Gardening can be fun and easy. All it takes is understanding a few basic concepts and learning a few simple gardening practices. Anyone with a little space and interest can be a gardener. Gardening can range from a few plants on a windowsill or balcony to several acres of land filled with trees, shrubs, perennials and a vegetable garden. But no matter how big, or how little, the same basic principles apply. Here is a quick overview of the basics and some places where you can find more information.
How Plants Work
Plants capture the energy of the sun and turn it into food for themselves, people and animals. It is important to understand this principle to succeed in gardening. We could provide all the water, fertilizer and care in the world, but without the sun, plants would not survive. In fact, they manufacture their own food using the sun for energy; gardeners just provide some extra ingredients.
Understanding the basic characteristics and life cycle of the plants you are growing will let you know what to expect from them and what kind of care you will have to provide for them. Plants are grouped together based on common traits. For instance, all plants are either annual, biennial or perennial. An annual completes its life cycle in a single growing season. Examples of common annuals are sweet alyssum, petunias, zucchini and tomatoes. A biennial completes its life cycle in two growing seasons. Examples of common biennials are English daisies, parsley and some types of foxglove. Perennials are plants that live more than two growing seasons. This includes the ornamental plants we commonly call perennials such as daylilies, peonies and coneflowers as well as all the trees and shrubs. Annuals, biennials and perennials are also divided into either herbaceous or woody categories. Herbaceous plants have soft, non-woody growth and they die back to the ground at the end of the growing season.
Technically annuals are herbaceous but this term is generally reserved for plants that are perennial. Woody plants are those that develop bark, a thick, woody covering on their twigs and branches. Most woodies are either trees, shrubs or vines. A tree is defined as a large, woody perennial plant with a single stem (trunk) and a canopy of branches. A shrub is defined as a woody, perennial plant that forms a canopy of branches but has multiple trunks/stems. As with so many concepts, there are exceptions to these definitions. A beautiful clump of birch is a tree, not a shrub, as the strict definitions would suggest. A vine is any plant that cannot support its own growth. It can be woody or herbaceous.
There are many other ways of grouping similar plants together. Those that lose their leaves at the end of each growing season are called deciduous. Plants that keep the same leaves (or needles) more than one season are called evergreens. Plants that are valued for their culinary, medicinal or aromatic qualities are called herbs.
Small plants or vines that produce fruits (such as blueberries, grapes, strawberries and currants) are called small fruits as opposed to those that fruit on trees (such as apples, plums and cherries) called fruit trees. Those plants that produce food we use as a vegetable are grouped together as vegetables, even though some are technically fruits (the ripened ovary of a plant). Actually, fruits have seeds inside their flesh like apples, tomatoes and plums and in vegetables the seeds are produced in parts we don't eat.
The culture of plants refers to the care that we provide to help a plant grow where we want it. Culture begins with selecting the right plant for the right place. That means learning what a plant prefers, including how much sun, what type of soil, soil drainage, climate, etc. To learn more about soils and siting plants, check out these Bachman's Information Sheets: Plants for Dry Places: Sun and Shade.
Because we often choose to plant more plants in a given area than nature would, or we select plants that wouldn't occur naturally in that setting, we have to take care of them. Once planted, culture means providing anything the plant might need that nature doesn't already provide. Common care a plant might need includes watering, fertilizing and pruning. Of those three, watering is by far the most critical element. More plants are killed by either too much water or too little water, than any other single cause. For more information on watering, check out these Bachman's Information Sheets: Watering Basics for Indoor Plants.
Fertilizing is our way of getting the most out of the plants. By making sure plants have ready access to all the elements they use in growing, we help them stay healthy and productive. For more information on fertilizing, check out these Bachman's Information Sheets: Pruning Brambles.
Even if you are a plant, you can't live in Minnesota and ignore the climate. To make gardening easier, the United States Department of Agriculture developed the USDA hardiness zone map. The zones range from 1 through 11. Each division represents a 10º difference in the average winter low temperature. Sometimes the zones are further divided into a and b, with a being the colder half. Most of Minnesota is Zone 3 and 4, but there are small areas of Zone 2 in the north. Knowing the USDA hardiness zone rating for a plant is a good indicator as to its winter hardiness. The ratings are usually listed in catalogs. Other factors can have an influence as well. Some plants are very slow to go dormant in fall for our climate or too quick to come out of dormancy in spring.
Heat tolerance is another factor, but not as critical in our climate. Because it would be extremely difficult to find out everything you need to know about the hardiness of each plant you might want to grow, the best way to approach selecting the right plant is to rely on a reputable local nursery that guarantees the plant material. For more information on plant hardiness in our climate, check out these Bachman's Information Sheets: Hardiness Zone Map and Hardy Plants for the "Lake".
Another factor to consider in gardening is frost dates. Records have been kept for decades establishing average dates for the last frost in spring and first frost in fall. The number of days between those two dates is considered the length of the growing season. These frost dates may be called "the average last killing frost", the "average last frost" or the "safe dates "(90% chance). In the Twin Cities, the average last killing frost is around the 10th of May and the average first killing frost in fall is around September 20 but both dates can vary. That gives us a growing season that averages 130 days. (Information on length of season for vegetables often refers to days from transplant, not days from seed.) Length of season is important when you are selecting varieties of vegetables.