Initiation Rites



I’m convinced that nothing puts more would-be gardeners off the garden than books for beginning gardeners. 

They are full of esoteric rules that make gardening sound like being inducted into Skull & Bones or initiated into some Dionysian mystery cult…where there’s a full year of drinking the blood of small animals before you’re allowed to just buy something pretty at Lowe’s and shove it into the ground.

Or they recommend obsolete practices like double digging that never had any connection to reality, except at great English country houses in the first half of the 20th century, where there were paid gardeners who could be ordered to do stupid things.

A perfect example is a book I just picked up at the library, the ironically-titled Spare-Time Gardener by Barbara Hill Freeman.  Now, Barbara sounds like a perfectly nice person who enjoys gardening.  But in an attempt to pad a rather thin idea, she has probably driven thousands of would-be gardeners into other hobbies with fewer prerequisites, such as motocross racing or iguana breeding.

For example, where do we get to the actual planting of things in the soil?  Chapter 27!  Chapter 27!  This is certainly a tantric vision of what it means to garden. 

Plus, unspeakable amounts of spare time would be squandered if you actually followed her spare time plan…on planting containers and creating a gardening notebook and answering questionnaires about "worries and concerns" and a million other things that have absolutely nothing to do with gardening.

Here are a few of the rules beginner’s books often recommend that drive me insane.

1.  Keep a journal.  Keep a journal yourself.  I’d no sooner tell somebody to take up garden-related scrapbooking than I’d tell them to take up drinking games.  At least if you blog about the garden, you can expect a healthy amount of sass back from impatient and well-informed readers.

2.  Make a plan.  Again, make a plan yourself.  If there is one thing first-time gardeners are NOT qualified to do, it’s make a plan.  They need to learn by trial and error, or they wind up ordering many multiples of things that will not do well in their yards.  If you must have a plan, either hire a professional to plan for you—or spend a lot of time considering what does well for the neighbors.

3.  Vegetable gardens are for zealots only.  Freeman actually has the nerve to title her chapter "Think Twice About Vegetables." Then the double-nerve to say why bother growing tomatoes when Paul Newman does a good job of bottling sauce?  Clearly, this woman knows nothing about vegetable gardening or food.  But how unfair that she feels qualified to discourage beginning vegetable gardeners!  I do know about vegetable gardening, so I can say that it offers absurdly disproportionate rewards for whatever spare time and spare muscle you give it. 

Michele’s rules for beginners are different.

1. Get outside and dig.  It’s great exercise, it’s a thrill.  Put shovel in hand and just begin.

2.  Most plants are cheaper than a movie, so buy lots of them and experiment.  Try to match the conditions on the tag to the conditions in your yard.  But don’t sweat it.  If it dies, lesson learned.

3.  Compost or manure into the hole when you plant can’t hurt.

4.  Enrich your soil from the top.  Mulch.  Rake fall leaves into your beds.  A nice layer of compost in spring, if you’ve got the time.

5.  Be suspicious of stuff you read in how-to books.   Conditions are always local, and many writers are just full of it.


  1. Okay, I’ll weigh in here because I work with so many beginners. I certainly agree that most of the books (and magazine articles) are more discouraging than helpful. (In fact, my very first client told me she’d given up after reading she MUST do a soil test first, something I’ve never done myself. And here’s a specific example. An article in a recent Fine Gardening imposed a whole new classification of plants for gardeners to consider – whether plants are charismatic, relaxed, edgy, sociable or reliable – and encouraged us to choose plants based on their “personalities”. Oy vey! (I guess I needed to rant about that, huh?)
    Back to your post and your list. I agree with everything except raking leaves into the beds – I wouldn’t do it unless they’d been chopped up first. Others disagree, so it’s call this practice “in dispute”.
    I agree that journals aren’t necessary but I DO plead with people to keep the damn plant tags. And btw, READ THEM before buying the plant, esp. the expected size at maturity. How hard is that?
    And in addition to buying lots of plants to try, I encourage getting as many freebies as possible from friends and neighbors.
    And rather than a plan per se, I encourage people to create borders with pleasing lines in which to stick their new plants. In fact, I draw the border for them. Once borders are created and mulched, it looks like there’s an actual garden in the making, which is always encouraging, and gives them hints as to where plants might go.
    Now I’m curious to hear from others.

  2. While I’ve never had the discipline or inclination to do much “journaling” I do think some form of garden record-keeping is really important unless one has a keen memory. A camera is a good tool, but I also like a small book which I can check at a glance to see dates of planting, flowering, demises, etc. I also keep note of what looked best under what conditions – Blue Cadet hostas surviving a terribly hot summer, anemones flourishing in a drought. I keep lists of things I’ve seen and wish for, plant combinations to try, plants recommended, bulbs to try next season (when all evidence of last Spring is long gone) and
    lots of random thoughts.

    It keeps it fun and interesting and certainly aids my dim memory.

    The only beginning books I recommend are Barbara Damrosch’ practical”Garden Primer” and Dianne Benson’s
    “Dirt” the latter one just for being snobbishly opinionated and entertaining.

  3. You mean I’ve wasted a year drinking the blood of small animals for nothing? 🙂

    Can I add one? Don’t be discouraged by the perfect yards that you see in Gardening Magazines. Go check out some garden blogs instead. That’s what real yards look like.

  4. Katherine, I am so with you! My favorite beginner’s books are also Barbara Damrosch, Dianne Benson (why did she never write another?) and the first Mrs. Greenthumbs. Next time, I’ll have to write a post about these women.

    And while I have nothing against keeping a journal as a useful activity for people more organized than me–let’s admit, this is not a requirement. You can have a fantastic garden without ever considering writing a thing down.

    Susan, thank you for reminding me about SOIL TESTS! I have a lovely friend who wants to start a garden at her first house and has been discouraged from planting the lilac hedge she dreams of because the test said that her soil is acidic. What the test did not explain is that lilacs are tougher than tough and that there are giant hedges of them throughout the Northeast, in acid soil.

  5. I second that, Michelle. Lilacs are doing fine in my soil, which is acid enough to grow wild blueberries.

    I am one of those people who must read a book on “how to do it” before doing whatever it is. How fortunate for me that the first book I read on gardening was Easy Care Perennials by Patricia Taylor. Her basic premise is, “all these plants will do fine in any soil that manages to grow lawn grass. Plant them and have fun.” Sadly, the book is out of print, but a used copy works just as well.

  6. I agree Michelle. Lots of rules and regulations may turn people off. After all, they are supposed to be gardening to relax, not worry if they missed a step!
    The best approach for some beginners is to dig in. There are plenty of books, classes and teachers out there to help when mistakes are made. (They can even hire a personal gardening coach, right Susan!) I like what Mark Twain said, “Don’t let school get in the way of your education,” in this case, “don’t let gardening books get in the way of your enjoyment!”

  7. And here I thought that the fact I’ve never bothered with a soil test was my own dirty little secret! I never really got the point. I mean, if your soil’s not right for the plant, the plant will die. Couldn’t be simpler 😉

    I am in total agreement with the fact that the overwhelming majority of “how to garden” books are crap. I also agree that Damrosch’s “Garden Primer” is the only one I’ve ever read that left me feeling both better-informed and encouraged.

    I can’t think of a better set of gardening “rules.” Great post!

  8. I can’t agree more with your post. I about cracked up when you wrote about the sassy impatient well-informed people that respond to bloggers.

    New Gardeners out there…Just do it as the ads say.

  9. Another great book for beginning gardeners is “You Grow Girl” by Gayla Trail. The book actually talks about gardening as a fun obsession, which is really what anyone wants in a hobby. Also, there is a website of the same name with a very active forum.

  10. You have to leap into the fire with anything you do. That’s it.

    Good beginner’s books, for me anyway: Michael Pollan’s Second Nature, Diane Ackerman’s Cultivating Delight, Mary Swander’s Bloom and Blossom, Allen Lacy’s The Inviting Garden, Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. These books have little to do with practical application, but more with the celebration of the immediate environment, waxing poetic, ruminating with wit and wisdom–i.e. oozing with passion for plants.

  11. Benjamin Vogt, Michael Pollan’s Second Nature was actually the book that inspired me to start gardening 15 years ago.

    Yes, Pollan’s enthusiastic about the experience of making a garden. But I think the greatness of that book lies in the fact that Pollan places gardening at the heart of an important idea: that the proper relationship of man to nature is gardener to garden. He gave me faith that I was doing something significant when I planted my peas and posies. And I still think so.

  12. This is such a great post! I am a VERY new gardener, and one of the best pieces of advice is the journal, particularly because so much of gardening is, for me at least, is trial and error. I actually started my blog as a private online journal just because printing all of my photos would have been too expensive:) The main books I have invested in are just basic regional plant books and encyclopedias to make sure I have SOME chance of a plant surviving my random Ohio weather!

  13. Hmmm. If the term “garden journal” is too intimidating, OK. But for god’s sake, keep some kind of notes. And in many cases, a garden blog is nothing more than an electronic garden journal.

    I love the plants-are-cheap concept. Tell me, where do you shop? Annuals (especially if you buy them at chain stores where they’re poorly maintained) are cheap but healthy perennials? Not so much. I can’t think of anything that would discourage a novice gardener more than plunking down good money to buy plants that they then put in the wrong place, plant too deep or not deep enough, and fail to maintain properly. Why not just tell them to skip a few steps and buy kindling?

    Mulching is great, but most people don’t appreciate the reason for bothering with it until they’ve spent a season or two pulling weeds or working with crappy soil. And as for using compost or manure when you plant, there are studies that say it’s not useful to amend the soil at the time of planting. (If my soil were really awful, though, I’d probably still give it a try.)

    My best advice to a new gardener would be to talk–to nursery people, to other gardeners, to people who are passionate about plants. Let yourself catch the bug. And then take it one plant at a time.

  14. Claire Splan, big perennials at my favorite local nursey, Clearbrook Farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont, tend to range from $4 to $8–and they start their half-off sale pleasingly early.

    At my local farmer’s market, you can buy big specimens of the more common perennials for $5 each. At the big box stores around here, you can get common shrubs for $10.

    Compare these sums to one or two half-gallons of organic milk. A few issues of People Magazine. A box of laundry detergent. A bottle of shampoo.

    Plus, if you live where I do, you can attend the annual Hubbard Hall Plant sale, where all the local gardeners bring their excess in spring to support a fantastic theater. There, you can buy an entire garden for $30.

    And if you lived on my street–or Peter Hoh’s–you’d get free plants with regularity. Because I’ve reached the fuss-budget stage, where if the color or shape is wrong or I have too much of something, it goes to a neighbor.

    I agree, beginners should take it one plant at a time and see what works. But as long as they don’t decide to do it all at once and buy a garden’s worth of plants based on some theory they took out of books, there just isn’t very much at stake.

    And beginners need to know that even experienced gardeners fail regularly. And that even if your efforts don’t always yield what you want, the effort itself will make you happy.

  15. I couldn’t agree more with the just-jump-in idea. I originally looked at the living plants (annual and perinneal meant nothing to me at that time) and saw that any living plant was a lot more expensive than a seed packet with potentially hundreds of plants.

    I did end up with a journal to keep track of my seed failures and successes. Also upgraded my container garden to the real thing after a few years, and started learning about cuttings, bulbs, etc.

    Gardening should be fun, and any gardening book written in ‘Thou-Shalt’ format rather than ‘you may want to’ suggestions is probably better off on the bookstore shelf. Personally I would rather spend the money on the garden and read the internet for free.

  16. I like your rules, Michele – it’s how many of us began gardening. We saw something we wanted to grow and began to dig and somehow gardening became part of living. In time we bought books to expand knowledge and began journals when there was enough to write about.

    But does this approach still work for many of today’s young gardeners? Will gardening be a permanent, integral part of their life, or will it be just another in a long string of skill sets to be achieved? Maybe the how-to books reflect the customer – one who tackles gardening not as a life long love, but as a game to win before moving on to the next pursuit.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    PS Susan’s tag idea is a good one. A friend tapes all of hers in a looseleaf notebook with dates and prices – simple and useful.

  17. Susan said “keep the damn plant tags. And btw, READ THEM before buying the plant, esp. the expected size at maturity. How hard is that?”

    judging by the number of people I see planting atlantic blue cedar and (my all time favourite misplanting) Abies grandis within 10 feet of their front doors I’d have to say very hard?

  18. Michele,
    God save Mr. Pollan. He certainly does teach more than love for gardening, which is why I have him next to Aldopold and Muir and Eiseley on the book shelf, and many other key figures of environmentalism of the last century.

    And people please, yes–keep your tags, and for the love of life, please ALSO do some google research because those tags aren’t always on the money (or I’ve found that accurate at times).

  19. I am a planner. I love the planning stage, site plans, thumbnail sketches. I am notorious for walking around the garden stopping and just staring. Then going in the house for the sketch pad. This is when the family turns pale, hangs on me saying please mom (honey), no more!

  20. That book reminds me of the Lazy Gardener dude. Sorry, Susan, I hate keeping those stupid tags. My philosophy is survival of the fittest–if I planted something in the wrong spot and didn’t pay enough attention to the tag I figure I’ll find out soon enough.

    Plants are cheap. A lot cheaper than wine, one of my other expenditures, and they last a lot longer even when I kill them.

  21. I am also exactly the new gardener you describe (6 months and rolling steadily from ‘hobby’ to ‘all-consuming obsession’). Being an enormous nerd, I thought I’d do it the ‘proper’ way, and do as much research as possible before I started. While theoretically a good idea, this was ridiculously discouraging- I’m only now catching up on the notion that my frost-free growing season is actually a long and beautiful thing, and I haven’t (like all those websites said) missed my chance for a glorious bounty of extra veggies just because I didn’t plant them at the very crack of spring. Seriously, I lost about six weeks being convinced that if I didn’t have it in within 2 weeks of the start of spring, it was doomed.

    And I’m with you on the veggies. Biggest bang-for-the-buck satisfaction EVER. Growing things that look lovely & then eating them has got to be the best leisure-pursuit time I’ve ever invested. It’s the exact sort of early reward that new gardeners need to encourage them on to the slightly more delayed gratification pursuits, I think.

    I actually think garden journalling has been waiting for the internet, or maybe it’s the reason the internet was invented. Keeping records is all well and good, but keeping records that talk back at you & offer suggestions through the comments function is what actually inspires me to bother.

  22. Oh, I so agree! When I first became interested in gardening, I remember reading various books and getting totally overwhelmed by all the info and advice about the “correct” way to do everything. So I dithered forever, it seemed 🙂

    I did get Damrosch’s Garden Primer and that is still one of my primary references.

  23. All I can say is thank goodness I didn’t read any gardening books before I started gardening this year. And this from a girl who is famous for lists and plans for everything. Gardening is the one thing that I have ever just jumped into without a plan and I am so grateful that I didn’t have one. You are absolutely right, Michele. Plant it and if it doesn’t survive or thrive, you’ve learned something!

  24. Some early advice I remember:

    Care for your plants. But know from the start that you will kill many of them. Don’t sweat it, but try to learn from your mistakes.

    Plant more of what does well. Plant less of what doesn’t do so well.

  25. I think Michele’s rules are perfect — it’s great fun to get out there and dig. I can’t think of anything I’ve enjoyed more than harvesting my own vegetables and watching bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds visiting flowers in my garden. And, as a hopelessly uninspired journal writer in paper form, I’ve had tremendous fun creating an online journal in my gardening blog.

  26. Like Heather, I also didn’t read any books before I started to garden, but it was because I was too young and didn’t know how to read. I learned first how to garden from my Dad and still say the best way to learn to garden, to gain confidence as a gardener, is to just go out and try it and then find someone who gardens and watch what they do and ask questions.

    I now have a lot of gardening related books, but I’m always stumped when a new gardener asks me to recommend A BOOK that they can read to learn how to garden, as if gardens come with instruction manuals.

    I’ll spend a lifetime gardening, and will learn something new about it every day I’m in the garden.

  27. I feel so absolved right now. I’m not the only one who has never had her soil tested. YAY! 🙂

    And amen to all the rest of the above.

  28. I think the most useful gardening lesson I learned from my grandmother was: “Observe, observe, observe”. Pay attention to where plants live in your area. Pay attention to the plants around them. Pay attention to the light. Pay attention to the exposure. Observe and then try to duplicate those conditions in your own garden with those plants. It’s also a great way to enjoy your plants. Observe, observe observe.

    The lesson I learned on my own was: “It’s the SOIL, stupid!”. And the fix for any soil is “Add more organic matter”.

    The advice I give to new gardeners is: “The difference between a green thumb and a brown thumb isn’t the number of plants she’s killed–it’s just that the green thumb kept trying.”

  29. Ah, the old rules of gardening article rant. 🙂

    For the record, because a bit of advice is old doesn’t mean it’s “obsolete” as you describe double-digging.

    Soil was and is the basis of a good garden and in my experience and research on garden soil improvement, double digging works.

    It isn’t always easily done but if you want superior growth rates, this is one fine way to achieve them. It is particularly good for hitting high yields in the first year after digging.

    It is recommended so often because it works on a wide variety of soil conditions. I’ve improved soils from clay to sand using this simply learned technique.

    Do you have to double dig?

    Absolutely not. But then again, you don’t have to make compost tea or learn and employ any other of the gardening and growing techniques that turn a collection of plants into a garden.

    Those old authors and gardeners may not have the science right but in many cases, they have production techniques that produce great gardens down cold.

  30. Guidelines, not rules. Walk your neighborhood, talk to people with gardens you like. Buy a good REGIONAL garden guide. Read the tags but check your guide and don’t be so afraid to experiment; gardening success is a synthesis. Date your plant tags with a permanent marker, maybe even put a few notes on them, then toss them in a box or envelope if you don’t have time to journal. Don’t be afraid to move plants, but do it at a sensible time of year. Chant the plant’s Latin name while you do this . . . it doesn’t do a thing for the plant but it feels so spiritual and is a memory aid. Oh, and I never add amendment to plant pits, but I do believe in mulch, just not so close to the plant’s crown.

  31. Wow, I am so out of the loop. Can you believe I’ve been gardening in one form or another (from farm to large veg garden and all types of flowers in between) for 40 years and have never, and I mean never, read a gardening book? Ever. Tidbits and advice from the ‘old folk’ is all I’ve ever needed.
    Oh, and trial and error of course…but then, seeds (for everything) are even much cheaper than plant sales.
    I asked a question on my blog once about how many gardening books everyone had stashed around their houses. Yeah, I really wanted them to go count! Hmmm, I never got any answers. I wonder if they’re all ashamed of those piles? lol.

  32. Tina, I have 172 garden books, in their own reference shelf, not hidden in shame. From them I have learned a lot about theory and practice, as well as having photos of many gardens and beds of a quality I am not likely to run into much otherwise. Books don’t replace experience, but are a useful complement to our learning, and a way to pass the winter where the ground freezes solid.

  33. I think the first rule of gardening is, in your first season, to choose a spot for a nursery bed. This spot should either be where you are likely always to want a nursery bed, or it should be a part of what you envision as your permanent display bed. The spot should also have good light, at least by the standard of your property, and should not be in a local depression with drainage problems.

    You should indeed double-dig, or at least one-and-a-half dig (i.e., move top spits of dirt around, and cut into the ground to a second depth, not necessarily moving the second level of dirt) this bed. You will also use this digging to remove rocks and (unless the soil is unusually humusy) add leaf mold or peat moss, and (unless unusually rich) add composted manure or slow-acting fertilizer such as Plant-Tone.

    In your first year, add perennial divisions and small plants and other cheap and free things to this bed. That winter, ponder where next to expand your bed, or perhaps even make a long-range plan for your whole garden.

    In the second year, perhaps in the spring, or more likely in the early fall if your plants didn’t get in a full growing season the first year, you will be able to divide many perennials into 3 or 4 pieces, and expand your beds. Their growth and the ease of their digging and dividing will be greatly improved by your having properly prepared at least this one bed. The work of double-digging and soil amendment really will pay for itself, at least for this nursery bed, in terms of labor, growth and money saved.

  34. Ah, I hope all of you read some sort of book. That’s the area I order at our library – I need to justify my purchases!

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