Greengirls Helen Yarmoska, Nicole Hvidsten, Martha Buns, Connie Nelson, Kim Palmer and Mary Jane Smetanka are dishin' the dirt from the back-yard garden and beyond. Whether you're a greenthumb or greenhorn, they're eager to learn from your mishaps, mistakes - and most importantly, your sweet successes - all growing season long.

Getting the garden party started

Posted by: Martha Buns under Annuals, Perennials, Vegetables Updated: May 5, 2014 - 8:21 AM
Heuchera Amber Waves from Terra Nova Nurseries is among the many charmingly colored coral bell options.

Heuchera Amber Waves from Terra Nova Nurseries is among the many charmingly colored coral bell options.

If you were starting a garden from scratch, what would you put in it? I was struck by the number of garden starter sets I’ve seen in catalogs lately, collections of plants aimed at beginning gardeners, or at least gardeners beginning anew.

That made me wonder what I’d put in my own starter kit if I was given a blank slate – and a few bucks to spend along with it. Here’s what I wish I’d started out with:

A shrub: Lilacs are my hands-down no-fuss favorite, although I’ve got a soft spot for the bird-friendly weigela or the fairy shrub rose.

A climber: I love clematis, but some can be fussy. I’d suggest something less finicky to start out, like the Jackmanii our grandmothers and great-grandmothers grew.

For shade, ever-reliable super-hardy coral bells in their magical colors add bright spots that don’t rely on blooms to make a season-long show. And one of the many two-tone hosta like Autumn Frost or a big blue like Blue Angel give color without much trouble.

For sun, repeat-bloom daylilies and Asiatic lilies put on a long-running show. Just make sure to shield newly planted bulbs from digging squirrels and protect young shoots from rabbits until they get tall enough to no longer tempt them; otherwise they’re pretty much care-free. Hard to go wrong with coneflowers and other rudbeckia, too, for bloom time and reliability. And my gotta-have-it, even though it’s not a long bloomer: a deep-pink double peony. Worth it for the scent alone.

One the annual front, I like cosmos and calibrachoa for sun, and caladium and impatiens for shade. The latter may seem ubiquitous, but up until last year’s blight, they were the ever-reliable, long-blooming space fillers perfect for filling garden gaps until you learn what perennials you want and work in your yard.

For a beginner’s veggie plot, I’d plant leaf lettuce, onion sets, a cherry tomato plant like Sweet 100 (or blondkopfchen if you like flavorful yellow cherry tomatoes), a pole bean, one cucumber plant – and I do mean just one unless you’ve got a real hankering for canning –and a broccoli plant, since you get to keep harvesting broccoli all season once it sets.

If I was starting out with an herb garden, I’d suggest basil, the basic Genovese and or Perpetua, the two-tone leaf variety that’s not prone to bolt. Parsley is nearly no-fail, as is sage, rosemary and thyme. I’d round it out with Vietnamese cilantro: It has all the flavor without the pesky bolting habits (you can find the plants at farmers markets).

Which brings me to a where to shop suggestion: If you’re starting out and have a lot of space to fill, head to the farmers market in spring with a set amount of cash and an open mind. Save the garden centers for that special gotta-have-it perennial or midseason sales of flats of annuals until you’re sure you know what you want and can afford to spend.

And in the tool shed, I’d get gloves, a sturdy trowel, short pruning shears, garden scissors and a really strong shovel. I’ve got other tools I use occasionally, but those are my most well-used tools.

Garden choices are highly subjective, like most areas of design. What would be in your beginner’s kit for gardeners?

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