 1X rating requires roughly 1 inch of moisture per week, a 2X rating requires 1/2 inch of moisture per week, and a 3X rating requires only 1/2 inch of moisture every two weeks. During dry years like the current one, it’s a good idea to choose plants with a 2X or 3X ratings, Jones says.

Potts agrees. “It’s a matter of knowing a little more about plant palettes and the needs of plants and how much water they take,” she says “The next thing you need to do is improve the soil in the area of the garden,” says Jones. “



That means adding organic material to the soil.” Jones explains that using soil as it is found, although easier, is not the best option in the long run. The nutrients and content that the compost provides to the soil can help ensure gardening success, but only if the compost is used correctly.

“Typically, people sprinkle a little on the soil and think it’s good, and then they come back a month later and the soil is brick-hard,” says Jones. He says that to effectively improve the quality of the soil, it takes anywhere from 2 to 6 inches of compost, depending on the original quality of the soil.

After the stage for the garden area is set, it’s time to start planning what kinds of flowers and plants you will grow and what your garden will actually look like.

As far as taking into account what plants are “beginner-friendly,” Jones says that most of the perennials that are sold in a typical garden center are going to be pretty easy to grow.

Another thing that is important to consider is making sure the size of the plants that you want to grow is in scale to the size of your garden. “Make sure you read the labels and understand how big it’s going to get,” says Jones. “People come in and see a cute little plant in a 2-inch pot and they don’t realize it’s going to grow four feet in diameter.”

It’s also a good idea to have an idea of the direction and style you want your garden to grow in. “I would recommend that people visit other people’s gardens and talk to their friends and neighbors that are gardeners,” says Potts. “You can see what works and get ideas for what you want to do.”

Jones adds a bit of cautionary advice: “The key is starting with something small that you can manage, then expanding.”

Even expert gardeners have had difficulties in the beginning. Though Jones has been a professional gardener for over 30 years, he still remembers the challenges he faced as a beginner gardener. “It was getting the soil in good condition and proper plant selection,” he says. “Typically, I didn’t prep soil well enough, which meant the plants didn’t grow as well … It’s a little more complicated than it appears at first. Irrigation and soil prep are very important.”

And now that Jones is an expert, what is his favorite thing to plant? “I like iris a lot, I like columbines, I like poppies … I like all plants, really,” he says with a smile. “Things are always changing in a garden, that’s the purpose of it for me. The whole process ” from the soil prep to the design to the implementation ” is very dynamic.”


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