A lot of people are blogging about gardening these days. People who normally blog about clothing, interior design and a little bit of everything (or, um, nothing) are writing posts about gardening. I think that is fantastic. The more gardeners in this world the better, so if people are inspired to put a few plants in containers or improve their landscape or install raised beds to grow some veggies, this is only a good thing. Especially when people are new to gardening. I hope every one of them has great success and falls in love with it.

Last week, one of the non-gardening blogs I read had a beautiful mood board full of gorgeous pictures of all the plants the blogger was planning to put into a new border, and it was a great mix. But then she said this: "Gardening is TOTALLY trial and error."

I cringed. By and large, there is very little trial and error in gardening, at least for the home gardener, in terms of whether a plant lives or dies. And gardening can be a rather expensive endeavor (of course it can be done very economically depending on how you approach it). So why would anyone spend a good deal of money to just guess if a plant is going to live or not? Most people wouldn't so I would hate for people to think that whether a plant lives or dies in your yard is a crapshoot.

So here's a way to make sure a plant is going to live in your yard. In other words ... all the ways that gardening is not totally trial and error.


1. Is it hardy in your area? Find your USDA hardiness zone and only buy plants that are hardy in your area. Better yet, buy plants that are a half zone or full zone hardier than your zone (a good rule to follow for expensive investment shrubs and trees).

2. Is it suitable for the amount of sun it will get where you intend to plant it? Your choices are full sun, part sun, part shade and shade (very few plants grow in deep, full shade). It can be hard to know how much sun a spot in your yard gets so one technique that can be helpful is to put a plain white sheet of paper in that spot and make note of it throughout the day. It sounds weird, but it's much easier to tell if the sun is really shining on something or if it's just bright in an area. Or you can get a sunlight calculator, which will tell you after a day outside how much sun a spot gets (presuming you use it on a nice, clear day).

Full sun = 6-8 hours of sun
Part sun = 4-6 hours of sun
Part shade = 4-6 hours of sun
Shade = Less than 4 hours of direct sun

The difference between part sun and part shade is difficult to delineate, but I think it's safe to say that closer to 4 hours of direct sun is part shade and closer to 6 hours of sun is part sun.

Be mindful that you are judging the amount of sun after the trees have leafed out, not in early spring when you are planning a garden.

When we built the path in the backyard we got a good look at what our soil is really like. The top layer was mostly clay, the middle was a lovely humus-rich loam and the bottom was mostly sand.

3. What kind of soil does it like? Some plants absolutely need acidic soil to thrive. Azaleas and camelias will never grow decently in my yard because I have alkaline soil. Some plants need sharp drainage, others like soil that's a bit boggy. But most plants fall somewhere in the middle. If plant has a special soil requirement, it will clearly state it on the plant tag. Otherwise, most plants will do fine with a good-draining soil rich with organic matter.

The hot bright area along the south side of the house is helping 'CanCan' climbing rose and 'Mrs. N. Thompson' clematis thrive, so long as I can give them enough compost and water to meet their needs.

4. Does your site have special conditions? I have a small bed alongside the south side of the house, bordered by the patio. It is hot there, not just because it is tucked up alongside the house, but also because the white siding reflects a lot of light. It's also a bit dry because of the eaves on the house. It's a microclimate and I can certainly grow plants there that are at least a zone less hardy than the rest of my garden, if not more. But they also need special attention in the form of feeding, regular top-dressing with compost and extra water. Houses, walls, low spots, high spots, etc. can all create microclimates that might make a plant that would normally grow there unhappy. The silver lining is that it also sometimes means you could plant something in that spot that you wouldn't be able to otherwise.

And really, that's about it. HSSS (hardiness, sun, soil, special conditions). OK, so it's not the catchiest acronym in the world, but it gets right down to it. Once you establish those things—and you can tell if a plant will fulfill those needs just by reading the tag or doing a quick Google search—the rest is just a matter of taste. Whether you like how plants look with one another just comes down to your preference (which is not to say that there aren't some design rules, but rules are meant to be broken, and I'm a firm believer in creating a garden that pleases the gardener first), but if you get a plant that will work in your yard by checking off that HSSS list, and pay attention to it the first year, mostly by making sure it gets enough water to establish itself, it will live. Plants want to grow. Give them the right spot and they will.

So, no, gardening is not trial and error. Nurseries, botanical gardens, plant hunters and plant developers have done all the hard work for us. All gardeners need to do is read a tag.


I love garden ornaments and sculpture. The right piece in the right place adds another dimension to a garden. There's a place for serious sculpture and whimsical ornaments in any garden, but I think the key is to know when to stop. Nothing makes a garden look a little bit like a junk yard with plants growing in it faster than too much stuff laying around in it. Ornaments should always compliment the plants, not the other way around.

I love using driftwood in my garden and I have a collection of interesting pieces that some day I'd like to turn into something. The problem is, I don't know what that is.

But I'm also adding a little something to the garden hopefully this weekend that I hope will say "sculpture" and not "random junk from the side of the road" when it's finished. I'm not even going to tell you about it yet because I really have no idea how this is going to go.

In the meantime, I thought we'd look at some great garden ornaments for a bit of inspiration this spring Friday.

I think this is a great example of the plantings and the sculpture being perfect for one another.

This one is just downright cool. In the comments on this photo, several people asked how you make such a sphere but the artist isn't saying.

I like this cow. I once saw a concrete pig (almost life sized) in a garden and I've been somewhat infatuated with concrete pigs ever since. And no, I'm not adding a pig to my garden (not this weekend anyway).

This falls in the creepy-but-cool category for me.

How can you not love this gravity-defying sculpture?

While I'm not sure I love the sculpture itself (I'm a bit concerned about this women's head), I love the siting of it. Something so modern and geometric in a woodsy area is so interesting.

What's your favorite kind of garden ornament?

A Wythe Blue door on a falling-down garage

I forgot to show you something I did about a month ago.

I painted the garage door Wythe Blue (Benjamin Moore color). I've been sort of lusting over that color, which is this really interesting grayish greenish blueish, sort of turquoise-but-not color for a long time and I really wanted to paint something that color. 

Since I didn't want something as bold as the blue on our front door (I didn't remember until went to link that post that I had entertained the idea of painting the front door Wythe Blue), but I did want to have a little fun, it hit just the right sweet spot on the garage.

Of course the rest of the garage is still a wreck. We're waiting for the contractor/neighbor to finish up a couple projects so he can rip the roof off the entire thing and put on a new one that matches the house on. 

And do you see that dirty snow pile next to the garage? The last vestiges of snow are finally melting but the bottom of the heap is always the grossest. And that red roof peeking out is actually our neighbor's two-story garage poking up above ours. That's the neighbor who is doing a roof, so we keep telling him that the sooner he fixes our roof, the sooner the view from the window on that side of their garage improves.

We'll be painting the whole thing as well. We decided to go with gray for the siding and white for the trim (what a shock, right?). The problem is this silly weather, which just won't warm up soon enough. All of these projects need a bit of warmth to get going.

Even on the derelict-looking garage, we love the new door color. So much so that we're thinking of painting the outside of the new screen door for the back door that color. I mean, if you can't paint a screen door a fun color, what can you?


I know that it is high time to stop complaining about how bad winter was, but those of us who experienced it will be dealing with its aftermath for some time. In my area, where Lake Michigan reached an absurd 93% ice coverage this winter (for the first time since the 1970s), the water is going to be cold most of the summer.

And that means my garden, which is about 500 feet from Lake Michigan, will be plenty cold too. I wonder if there will be a ripe tomato before late September.

So this year I'm taking extraordinary measures to combat the lingering cold weather. In addition to tenting all my raised vegetable gardens with plastic to warm the soil, for the first time ever, I'm starting some things inside. 

I'm embarrassed to say that I'm not much of a seed grower. I find it a little intimidating. You have to time it correctly, keep those little babies alive, harden them off and then hope they take to their new homes. Rather than mess with all that, I've always just bought plants for the vegetables I didn't need many of (tomatoes and zucchini) and direct sowed seeds in the garden for the other things. For the most part, this has worked out quite well.

But this year I'm afraid that if I wait until it's warm enough to direct sow seeds, there won't be enough growing time left to get any production out of my plants. If I can transplant things started from seed indoors at the same time I would have sowed seeds, I'll be weeks ahead of the game. 

So I ordered a grow light (there's no way I can provide enough natural light to grow seeds inside without one), dragged out the heat mat I bought years ago for growing amaryllis in pots for Christmas gifts, and started sowing.

Seed starting

Seed starting
The future garden grows in a window with the help of a grow light. The spray bottle is full of composted manure tea, which is all I'm watering the seedlings with.

So far, I've sowed evergreen bunching onions, a variety of kale, basil and vining nasturtiums. I intend to plant seeds as well as the transplants of the onions and kale to extend the harvest. This is the first time I've grown basil from seeds, but I've had limited success with the small plants I buy in nurseries. Talking to fellow gardeners, it seems like the people who have those enormous basil harvests are the ones who grow from seed, so I'm giving it a shot. If it all fails, I can always go back to buying the plants.

The nasturtiums are meant for the window box. Last year I threw in some seeds and by the time the plants grew, they were gorgeous and I absolutely loved them as an element in the window box. However, I started them so late that they had sort of missed the peak of the display by the time they were really getting going. I can always stick the extra plants elsewhere in the garden so I'm not worried about that.

Seed starting

Seed starting
Evergreen bunching onions
Of course, now I'm really into this seed growing thing. It's fun to have something to baby a bit and it's really quite remarkable how much they grow over the course of a day. I think when they get larger, I'll pot them up into 3- or 4-inch pots and continue growing them until it's time to harden them off and then I'll start some more seeds. I'd like to start a few different varieties of nasturtiums (you know I can't get enough of them) and zinnias, and maybe even more kale.

Seed starting

Seed starting

The only thing I have to be watchful of is making sure I have room for all these things to be growing in the house. Funny how that works: gardeners always seem to be running out of room, no matter how much room they have.