Bare Today, Green Tomorrow: Expert Tips on How to Start a Garden from Scratch

Stacie Crozier

The calendar says its spring. After two months of hunkering down indoors between snowfalls and unpacking about a gazillion boxes from our mid-January move to a new home, the neighborhood is filling up with birds and bunnies, and the sunshine is drawing us out for longer walks with the dog to explore the new neighborhood.

Thanks to the warmup and longer days, I’m studying the setting of my new house daily. It’s a neat little ranch home on a small lot, but, because it’s brand new, the yard is still just piles of dirt and big puddles. The builder is waiting for warmer, dryer weather to set in so the little yard can be graded and seeded, and the landscaping borders can be installed.

I want to see it as a blank canvas—an opportunity to choose the right plants and shrubs that will take our house from pleasant to perfect—but I’m overwhelmed at starting totally from scratch.

The gardens I’ve loved for decades were gifts from people who came before me. I grew up equating spring with the heady scent of blooming lilacs. The aromas of mown grass and fresh-cut herbs have provided the backdrop for lazy summer days in the yard. The spicy smell of fallen leaves and bonfires are the essence of fall. The calm quiet of a blanket of snow in the winter. But now I only have dirt and I need to start from scratch. And that’s scary!

I’ve been studying and asking the experts. There are a couple of basic tenants I’ve been told are vital to remember—no matter where you live, how much space you have or your experience level.

First, be sure to check out the US Department of Agriculture Hardiness Zone Map and make sure you know what zone you live in before you choose plants and shrubs. The plants you use have the best chance of thriving if they are appropriate for your growing climate.

Second, choose native plants whenever possible. “Native plants are always the best choice for your garden,” said Karren Coplen, a Master Gardener in Heston, Indiana. “Birds, bees, hummingbirds and bats—all pollinators—need plants that are part of the DNA in their evolutionary history, or they won’t recognize your plants as food. If you create a welcoming space for pollinators, they will come.”

A Master Gardener since 2005, Ms. Coplen is one of 80 or so volunteers with a Master Gardener certification in LaPorte County, Indiana. “Our mission is helping others grow,” she said.

These garden expert enthusiasts not only enjoy and hone their gardening skills in accordance with the Master Gardener Program at Purdue University, they also volunteer as experts and spokespersons, offer brown bag learning programs at local libraries and man the phones for the group’s garden hotline, which takes any gardening questions on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 am to noon during the peak growing season. (You can learn more about them and their activities at their new website or on their Facebook page.)

Ms. Coplen suggested a few plants that can offer some “scent”-sational fragrance, not just for humans’ enjoyment but scents that attract pollinators and detract deer, rabbits and other creatures who like to feast on garden plants:

  • Marigolds—an easy-care go to for many gardeners, their strong scent masks scents that can attract predatory insects or other pests. They are very effective for protecting edible garden plants.
  • Nasturtiums—although not especially fragrant to people, these annual blooms are easy to grow, edible (think about a few beautiful blooms in a summer salad) and good for bees and butterflies. They can also draw aphids and other pests away from vegetable plants.
  • Cosmos—these easy-to-grow, colorful flowers add a fluttery texture to the garden bed. “I love Cosmos because they look like they are dancing in the breeze,” said Ms. Coplen. Although they are considered annuals, the flowers often reseed, providing color for years to come.
  • Herbs—Ms. Coplen suggests planting herbs, not just in one spot, but tucked throughout the garden. “Many herbs bloom, attracting pollinators, and they all have wonderful scents plus the bonus of letting you add fresh-picked flavor to your summer dinners.”

So, my yard will be a blank canvas for awhile longer, but I’m getting more excited about what seeds of happiness and home I will be growing in a few short months.

April 6, 2022

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