Gardening. Every spring, it seems easy: soil, seeds, water, sun. Right?

But every year, overwhelmed by the prospect of beginning — What to plant? Where to grow? When to start? — so many of us don’t.

Gardening is one of the top hobbies in the United States, says Steven Tomasi of A.J. Tomasi Nurseries in Pembroke, “But also the most feared.”

The seed of this fear? Making a mistake.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

“There have never been so many resources for advice,” Tomasi says. Head to a local garden center for help, and check online resources, too.


Start from the ground up

Like building a house, good soil is a garden’s foundation, Tomasi says.

“Without it, a garden fails.”

To determine the quality of your soil, Joann Vieira, director of horticulture at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, recommends an expert evaluation. For about $15, you can mail a sample to the Soil and Plant Tissue Testing Laboratory at UMass Amherst, where a routine soil analysis will be performed and the results delivered in five to 10 business days.

“New England soil tends to be acidic,” Vieira says. “They can tell you what additional nutrients, if any, or organic material are needed. If the soil is lousy, the crop and yield will be affected.”

Amy Van Doren of Mahoney’s Garden Center — based in Winchester with seven other locations across the region — agrees.

“There’s an old gardening adage,” Van Doren says. “‘Spend 90 cents on soil and 10 cents on plants.’”

Before you plant, plan

What’s in your dream garden? And where is it?

“Start small and compact when you’re new to gardening,” advises Annie Stuart of Weston Nurseries, with locations in Hopkinton and Chelmsford. Growing plants in a container, windowbox, or a small raised bed are a few options.


Consider planting yourself in “school” to get some hands-on learning and helpful tips from experts before starting out on your own.

Stuart teaches Square Foot Gardening, a workshop on how to grow a garden in a 4 x 4 raised bed.

Besides soil, sun also plays a key role. Note the hours when the sun appears and where. Knowing your garden’s sun’s factor — full or partial — is valuable before shopping for plants.

So is knowing when to plant. If you want to start from seed, which is cheaper, all seed packets come with germination lead times. For example, want to grow tomatoes in May? Start seeding indoors in March. Once they’re potted, find a sunny place like a windowsill or use a grow light. Don’t forget to water.

Near-foolproof plants, shrubs, and trees

“People want a purpose to their garden,” Van Doren says. Customers concerned about carbon footprint and climate change will ask her what flowers will attract pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and caterpillars.

“More than just looking good,” Van Doren says, “they want their garden to fit into a bigger picture.”

Cooking herbs like oregano, chives, and basil can be used to season food all year long and are a good place to begin, she says, “and usually pretty, too.”

Van Doren also suggests planting these vegetables — lettuce, spinach, radishes, peas, and bush (green) beans — because they’re “early” crops, meaning the soil doesn’t have to be warmed to 70 degrees.


Instead of planting traditional, uniform rows, Stuart recommends “companion planting,” grouping plants that help each other out by providing a natural pesticide.

Good combinations include: zucchini mixed with nasturtium, an easy-to-grow annual flower; tomatoes with asparagus, carrot, and marigolds; and carrots with lettuce, onions, peas, or radishes.

Sunflowers are one of the easiest flowers to grow, Tomasi says, and a great way to involve kids throughout the flower’s 12-month life cycle: From burying seeds in a cup, to planting and growing, to harvesting and drying out hundreds of seeds in the fall to use as birdseed in the winter. Even better, make a pine cone bird feeder by coating a cone in peanut butter, then rolling it in the dried sunflower seeds.

“It’s a throwback to the old days,” Tomasi says, “when everything was used and not wasted.”

You can grow food for yourself and still have your garden show color, Vieira says. Try growing lettuce, parsley, ruby chard, and any multitude of colorful peppers along a border. A new Indigo Rose tomato, small and grape-sized, is black on the outside but red on the inside and tastes like a classic tomato.

Alpine strawberries are another easy starter crop. Small, with yellow leaves, the delicious June-bearing fruit can be used as ground cover.

Van Doren suggests planting beautiful berry plants in containers on a patio or deck or in the landscape, like BrazelBerries’ Peach Sorbet, a compact blueberry plant with leaves that change colors throughout the four seasons, from peach to purple.


If planting new flowers every year (annuals) seems like too much work, Van Doren says stick with perennials that return the next season. Just stagger when they’ll bloom. For example, dianthus, a pink and starry-shaped flower, is perfect for early spring.

“Uncle Mike’s” spinach — developed by a second-generation Mahoney — is another example of an early season plant and one of the most resilient, withstanding chills up to 40 degrees in early spring, and thriving in warmer temps. Cauliflower, broccoli, kale, and cabbage are also great performers early in the season, but plant them before you plant the peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant.

Forsythia bushes — the bright yellow, branchy shrubs that usher in spring — add a great dash of color to any yard. They’re very resilient and a real confidence booster, Van Doren says.

If your aspiration is to be Johnny Appleseed, Van Doren suggests Urban Apple, a new, easy to maintain hybrid that grows tall and narrow, and easily flourishes in a skinny space like a back deck.

Tools of the trade

It depends on the size of your garden, but a metal rake, a soil knife that can double as a trowel, and lightweight, breathable gardening gloves are a few of the classic tools, says Vieira.

When deciding where to place your plants, don’t forget the water source.

“Plants can’t tell you when they need water,” Stuart says. You’ll need to touch the soil regularly to determine their dryness. Plant your garden near where you travel most often, she advises, so you’ll remember to water them.


Or try a foolproof solution like EarthBox, Stuart suggests, or City Pickers, sold at Home Depot. The container gardening systems come with built-in water reservoirs, so they’re self-watering.

Now if only they could self-weed.

Here’s some good plants for starters

Peter Vera, of the Mahoney’s in Winchester, recommended these hardy stalwarts for novice gardeners:

Annuals (last one season)

sunny - geranium, marigold, petunia

shade - impatiens, begonia

Perennials (keep coming back)

sunny - day lily, black-eyed Susan

shade - hosta, fern, astilbe


tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, carrots, potatoes


Any berry — strawberry, blueberry, rasberry; most come back year to year

Kathy Shiels Tully can be reached at kathy@kathyshielstully.com.