Gardening Greenhorn
August 6, 2014 7:30 AM   Subscribe

I have outdoor space for the first time in my life at my new house. But as a lifelong apartment dweller and city boy, I have virtually no horticultural knowledge. Can you recommend resources to help orient me in my little yard? I'm pretty much at square one.

Really my only experience with growing things has been some herbs on a windowsill. In my garden so far, I've identified a tiger lily (and the lily beetles that munched it up), something my wife tells me is hosta, and I've pulled up some grassy things my wife wants gone (but I'm not really sure what they are). I've also mowed the lawn once, for the first time in my life.

That's the complete extent of my knowledge and activities, without exaggeration. I cannot identify any other plant that isn't a kitchen herb, a pine tree, a ginkgo, a fern, a rose, a tulip, a calla lily, eucalyptus, or ivy. I know I'm in climate zone 6a.

Hope me.

I am very handy around the house, and I'd really like to be just as handy around the house. Can you recommend books, websites, streaming videos, etc. that I can use to start to educate myself? I need lots of color pictures! And explanations, and a rubric for figuring out what things are (like the grassy things I pulled out), and techniques!

Bonus points for books/apps that are actually a worthwhile experience on an iPad, so I can learn on the train.
posted by Admiral Haddock to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Tomato plants. Every. Single. Person with a back yard in New England has tomato plants. I get them from Wilson Farms (which has a lot of books and incredibly helpful staff).
posted by Melismata at 7:41 AM on August 6, 2014

Though you may not end up actually choosing to garden this way, I find the original Square Foot Gardening book/site is a pretty good book on beginning food gardening, just to get a grasp on size and shape and resource requirements.

Locate your local county Extension Office online. That's the hub of your local gardening brainpower, including the area's certified Master Gardeners. They'll have information online, and they'll also list the classes you can go to.

Next, possibly via that site or via web searching, figure out who the person is that wrote the local paper's gardening section for probably 20 years or longer. That person will have at least one book on gardening in your area (probably at least two - one for landscaping and one for edibles) - it's a coin toss whether it is available electronically, you may have to order a paper copy.

Most other books are frustratingly useless, more garden porn than instructional.

Also find your local Garden Center that is actually local. It might be a local chain, and if so you may have to figure out which one is the best/flagship store, but probably all of them will have people working there who are Master Gardeners. They will probably also have classes.

Gardenweb is an ancient and sometimes frustrating forum, and YouTube has many many gardening channels, and there's a few podcasts like Gayla Trail's Whatcha Growing? and the public radio show A Way To Garden ( But gardening is a thing that happens offline, and it's also one of those mysteries you largely initiate yourself into by trying shit out and screwing up or not.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:51 AM on August 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here's a Reddit resource for finding out what particular things are: Whatsthisplant?

One thing that will likely help you is observation about what appeals to you, which you can pick up by just starting to notice other people's landscaping and their yards. That will help you get a sense of whether you want to be fancypants or hippydippy or stately as a bank or etc.

Since you're brand new I'd recommend starting by finding out what you have, removing what you can positively identify as weeds, and mulching, then waiting until next spring. That will give you time to make it look nice, gain some knowledge, and then start to figure out your own taste and constraints in landscaping (I dislike daylillies for instance, even though I have some. They always look muddy to me. I love hostas, but so do the deer in my yard, so I can't have as many hostas as I'd like. I didn't know those things until I had some time to think it over and also to screw things up a few times.)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 7:54 AM on August 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

This website has helped me identify some of the insects in our backyard. You can do a fairly detailed search by location, color, number of legs... I found out I was accidentally killing all the immature ladybugs in our garden.

I wanted a vegetable garden when we moved in, so I've been using a lot of the square foot gardening websites. This one has been pretty helpful because there's a quick reference to how many plants you can fit in each square, general planting times and fertilizing schedules, etc.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:55 AM on August 6, 2014

Another resource: idle online shopping.

Look at the cool hostas!

For perennials here and here.

I've bought from all three, but there are many others -- but it's really perusing those sites that have given me the best ideas (like picking a white flower that will be okay in the shade, that sort of thing.)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 7:59 AM on August 6, 2014

Online shopping is surprisingly good way to learn general categories of plants.

I'm a big fan of these guys, both for learning about plant purposes and A+ plants/shipping.
posted by joyceanmachine at 8:13 AM on August 6, 2014

For gardening inspiration, I really enjoy Skippy's Vegetable Garden. She also has some really good tips about varieties and choosing vegetables to grow. Plus, she's also in Boston. Chiot's Run also has beautiful garden photos, though her gardening verges on hobby farm.

You'll want really solid field guides. I really like the Peterson Guides but it looks like their apps and podcast are bird specific. The Audubon Field Guides are very good; they also have apps for apple, though I haven't used them. Their books are high quality. You might find it easiest to go for a multi-purpose birds/mammals/insects/flowers/trees/shrubs guide, too, rather than a different one for each.

And don't underestimate the helpfulness of local folks: check out your farmer's markets (a great place to buy plants and get tips from the folks who grow 'em) and gardening centers. People who work in those places are, as a whole, knowledgeable and very willing to share that knowledge.
posted by carrioncomfort at 8:24 AM on August 6, 2014

You might also want to check out your county's department of envirnmental services, and possibly parks & rec. The "environment" branch of the envirnmental services dept, where I live (US, but not New England) runs lots of gardening and naturalist programs (here, the Master Gardener and Master Naturalist programs also fall under that umbrella).
posted by rue72 at 8:50 AM on August 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you don't mind Reddit, you can get help identifing plants at /r/whatsthisplant

The /r/gardening/ sub can also be interesting. Because it's Reddit, it's larglely people just posting pictures of their garden progress or harvest, but there are some posters asking questions that result in great advice and discussion.

This has been my first year gardening. It's super fun and rewarding, also frustrating at times but you just learn to roll with the inevitability of losing some fruit to pests and weather.
posted by beau jackson at 8:51 AM on August 6, 2014

I guess the first question is what do you want to do? How much time do you want to spend? How much money? Do you want a Veg garden? what are some examples of gardens that you like?

This can be an all encompassing hobby or something you spend a bit of time on every month.
posted by JPD at 9:21 AM on August 6, 2014

Also if you post pics of your yard we can probably tell you what needs to be done today versus things to think about down the road.
posted by JPD at 9:23 AM on August 6, 2014

GardenWeb forums are the best. They have a "gardening newbies" section that includes "Name that Plant."

Any time I'm at the garden store and wonder if a certain plant or certain tool is a good idea, I Google the name of it together with the word "gardenweb" and get the lowdown.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 10:05 AM on August 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

When we were getting into gardening, my wife spent a lot of time with Elliot Coleman's books and she still recommends them to folks.
posted by gauche at 11:42 AM on August 6, 2014

I should add that, as we are halfway through summer, you might find Coleman's Four Season book especially interesting.
posted by gauche at 11:43 AM on August 6, 2014

I'd join the Arnold Arboretum in time to do some serious looking around and be on hand for the free plant giveaway and nursery discount in September. I read there are plenty of mini gardens and other great resources for gardeners. Start small and go for it; we are all learners for years and years, nobody ever knows it all. Learn about a few plants each year, and something about soil and begin to notice what your plants like. Don't worry if some die. They die for a lot of different reasons and it might not be you at all. You can get more and keep trying. You'll soon learn to divide plants, or grow from seed or graft--something will catch your fancy. Get your hands dirty. Gardening is beautiful, a hobby, serenity, creativity, and community all wrapped up in one. It makes me happy and I hope you find it does that for you, as well.
posted by Anitanola at 9:44 PM on August 6, 2014

I've used local parks as cues for what works and how it does aesthetically; parks are usually shy on upkeep, so they favor easy to grow stuff; and with some of the smaller 20' x 40' areas being around for a few decades also gives me a perspective on how stuff will be if I follow the example and let it be.
posted by buzzman at 9:49 PM on August 6, 2014

Although geared more towards southern gardening, is also a great resource for general lawn and garden info, including plant and bug identification.
posted by spilon at 6:49 AM on August 7, 2014

I second the recommendation for square foot gardening.

The Book and the website are very helpful to a beginner. I've never gardened before until this year and have been successful using this method.
posted by okieangel at 8:05 AM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

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