Getting Started in Ornamental Gardening

Getting Started in Ornamental Gardening

  • By Cathy Caldwell
  • /
  • July 2015 - Vol. 1 No. 7
  • /

Photo: Kate Galligan

by Cathy Caldwell

Are you just starting out as an ornamental gardener?  Welcome to the best club on earth.  Gardeners of all stripes tend to be the best sort of person — kind, eager to learn new things, and helpful.  Plus, you’ll be working with the earth — so elemental an enterprise that it confers a deep soul satisfaction on all practitioners.

Not that there won’t be frustrations.  That happens to all gardeners, amateur and veteran alike.  Why, just last week I was out spraying deer repellent on my daylilly buds, hoping I’d actually get to see a few of them open.  With my other hand, I was madly grabbing at weeds.  The irony of my dual protect-and-destroy mission was overwhelming, and that’s how it is when you’re working with — or against — Mother Nature.

Perhaps your path can be smoothed a bit.  I’ve outlined some of the mistakes I made as a newbie in the hope that you’ll be relieved from even just a few trial-and-error mishaps.   That way you can get going on making your own mistakes!

First of all, do NOT start planting this month.  Sorry, but July is not a good month for planting much of anything.  The heat will stress new transplants, and coupled with the periods of drought we often get in July, may shrivel up that beautiful plant you just bought.  Even if you’re conscientious about keeping your new transplants moist, you’re risking disappointment, especially if you go on vacation and must rely on volunteers to do the watering.  So save the planting for fall, which is an ideal time for starting most garden plants, shrubs and trees.

While you’re waiting for fall, you can do the preparatory work and planning that will lead to a beautiful garden next spring and summer.  You didn’t think you could just slide a few seeds or plants into the ground, did you?  Well, that only works if you’ve inherited beds that were already prepared by a previous owner.  And true confessions time:  in my early years, I tried this myself — and on our red Virginia clay soil to boot.  Needless to say, my early efforts were complete failures.  Mother Nature needs a little help — unless you’re a weed.

A life in gardening seems like one long series of mistakes.  But mistakes lead to learning, wisdom even, right?  In this way, gardening seems like the ultimate metaphor for life.  Still, a newbie can learn from the mistakes — and successes — of veteran gardeners.  And that’s the way to go if you’re just getting started — or even if you’re experienced.  All gardeners expand their fund of knowledge through learning from other gardeners.  If you have a neighbor or friend with a garden you admire, ask for a personal “tour” and start asking questions.  Most gardeners are happy to share their experiences.  And you’ll have your first gardening mentor.

Mary in garden

Photo courtesy of Kate Galligan

Gardening mentors can come in the human format, but there are other types as well, such as garden tours and garden publications, as well as educational programs offered to the public.

“Through the Garden Gate” Tours

Take advantage of the opportunity to visit local gardens offered via the “Through the Garden Gate” tours, sponsored every spring and summer by Piedmont Master Gardeners.   No fancy estates on these tours, though such gardens undoubtedly provide inspiration.  Instead, you’ll see the gardens created by ordinary people through their own dedication and hard work.  You’ll discover new plants, see arresting plant combinations, and get some ideas for lay-outs that might suit your own site.  Best of all, the gardener who did all the work is there to answer your questions.  You can pick up brochures at the Extension Office or check the schedule of tours online at Garden Gate Brochure.  The next tours are on Saturday, July 11 and Saturday, September 12.  Don’t miss these opportunities!

Demonstration Gardens

The volunteers of the Piedmont Master Gardeners recently created a native plant garden near the amphitheater at the new Martha Jefferson Hospital.  PMG also maintains a rose garden at the Senior Center.  In addition, PMG has collaborated with other groups, including the Master Naturalists,  on a butterfly garden at the Ivy Creek Natural Area. More information on these demonstration gardens is available at the PMG website, PMG Demonstration Gardens.

Spring Garden Lecture Series

Every spring the Piedmont Master Gardeners offer a series of four evening lectures on a variety of garden topics.  Watch the PMG website for the dates of the lecture series next spring.  Not only will you learn from experts, you’ll meet other gardeners.  Who knows, maybe you’ll meet a new garden mentor.

Virginia Tech/ Va. Cooperative Extension Publications

Check out the extensive list of research-based publications at  Look at the Lawn and Garden category for information  on everything from the best plants for Virginia to how to compost. You’ll eventually want to do this. Really.

Gardening Magazines, Books and Catalogs

Those splashy photos in gardening magazines and books will not only inspire you, they’ll increase your knowledge of plants and how to combine them.  Ornamental gardening is a creative endeavor;  you can spark your own creativity by studying the combinations and designs you’ll find in magazines and books.  This is true for catalogs, too.  In my early years, I kept copies of garden catalogs at my bedside.  I fell asleep stumbling over Latin names, but I slowly acquired a knowledge base  —  not only of plant names but which need sun vs. shade, which are easy to grow vs. demanding, etc.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and name names.  Here is a list of catalogs to get you started:

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, (based here in Virginia)

Brent & Becky’s Bulbs

Niche Gardens

White Flower Farm

J.L. Hudson

Sandy’s Plants, (a Virginia wholesaler of native plants that sells to individuals only at their nursery in Mechanicsville, Va.)

Gardening magazines worthy of your attention include Fine Gardening, Hortus, Garden Gate, and Horticulture.

Remember that many gardening magazines and catalogs have a financial interest in pushing NEW cultivars and varieties.  Be aware that sometimes that heavily-advertised newly-developed plant becomes a garden bully, wiping out other plants in its zeal to take over.  I urge new gardeners to stick with the tried-and-true garden classics and natives.

A couple books that are recommended for beginning gardeners are The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch (Workman Publishing Co. 1988) and Beginner’s Illustrated Guide to Gardening: Techniques to Help You Get Started by Katie Elzer-Peters (Cool Springs Press 2012).


Yes, nurseries and garden centers can be helpful, especially if the nursery has a staff with expertise to share.  Keep in mind while you’re drooling over a gorgeous blooming plant or shrub that in all probability, it was grown in the artificial conditions of a grower’s nursery.  In your garden, it will probably bloom at a different time.  You’ll learn more about what plants bloom when by driving around town and walking through neighborhoods.

In July, some nurseries will have plants on sale, and this can be an opportunity to acquire plants you want at bargain prices.  But proceed with caution, or you could end up with a diseased plant.  This happened to me.  One cheap but sickly rhododendron spread disease to an entire bed of rhodies.  A false economy if ever there was one!  So examine sale plants carefully for signs of disease.  An end-of-season sale once worked out quite well for me.  I had a plan for a new bed and spotted most of the plants I needed in the sale section of a reputable nursery.  I left the plants in their pots in a semi-shaded spot for the rest of the summer.  With no vacation planned, I was able to keep them well-watered until fall, and they were in good shape at the right time for transplanting to their new home.

Make it Small but Beautiful

Start small.  Your aim is to have a small garden so lovely that it brings you and others joy every time you pass it.  You’ll be buoyed by your success and feel confident enough to proceed with bigger projects.  Spend some time and thought on choosing the best site for your starter garden (choose a spot where it will be seen often) — and also on choosing the right plants for that spot (sun vs. shade) — and in designing the bed (when it comes to shape, consider the curve).

Do NOT buy one of everything at the garden center.  Believe me, I know how tempting that is.  But most plants are more appealing in drifts and masses.  How you arrange your groups is part of the creative process, but make sure your combinations include different heights, textures and plant habits (soft mounding plants make a delightful contrast to spiky, tall plants).  Even if you’re mostly after flowers, the “bones” of your garden will be shrubs or small trees.  Please do NOT try to pick plants whose blooms are the same color as your house.  You don’t want your flowers to “disappear” into the walls; contrasting colors are much more pleasing.

Mass planting

Mass planting

Take a look at the design principles in Planning the Flower Border, a Va. Cooperative Extension publication.  Oh, about that word “border” — it’s the term gardeners use for the long beds that are sited along a borderline of some sort — the neighbor’s property line or the front of your house (also called foundation plantings) or the rock wall that marks the edge of a terraced hillside.

Improve Your Soil

I’ve got this listed last, but it’s the most important element.  Soil is what it’s all about, the foundation upon which your garden depends.  If you’re working with heavy clay soil — and most of us are here in central Virginia — do some soil prep NOW, so you’ll be ready for planting in fall.

Some plants are quite fussy about soil, but you’ll want to avoid those, at least in the beginning.  But almost all desirable garden plants need soil that has the fundamental nutrients they need to prosper and a loose enough structure to permit the passsage of air, water and roots.  Most clay soils lack these essentials, at least to some extent.  In fact, clay soil may look and act like concrete on a hot, dry summer day.  That’s why you’ll need to work in amendments, which are materials like compost.  Compost is basically just decayed organic matter, often a combination of plant matter, sometimes including manure.  If you’re wise, you’ll add a top layer of compost to your garden once a year.  Nothing could make your plants happier!

When I was just starting out, I tried to scrimp on soil amendments.  The prices of compost, whether bagged or delivered, seemed really high.   But whatever money I might have saved was more than outweighed by the money lost on plants that didn’t make it.  These days I do pay for delivered compost as well as mulch, but there are indeed some ways to save, including:

— Make use of the autumn leaves you rake up in the fall.  You can mow them to break them into smaller pieces and use them as mulch, or pile them up in a shady spot and let them rot for a while, turning them into free soil amendments. When you work them into your garden bed, they’ll not only add nutrients, they’ll improve the structure and drainage of your soil, all of which are key elements to healthy plants.

–If your neighbors are bagging leaves for collection, ask if you can have them.  More free soil amendments and mulch!

— If there’s tree work going on in your neighborhood, you might acquire some free wood chips, which you can use for mulch.   I was able to do this after that big ice storm a few years ago.  I hailed the driver of a truckload of wood chips, who was delighted to unload them in my yard because it saved him time and dumping fees.  The chips were not quite ready to be good mulch until after a season or two of decay, but time turned them into a huge and wonderful mulch pile that I am still using.

By the way, mulch is organic matter, though not as decayed as compost, and it’s spread on the surface of the soil  beneath plants to conserve moisture and prevent weeds.  Most ornamental gardeners use wood chips or leaves as mulch, which then slowly decomposes and adds nutrients just as compost does.  In fact, one easy way to improve your soil — assuming it’s reasonably good soil to begin with — is by adding a layer of mulch every spring.  Over time, the decomposing mulch will work some magic on your soil.

— Ask your neighbors how they acquire compost or mulch.  They may even want to “go in on” a delivery of mulch or compost and share the cost.  Or, as happened to me, your gardening friend or neighbor may tell you about a farmer that provides them with compost or manure at a good price.

If your new bed will be in an area that’s currently lawn, you need not employ herbicides to clear it.  Instead, read about “lasagna gardening” — which involves layers of newspaper, cardboard, and piles of leaves or other organic matter.  These thick layers of bio-degradable materials will kill the grass — and weeds — and you’ll have a site that has more nutrients and better soil structure than before.  You can make holes through the layers where you insert the plants.  Did I say earlier that you can’t just insert the plants?  Well, with lasagna gardening, you can!  Read all about it in Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens: No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding! by Patricia Lanza (1998).  I found this book in the Jefferson Madison Regional Library.

If you’re new to gardening — or just new to this area — we’d love to hear from you.  Let us know about your experiences and your questions and your needs. We’d like to help.  Write to us here at The Garden Shed, and feel free to call the Master Gardener Help Desk:  434- 872-4580.



  1. Bernice Thieblot

    Great article, Cathy! Remarkably full coverage of what a beginner needs to know—and what VCE offers to help.

    One tiny note about mulch: Joe Murray recommends whole-tree rather than tree bark mulch because bark, being more waxy , breaks down more slowly and can form a water resisting crust.

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