Looking to start a garden? Here are a few suggestions.
While some people hoarded toilet paper, others stockpiled plant seeds and bulbs. With the extra time spent at home during the pandemic, people beautified their homes and green spaces as a form of retail therapy. But how do you get started? Here are some tips from local horticulturalists on how to start your own garden.
Have a Plan
Vic Piatt, senior garden advisor at Mt. Cuba Center, recommends home gardeners to first think about their vision and what their garden conditions are before heading to a local garden center or nursery.
He suggests asking questions like: Do you want a lot of color in your garden? Do you want plants that attract pollinators? Is the spot you’re planting sunny or shady? Is the soil rocky? Do you want a single- or multi-season garden? These answers act as a starting point for gardeners to understand their personal preferences, and what will work within their specific growing conditions and space.
If that’s too much to think about, take Carol Long’s approach and visit your local public garden or arboretum.
“The Brandywine Valley region has some of the best public gardens,” says Long, garden curator at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. “Make a list (and take photos) for plants to buy now or for next spring.”
Thankfully, gardening can be as easy as buying what’s in stock now and planting it, or planning ahead. Gardening comes in cycles, so use this simple seasonal guide to help plan the rest of the year:
Spring – Time to plant summer-flowering bulbs, plant seeds to make seedlings for the garden or plant seeds in the ground after the last frost date (usually around mid-April/early May) or buy plants at a local plant sale in April/May; visit local public gardens or arboretum for inspiration
Summer – Buy plants at local garden center; plant vegetables; visit local public gardens or arboretum for inspiration
Fall – Buy plants at local garden center; plant spring-flowering bulbs; visit local public gardens or arboretum for inspiration
Winter – Sign up for seed and bulb catalogs; order seeds from mail order catalogs or online
Many of the plants that the experts recommended are native to the Mid-Atlantic region. Though there are many different definitions, Piatt defines native plants as plants that “were here before European colonization in the Americas and provide support — food and shelter — for indigenous people and local fauna.”
While gardeners may think of only aesthetics when selecting plants, it’s im=portant to remember that local wildlife rely on native plants as nesting sites and food to survive. So, Piatt suggests planting a mix of plants: “Do something for you, and do something for someone else, even if it’s for an insect.”
For example, Lori Athey, habitat outreach coordinator at Delaware Nature Society, loves plants that “attract pollinators,” like purple coneflower, scarlet bee balm, and coreopsis (tickseed). Her favorite is Joe-Pye weed, a robust, 6-to-8-foot perennial that “…in July produces tiny pink blooms and is like crack for butterflies,” she says.
When selecting plants for the garden, keep a close eye on where they are located at the local garden center.
“The placement of plants (at the garden center) will tell you their general light conditions, whether it’s a sun or shade loving plant,” Piatt says. And though “it won’t tell you the soil conditions,” he continues, gardening is all about trial and error. If a plant doesn’t work in the garden, it means you have the opportunity to try something else.
Here is a list of plants our garden experts recommend for shade and sun:
Shade: American Alumroot, Bellewort, Ferns, Indian Pink, Solomon Seal, Woodland Aster, Woodland Phlox
Sun: Amsonia, Baptisia Blueberry Sundae, Black-eyed Susans, Gold Standard Tall Tickseed, Joe-Pye Weed, Pica Bella Coneflower, Scarlet and Jacob Cline Bee Balm, Sneezeweed, Trumpet Honeysuckle
For more information about native plants listed above, visit Mt. Cuba Center’s native plant finder: MtCubaCenter.org
For other native plant recommendations, view Delaware Nature Society’s 2021 Native Plant Sale catalog (orders closed until next year): DelawareNatureSociety.org
Eat Your Plants
According to Axiom’s 2021 Gardening Insights Survey, “more than 80 percent of those surveyed said they felt successful or very successful in their gardening tasks in 2020,” says Kathleen Hennessy, head of Axiom’s horticulture marketing group.
At a time when homeowners were stuck at home with nothing to do but work, eat and sleep, caring for plants became a way for people to get exercise and cope with the stress at a time when the future looked stark.
And while most surveyed grew flowers, a high percentage of gardeners enjoy growing vegetables and fruit trees, and container gardening (growing all types of plants in containers).
For those new to gardening, Long recommends starting with easier to care for plants like swiss chard, different types of lettuces and herbs.
“In my garden, I have fresh herbs that I use throughout the summer including thyme, rosemary, sage, tarragon, marjoram and oregano,” says Long.
Other easy-to-grow edible plants include ramps or wild leeks, elderberry, and violet flowers which Athey says you can candy or coat in sugar and add to a cake or cupcake.
For those more-experienced gardeners that have more room in their garden, Athey recommends two native edible plants: Serviceberries and Paw Paw.
The Serviceberry is a large tree with berries that are similar in size and shape to a blueberry but taste like a blueberry with a touch of almond.
The Paw Paw is a small tree native to the eastern United States and Canada that produces beautiful, yellowish-green fruits that taste like a cross between a banana, mango and pineapple.
Before COVID, Delaware State Parks hosted an annual PawPaw Folk Festival at the Blue Ball Barn in Alapocas Run State Park. Visitors could celebrate the native tree, listen to folk music and taste the fruit (as of May 2021, there will not be a 2021 festival).
Where to Buy
Gardening and grow-your-own in 2020 became a boom for garden centers and nurseries, but with it began a massive disruption in the supply chain. For example, Brent and Becky’s Bulbs from Gloucester, Va., was “so overwhelmed with business last year, they had to stop taking orders to catch up,” says Long.
While most of the supply chain issues have been resolved, don’t delay in purchasing bulbs now to plant later this fall. Brent and Becky’s and other bulb suppliers will ship the bulbs to you from September 2021 to January 2022, based on your hardiness zone. According to the USDA Agricultural Research Service website, Delaware spans two different zones: 7a and 7b
Below is a list of national, regional and local sources to begin your grow-your-own journey:
National (mail order and online)
• Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, RareSeeds.com
• Breck’s, Brecks.com
• Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, BrentAndBeckysBulbs.com
• Bushel and Berry, BushelAndBerry.com
• Longfield Gardens, Longfield-Gardens.com
• Seed Savers Exchange, SeedSavers.org
Local and Regional Garden Centers
• Black Creek Greenhouse
211 E. Black Creek Rd., East Earl, PA, Facebook.com/People/Black-Creek-Greenhouses
• East Coast Garden Center
30366 Cordrey Rd., Millsboro, EastCoastGardenCenter.com
• Old Country Gardens
414 Wilson Rd., Wilmington, OldCountryGardens.com
• Gateway Garden Center
7277 Lancaster Pk., Hockessin, GatewayGardens.com
• Homestead Gardens
5580 Dupont Pkwy, Smyrna, HomesteadGardens.com
• Richardson’s Garden Center
Multiple locations, Hockessin, Newark, Wilmington
• R-P Nurseries
656 Unionville Rd., Kennett Square, PA, RPNurseries.com
• Toadshade Wildflower Farm
53 Everittstown Rd., Frenchtown, NJ, ToadShade.com
• Tyler Arboretum
515 Painter Rd., Media, PA, TylerArboretum.org
• Watercrest Farms
190 Woodcrest Rd., West Grove, PA, WatercrestFarmsNursery.com
Annual Plant Sales
Most events occur in late April and May
Annual Wildflower, Native Plant & Seed Sale
1 Hoffmans Mill Rd., Chadds Ford, Pa.
Bright Spot Farms
Garden Center, Spring Plant Sale
1901 N. DuPont Hwy, New Castle
Christiana High School
Agriscience Program, Annual Plant Sale
190 Salem Church Rd., Newark
Delaware Center for Horticulture
Rare Plant Virtual Auction (March)
1810 N. Dupont St., Wilmington
Delaware Nature Society
Native Plant Sale
3511 Barley Mill Rd., Hockessin
Delaware Technical Community College Applied Agriculture Department
Annual Plant Sale
21179 College Dr., Georgetown
McKean High School
Future Farmers of America (FFA)
Annual Plant Sale
301 McKennans Church Rd., Wilmington
University of Delaware
Botanic Garden, Spring Plant Sale
531 S. College Ave., Newark