Gardening Basics For Dummies book cover

Gardening Basics For Dummies

By: Steven A. Frowine and National Gardening Association Published: 03-30-2021

Cultivate your passion to grow

In a 1625 essay, Francis Bacon called gardens "the purest of human pleasures," and what was true then is even more so today—gardening can give you a serene refuge from the short-lived (and noisy!) distractions of modern life and a fertile basis for satisfaction that will bear fruit long into the future. To help you get started on your own leafy paradise, the new edition of Gardening Basics For Dummies grounds you thoroughly in the fundamentals of soil, flowers, trees, and lawns—and helps you get to know the names of what you're planting along the way!

In a friendly, straightforward style, professional horticulturist Steven A. Frowine distills 50 years of gardening experience to show you how to start growing your expertise—from planning out your own mini-Eden and planting your first annuals, bulbs, and perennials through to laying the perfect lawn, raising tasty crops, and even introducing fish to your landscape! He also digs into the grubbier side of horticultural life, making sure you're as prepared as any seasoned farmer to deal with pests, weeds, and other challenges the earth will throw up at you.

  • Create your ideal garden plan
  • Become an expert on common flora with definitions and descriptions
  • Know how to look after your soil
  • Get creative with butterfly and children's gardens

Whether you're beginning with a tiny garden in a box, or beautifying your property with tree-lined groves and flowery bowers, this is the ideal introduction to the intense pleasure of gardening and will make you happy to reap what you’ve sown!

Articles From Gardening Basics For Dummies

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43 results
43 results
Gardening Basics For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheet / Updated 04-01-2022

To have the garden of your dreams, make sure you pick the right plants for your hardiness zone and select the right fertilizers for your plants. If your garden is shady, this Cheat Sheet offers a list of plants made for the shade. When you're planning and measuring your garden use the handy conversion chart for metric and standard measurements.

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How to Plant Bulbs

Article / Updated 05-01-2017

Planting bulbs is simple. But before you start the planting process, be sure the chosen spot has good, well-draining soil. Bulbs rot in soggy ground and struggle in sandy soil; although adding some organic matter can ease these problems considerably, it is still in your best interest to select a location that resembles an ideal environment for your bulbs. Learn how to plant bulbs for the best results with these steps: Dig an appropriately sized hole. If you're planting only a few bulbs or you're spot-planting (tucking bulbs in among other plants in a mixed bed), use a trowel. If you're planting lots of bulbs, break out the shovel and make a trench. Not all bulbs are the same size, so not all bulbs should be planted the same depth. The general rule is three times as deep as the bulb's height. This guideline varies a bit based on your soil type. In sandier soils, you can plant a little deeper; in heavy clay soils, a little shallower. If you forget how deep to plant your bulbs, consult the supplier's label or catalog. Too shallow, and your bulbs may poke their heads above the soil surface too early and get damaged by wintry weather; too deep, and they'll take longer to emerge. Roots grow out of the bottom of the bulb, so the quality of the soil underneath it is more important than what you pack the hole with. If you're amending the soil with organic material like compost or sphagnum moss, dig somewhat deeper-than-recommended holes so you can accommodate this addition. Distance apart varies with the type of bulb and the sort of display you have in mind. If you crowd the bulbs underground, the eventual show may suffer. Certainly, don't let the bulbs touch one another. The general rule is at least three bulb-widths apart "on center" (from the center of one bulb to the center of the next). But experience can tell you what the bulbs you've chosen tolerate and how dense you like your displays. Add a fertilizer. Use a fertilizer that has a higher phosphorus number, such as a 5-10-5 fertilizer. Phosphorus (the P in the N-P-K on fertilizer labels) is important for the root growth as well as flower production. Just sprinkle the fertilizer in the bottom of the hole and scratch it in so it mixes with the soil a bit. If the ground is bone dry, water a day or so before planting so the ground is damp but not muddy when you're planting the bulbs. If you want to wait to fertilize, you can scratch the fertilizer into the surface of the soil in the spring as the bulbs are growing. Securely place the bulb’s basal plate against the bottom of the hole. You want the nose, or growing point, to point up and the roots, or basal plate from which they'll grow, to point down. (If you can't tell, plant the bulb on its side — the plant will figure it out in due course! Botanists call this nifty skill gravitropism.) Make sure the bottom of the bulb is in contact with soil; if you leave an air pocket, the roots can dry out and the bulb won't grow or won't grow very well. Backfill with soil and water generously. As you scoop soil back into the hole, firmly press it in place to prevent air pockets. Water well (some settling will occur) and then add a bit more soil as needed. Indicate where you've planted your bulbs so you don't plant other flowers in the same place. Mark the locations with permanent nonrusting, nonrotting labels like those made of zinc or copper.

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How to Take Care of Roses

Article / Updated 05-01-2017

Roses have a reputation for being difficult to care for, but actually learning how to take care of roses is somewhat simple. The main components involved with caring for roses that you need to understand are: planting, watering, fertilizing, pruning, and winterizing. Simply put, with the correct amount of water and sunlight and a little bit of grooming, your roses should thrive. And remember, roses are resilient plants. So, if you occasionally forget or muff something, the plants are surprisingly forgiving. Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/VladTeodor Follow these basic rose care & maintenance steps: Watering your roses regularly. The rule of thumb for watering roses is to make sure roses get about 2 inches a week. Deep soakings are much better than frequent, shallow watering. Set the hose at the foot of the rose and let water trickle in. Or if you have a big bed of roses or roses and companions, use a soaker hose or install an in-ground system. Feed roses consistently before and throughout the blooming cycle and use fertilizer to support healthy growth. Use an all-purpose garden fertilizer, because it has balanced amounts of N (nitrogen), P (phosphorus), and K (potassium). Fertilizers touted especially for roses — such as Rose Food — are fine but not mandatory. In spring, as the plant emerges from dormancy, you can water with a tablespoon of Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) dissolved in a gallon of water to promote strong canes. Always water before applying fertilizer so the plant is plumped up and under no stress. Groom your roses to improve flowering and keep plants healthy: Using sharp clippers, you can spruce up your rosebushes whenever something unattractive about the plant catches your critical eye. Here's stuff you can cut out any time you see it: Dead wood: Remove dead canes down to the ground level. Damaged wood: Cut it back into about 1 inch of healthy wood. Misplaced stems: Take off stems that are rubbing together (choose one and spare the other), stems that are taking off in the wrong direction, and stems that are trailing on the ground. Suckers: In a grafted plant, these errant canes emerge from below the graft union (the bulge at the base of the bush). The suckers look different from the rest of the bush — they're often smoother, straighter, and lighter in color. Another clue: They sprout leaves and occasionally mongrel flowers that look nothing like the main bush. Deadhead and tidy up your roses for a cleaner, more bountiful rose bed. The plant looks better when you get rid of spent flowers. Also, because the goal of all flowering plants is to stop flowering and produce seed (in the case of rosebushes, to make rose hips), deadheading thwarts the process. So, the plant is fooled into making more flowers. Deadhead away! Whenever you see badly damaged, diseased, or dead leaves, remove them. To be on the safe side, throw them in the trash rather than in the compost pile. Otherwise, the leaves may spread disease. Prune roses in the spring to destroy all old or diseased plant material. Early spring is the best time to prune. If it's still winter, your overeager cuts may lead to frost damage. Pruning roses is a straightforward process: Remove all non-negotiable growth, thin the plants, and then shape them. Experts advise cutting 1/4 inch above a bud eye so the bud eye doesn't dry out. Use clean, sharp clippers, and cut at a 45-degree angle. Cut near a bud eye, the tiny brownish or reddish bump on the stem (not to be confused with a thorn).

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How to Divide Perennials

Step by Step / Updated 03-27-2016

To keep your perennial gardens healthy you need to divide several kinds of perennials periodically. You know when yours need to be divided because the plants are growing in ever-denser clumps and the flower show isn’t as prolific as it was in previous years. The interior of the clump, in particular, may become disappointingly unproductive. Good timing is important to give the divided plants the best chance of prospering. Early spring is usual, but you can divide some (notably poppies and peonies) in the fall.

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Choosing the Right Vines for Your Garden

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Ask yourself what you want from a vine. Do you have a good spot, or can you create one? Some vines are big, rambling plants; others can fill and remain in their allotted spaces. Some vines offer temporary coverage, and others are long-lasting. Figure out whether you want flowers or fruit and whether you want the vine for part of the growing season or all. Like other plants, vines fall into annual and perennial categories. Read on for info on which kind of vine may be a good fit. Annuals and tender perennials If you want quick gratification, annuals and tender perennials are for you. The vines grow quickly. If they're genuine annuals, they're capable of growing from seed to plant to flowering-and-fruiting plant over the course of one growing season. If they're tender perennials, they can accomplish much the same thing but benefit from a head start indoors (because they can't go outside until all danger of frost is past). Neither annuals nor tender perennials tend to survive a typical, cold North American winter with temperatures that go down to freezing or below; thus, gardeners have to replace these vines each year. The tender perennials survive in Zones 9 through 11. Favorite tender perennials include black-eyed Susan vine, cup-and-saucer vine, bougainvillea, jasmine, and passionflower; favorite annual vines include moonflower, morning glory, climbing nasturtium, and annual sweet pea. Hardy perennials For a longer-term, dependable investment in your garden, perennial vines are a practical choice. Much like the perennials in your flowerbeds, perennial vines typically spend their first season getting established. An old gardener's saying describes the growth pattern of most perennial vines well: "The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap!" In ensuing seasons, these vines return reliably and put on a good show year after glorious year. Please note that over time, their growth may get woody and some pruning may be necessary. Some favorite perennial vines include Boston ivy, English ivy, clematis, climbing hydrangea, mandevilla, creeping fig, crossvine, akebia, honeysuckle, hardy kiwi, silver lace vine, trumpet creeper, and wintercreeper. Perennial vines can differ in their foliage: Deciduous: The definition of a deciduous vine is one that sheds its foliage at the end of the growing season (just like a deciduous tree). And just like a deciduous tree, the vine may treat you to a colorful fall foliage display first. Winter is a dormant period, and then the vine revives the following spring. Favorites include clematis (the fluffy fall seed heads are an attraction), silver fleece vine, trumpet vine, hardy kiwi, and climbing hydrangea (when the leaves fall off, you can admire the handsome shedding red bark). Evergreen: Evergreen vines keep their foliage over the winter months (individual leaves do get replaced over time, but you don't run into wholesale or dramatic shedding time). In colder areas, the leaves may look rather freeze-dried, but they hang on. In milder climates, winter's show is mainly foliage, not flowers or fruit. No matter where you live, if you don't want a barren-looking winter in your yard, evergreen vines are worthwhile. Favorites include various kinds of ivy, creeping fig (tender perennial), crossvine, and some honeysuckles.

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Deciding Where to Put Your Water Garden

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Whether your water garden consists of a barrel or tub with a few plants or a naturalistic in-ground pond, gardeners often cite water features as the element that truly complete a garden. When deciding on the type of water garden to have, first consider where you'd like your garden to be. Even before you go shopping, you need to evaluate the area where you'd like to put a water garden and determine its basic requirements: Sunlight: Most water garden plants adore full sun and bloom with gusto as a result — specifically, 6 or more hours per day is great. Any spot where you can put a sunny flower bed or a vegetable garden can also host a water garden. Openness of the area: You want ample elbow room, not just so the plants have the space they need but also to allow access and, well, room to appreciate. Perhaps you want to put in a bench or dining set nearby. Sufficient air circulation is also good for the health of the plants and any fish. Current large vegetation: Trees and shrubs interfere with roots from below, and these big plants shed leaves, twigs, petals, and fruit from above, which can encourage algae to grow. Avoid putting your water garden under or too close to trees and shrubs. Levelness of the land: Levelness is important because water always responds to gravity and you don't want runoff or spillovers. Granted, few spots are perfectly level, but you can always make the necessary minor adjustments during installation. Location of utility lines: Digging into power lines, gas lines, fiber optic cables, phone lines, pipes, and other such things can be expensive and incredibly unpleasant. Call your utility companies to have these lines marked — most do so for free. Also, consider the location of your power outlets before planning to use a pump. Available room: If you aren't sure you want a large water garden, start small, even if you have room for more; just set up one or more container displays. However, if you have the space and the dream of a big, beautiful pool of water, find or create a good spot in your yard and go for it. Realize that you are unlikely to "do over"; install a pond that's as big as or slightly bigger than you want. A water garden appears to shrink in size when filled with water and plants. Make sure you have enough room for the kind of water garden you want. Desire for fish: Not all water gardens have fish or are even appropriate for fish, but it's best to start off by assuming you won't have fish; you can add them later after your water garden is established and healthy and you've had a chance to evaluate its capacity to maintain fish. For overwintering fish in cold climates, it's a good idea to have someplace in the pond that it is at least three feet deep so the water won't freeze all the way to the bottom of the pond. If you are concerned about this, you can also add a floating de-icer heater especially developed for this purpose. See your local pond supplier for details. Instead of having an elaborate water garden, you can certainly put a small, tubbed display or little pool with running fountain in a shady nook. Just heed all the rest of the requirements described in the preceding list; and if you add plants, don't expect flowers; pick plants based on their handsome foliage. A child or pet can drown even in a few inches of water. You never want to risk that. For this reason, some municipalities don't allow water gardens (particularly in-ground ponds) in front yards. But regardless of location — front yard, backyard, or sideyard — a water garden should be easily visible. Place it where you can see it from elsewhere in the yard and also ideally from a window inside the house. Caution children and supervise them. Erect an encircling low or high fence (with a gate, of course) if required or warranted — better safe than sorry. Poolside edgings (rocks and lush plantings), judiciously placed, can also restrict or inhibit access. Adjacent seating can even help, as it provides a safe and relaxing viewing opportunity.

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Understanding the Benefits of Garden Mulch

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Using mulch is a good gardening habit but not mandatory; the benefits, however, make it worth the effort. A really good job of mulching your garden usually offers these benefits: Inhibits weed germination and growth. (Weeds are not only unsightly, but they also steal resources from desirable garden plants!) Holds in soil moisture, protecting your plants from drying out quickly Moderates soil-temperature fluctuations (This benefit is especially valuable during that turbulent-weather period in spring when you don't want your plants to be stressed.) In cold-winter areas, protects plant roots from winter cold and helps prevent frost-heaving, in which plants are literally pushed out of the ground by the natural expansion and contraction of the soil as it cools off and heats up In hot-summer areas, helps keep plant roots cooler Depending on what you use, adds a bit of welcome nutrition to your garden as it breaks down The "right" or "best" mulch to use depends on your climate, the part of the country you're in, and the part of the yard you're using it in. Some mulches are free, while you can purchase others locally. Experiment to find out what you and your plants prefer. Table 1 provides the basic information you need to know about some of the more popular options. Table 1: Comparing Mulching Options Type of Mulch Advantages Concerns Grass clippings Is cheap, readily available, and easy to apply Decays quickly, so you must replenish often. If you use weed killers on your lawn or nitrogen-heavy fertilizer, it may adversely affect other parts of the garden; can turn slimy if you apply more than an inch or so at a time; if the grass goes to seed before you cut it, the grass seeds can germinate in your garden beds (yikes!) Wood or bark chips Looks neat and attractive; stays where you put it; is slow to decay Pine bark mulch is fairly acidic, which you may or may not want for your garden; if you apply too deeply (over 3") or apply a deep layer up against tree and shrub trunks, you may create a hiding spot for a bark-damaging rodent, especially during winter Decaying leaves Smothers weeds very well; helps hold in soil moisture Is not especially attractive; if it contains seeds, they can germinate and become a weed problem; if the leaves are soft, like maple leaves, the mulch can mat; if it's acidic (oak especially), it can lower your garden soil's pH Compost Is free and plentiful if you have your own compost pile; adds nutrients to the soil as it breaks down Makes a good place for weeds to take hold; fresh compost (especially if it contains manure or grass clippings) can burn plants Peat moss Looks neat and tidy; is versatile — also functions as a soil amendment Can be expensive; if dry, will repel water; becomes crusty over time Straw Is cheap and easy to apply Is so light it can blow or drift away; may harbor rodents, especially over the winter months; isn't very attractive for ornamental plantings Hay Is cheap and easy to apply May harbor rodents, especially over the winter months; isn't very attractive for ornamental plantings; probably contains weed seeds! Gravel, pebbles, or stone Has a nice, neat look (though not "natural"); is easy to apply; won't wash away easily and will last a long time; doesn't need to be replenished over the course of a season in colder climates Can allow weeds to sneak through; provides no benefits to the soil Landscape fabric (garden plastic, black plastic) Keeps weeds at bay; holds soil moisture and warmth in Watering and feeding is hard (you need to cut openings for plants); can be difficult to apply unless you're doing an entire area at one time; isn't very attractive Rubber (shredded recycled car tires) Very long lasting, available in many colors, looks like shredded wood mulch Can smell strongly of rubber; provides no nutritional benefits to the soil

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How to Choose a Garden Hose

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

The best, longest lasting garden hose is one that's composed of layers. The inner layer of a garden hose needs to be a smooth, flexible rubber or synthetic tube. To protect it and give it toughness, the inner layer is covered or coated with at least one outer layer of nylon fabric or mesh. The outer skin beyond that, the part you touch and see, needs to be of a material that doesn't break down after prolonged exposure to sun and weather. It also needs to resist punctures and scratches. Usually, the outer layer is vinyl, or a vinyl-rubber blend, and it's often green or black. Multi-layered hoses may seem a bit fatter or heavier than the inexpensive alternatives, but as usual, you get what you pay for. Cheap hoses and older ones have an annoying flaw: They kink and tangle. If you aren't watching, you can waste water and sometimes harm plants as the hose lashes around. Then you have the problem of hoses that crack, burst, and leak after being left out in the sun or run over by the car, or that just break down after what seems like not very much use. The standard, vinyl-coated, layered hose comes in different forms: namely three-ply, four-ply, and five-ply. As with anything, heavier duty versions, like the five-ply, are more expensive. Heavier duty hoses don't kink as often, can take higher water pressures, and last longer. For occasional watering jobs, the lower ply will work fine; for more frequent use and longer life, go with the higher ply. Other types of hoses include The soaker or leaky hose: This hose "sweats" water slowly out along its entire length via tiny holes. The flat hose: Made of cotton canvas, the flat hose is lightweight and compact. The patio hose: The end of the patio hose is designed to attach to a sink faucet. One more thing to look for when hose-shopping: The fittings at the ends should also be of good quality. Their job is to attach seamlessly to a faucet (or sprinkler, if at the other end) without leaking or spraying. How do you judge quality? If they're cast brass rather than cheap metal, they're built to last. A stamped, galvanized steel fitting never seems to hold up over time.

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Winterizing Your Water Garden

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Autumn is the time to put your water garden to bed and decide what to do with your fish. As the water temperature in your garden pond cools down, you'll cease fertilizing, and the plants will begin to go dormant. Lower the water level a few inches, and float a ball or block of wood on the surface to prevent a total freeze-over. (A complete coating of ice is bad because it prevents the exchange of oxygen and allows toxic gases to build up. Fish and plants below, even when dormant, can perish.) Tropical plants should be hauled out of the pond and tossed onto the compost pile. Or if you want to overwinter them indoors, get the details from wherever you bought the plants or try to find a more experienced water gardener to help you. Some tropicals can stay in heated aquariums; you can strip others of all growth and store their little tubers or rhizomes in damp sand. Hardy plants should be hauled out, too, and given a haircut, leaving only a stub of foliage. If your winters aren't too severe, (Zone 6 or warmer) you can return them to the deepest part of the water garden (no elevating supports now) for the coming months. Otherwise, they can come indoors to a non-freezing place, heaped with straw or another blanketing of mulch until spring returns. Many pond fish can remain outside during the winter, but it really depends on where you live and on the type of water garden you have. Depending on these conditions, you may have to set up an aquarium inside your home and transfer your pond fish there over the winter season. Again, get help and information from wherever you buy your fish. Fish that remain in the pond slow down and go dormant in cold weather, just like hardy plants. Reduce feeding in the fall. Eventually, they'll retreat to the deepest part of the pool, perhaps burrowing into some muck there. If you fear for their survival, you can net them and keep them in an aquarium for the winter.

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How to Care for Annuals in Your Garden

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Taking proper care of garden annuals isn't difficult. For the most part, annuals are easygoing because they're bred to be quite tough and durable. Grooming your flower garden on a regular basis will reward you with a lush, colorful display. Develop a routine — walk around your garden in the morning or early evening to see what needs your attention, do some light maintenance, or just cut a few blossoms to enjoy indoors. Here are some tips for caring for your annuals: Water is an annual's number one need: All that lusty growth and continuous flowering requires fuel. A thirsty plant can't sustain the show for long. Regular, deep soakings are best because they reliably supply water to the roots, which leads to a stress-free life of consistent growth and bud and bloom production. Regular doses of plant food significantly boost your annuals. The leaves become healthier and greener, and you end up with more buds and flowers. Deadhead your annuals regularly: Your annuals look nicer when you do this, of course, but removing the flowers also thwarts the plant from the energy-intensive process of producing seeds, and the plant responds by diverting its energy back into making more flowers. Pinch back top growth to encourage bushy growth: To keep annuals from getting too leggy, you may want to pinch or shear them a couple of times early in the season. This process is called pinching because you can actually pinch off the top of each stem between your thumb and forefinger — but using scissors or pruning shears can be quicker and easier.

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