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Blooming with Beauty: A Beginner’s Guide to Creating Your Own Flower Garden

by Syrie Moskowitz

You can feel the almost imperceptible shift in the air; the wind, still brisk yet with a touch of the warmth of spring, blows against your cheek. Excitement stirs within you. This is the year you are finally going to grow your own flower garden! But then a daunting feeling creeps in. What if you fail? The biggest enemy of any gardener is intimidation. There is so much to gain from watching something grow, but what’s worse than seeing that little plant sprout only for it to wither away before your eyes? Don’t let fear stop you. Though there is lots to learn about flower gardening—my own bookcase is brimming with botanical tomes—there is no better way to learn than by experience; once you put in your first flower bed, gardening may grow into a lifelong obsession. This guide will arm you with the basic knowledge you need to let your flower-growing desires blossom.


First, you need a location for your flower garden. It’s best to choose a spot that gets at least six hours of sun—shady flower beds will limit what you can grow. You can begin by growing a border along the edge of your house or backyard, but I prefer a rogue approach. An oval flower bed smack in the middle of the yard can give an area a new sense of space. Square or rectangular beds can add modern elegance. Flower bedswith curvy lines give a looser, warmer sense to the garden. You also need to know your climate zone, which you can find at planthardiness.ars.usda.gov. Plan your garden with flowers that will thrive in your particular zone. When purchasing at a garden center, labels on plants will denote what zone they’ll survive in.


Once you’ve chosen your site, it’s time to learn about your soil and help its symbiotic microorganisms thrive. Every plant has different needs, and knowing your soil is the first step to successful gardening. I’d hate to count the number of times I’ve brought a beautiful plant home and plonked the poor thing in a hole only for it to die soon after. Though having your soil tested is a great idea, also walk around your neighborhood to see what’s thriving. Amending your soil is also extremely important before planting. Sandy, silty, or rocky soil is very free draining and can often require additional organic material like leaf mold (decomposed leaves saved from the previous year), compost, or well-rotted manure to prepare it for planting. Clay soil is nutrient-rich but extremely dense, so it also needs to be loosened and can be amended with the above organic materials to give your plants’ roots more breathing room. If you have what is called loamy soil, you are very lucky! It tends to hold the right amount of moisture and nutrients for planting and will require less prep work. Dig your flower bed 8 to 12 inches deep and prepare your soil to its specific needs. In subsequent years, you can just add the amendments of compost/well-rotted manure to the top of the soil to protect your hard-earned microbial life.


Choosing a garden style can give your flower-growing some parameters. A classic cottage garden will have pastel flowers billowing over a fence or creeping up a wall; a mismatch of herbs, blooms, and even attractive vegetables randomly plopped into the ground—a cacophony of smells and color. I love this experimental style, especially for beginners. Mediterranean-style gardens, which feature plants such as lavender, rosemary, alliums, globe thistle, agapanthus, and salvias—are great for climates that receive little rainfall. Xeriscaping, which requires little to no irrigation, is a good option for those experiencing drought. If you live in the southern U.S., you can consider tropical plants. Middle Eastern and Moorish paradise gardens can be great inspiration if you want a calming space and straighter lines in your garden. I recommend going online or getting a beautiful book and seeing which images speak to you, then reverse research. What are the plants? Will they grow in my soil? Where is the best place to plant them? Though thorough planning is imperative to success, remember, overthinking can hold you back!

072921 5379 720 4fb13The author in her flower garden (Photo by Rose Callahan)


Now the fun part: Choose your flowers! Though I don’t fully agree with the age-old wisdom that flowers look better when planted in masses, it can be very beneficial for beginners. Having three to five examples of each species of plant is advised (more for a larger bed), and they can be planted together or dotted throughout the bed for a looser feel. A general rule of thumb is tall plants in the back, medium-height plants in the  middle, and lower-growing plants in the front of the bed, allowing them all to receive ample amounts of light. Color and texture are also important. If you like pastels but also are inspired by hot, bright colors, consider having a flower bed of each to prevent clashing, and accent the beds with a color that connects them. Different shades of purple can be beautiful together with a contrasting accent color. “Prairie planting” incorporates beautiful tall flowering grasses, often at the back of the border. Think creatively in terms of texture and also flower shape, mixing, for instance, spikes of salvia with umbels of yarrow and the daisy-shape of a coreopsis or rudbeckia. Try not to plant invasive species, which can destroy local habitats—visit invasivespeciesinfo.gov for info. Garden plants come in three different classifications: annuals, biennials, and perennials.


Annuals bloom and die in one season, which may sound sad, but the benefit is that most of them will bloom all summer long. You can pick up some inexpensive trays of annuals at your local garden center, and a number of annuals do quite well from seeds planted directly into the ground, such as cosmos, calendulas, zinnias, Ammi majus, larkspur (note: all parts of this plant are toxic), bachelor’s button, nasturtiums, nigella, and California poppy. If you’re just starting out, beginning with annuals will add instant color to your space.


Biennials bloom only in the second year—but they are so beautiful that it’s worth the wait. A few of my favorites are hollyhocks, forget-me-nots (Myosotis), foxgloves (note: all parts of this plant are toxic), and sweet williams. Plant them this year for blooms next year, or pick up second-year plants at your garden center.


The backbone of any flower garden, perennials come back every year if they’re in the correct zone. They take longer to grow from seed, so you’ll want to pick a few up from a garden center to get your blooms going right away. Echinacea, catmint, anise hyssop, salvia, coreopsis, Johnny-jump-ups, true geraniums (not to be confused with pelargoniums), and black-eyed Susans are all easy to grow. Unlike annuals, most perennials don’t bloom for the entire season. Depending on your zone, some might blossom in spring, others in June/July, or only in August/September, so they take a bit more planning to ensure your garden has a succession of flowers during the garden season. They may look a bit sparse when you first plant them, but since they fill in over time, they’re a great way to not have to buy or grow new plants every year. Use annuals the first year to fill in any unsightly gaps.


Just like humans, plants need their space. If you’ve sprinkled too much of a wildflower seed mix in one spot and now hundreds of seedlings are growing all packed in together, you must thin your seedlings and remove overcrowded little plants. This will ensure stronger, healthier plants that aren’t fighting for resources. If you are planting grown plants, don’t overcrowd them. They need space to grow as well! The Cottage garden style of planting close together limits the amount of weeding that needs to be done, but be careful of overzealous garden bullies that shade out other plants. Don’t be afraid to cut perennials back. They’ll regrow and often reflower! Deadheading is the act of snipping or pinching off a spent bloom from a plant, be it a cosmos or a rose. Doing it encourages your plant to continue to produce blooms for a longer time. I love to do this as I wander through the garden admiring the flowers. It doesn’t feel like a chore but rather helps me forge a more intimate relationship with the plants. At the end of the season, if you want some plants to self-seed (plant themselves), or to collect seeds for next year, leave several blooms and let them go to seed.


Drip irrigation is the most efficient for watering, and though some systems can be high-tech and expensive, you can do it cost effectively. Simply purchase soaker hoses, or perforate a regular hose to make one. If watering overhead with a hose nozzle or watering can, aim for the base of the plants, taking care not to water the leaves. This achieves two things: you use less water by directing the flow to the roots instead of leaving it to evaporate, and it also helps prevent fungal leaf disorders. How much water varies, but a good rule of thumb is to stick your finger an inch or two into the soil—if it’s dry, it’s time to water. When first planted, flower gardens require substantially more water the first year to get your plants’ roots established. After your plants have grown to a sturdy size, consider mulching your bed with an organic mulch or compost, as this increases the soil’s water retention and provides extra nutrients for the soil. Bare soil should be mulched to prevent weeds as well. A Japanese gardening knife called a hori hori is excellent for removing the entirety of any pesky roots of a perennial weed. Please avoid weed killers as they can damage the local ecosystem and harm beneficial insects.


You’ve done it! Your blooms are blooming. But, oh no! What is that bug? Before frantically spraying a pesticide or collapsing in depression at the fate of your precious plants, a quick search online using clear keywords can instantaneously give you solutions to almost all garden pests. Consider organic neem oil mixed with water and dish soap or baking soda instead of pesticides. Always spray your plants after the sun has set and the beneficial insects in your garden have gone to sleep. Lastly, don’t forget to enjoy your flower garden! It is so easy for us to criticize ourselves and only see flaws or further work to be done. The most important part of gardening is learning to sit back, get yourself a cup of tea, and enjoy your hard-earned blooms.

Illustration, Top Victoria Maxfield

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