You've got most of the boxes unpacked and the bedrooms painted. The new house is starting to feel like it's yours. But what about the yard?
Is it foreign territory? Maybe you're moving from a downtown high-rise and you've never had a blade of grass to call your own. Maybe your new outdoors is a high-rise balcony and you've never had a houseplant.We're here to help, whether you find yourself in the middle of a blank expanse of sod in a brand-new subdivision or in the former home of an avid gardener, surrounded by mysterious brown stalks.
She believed him. So she didn't set foot in the garden until October, when she noticed the plants weren't blooming any more and the flower beds were thick with weeds. "It's starting to look pathetic!" she wrote in an e-mail. "I am having a difficult time figuring out what to pull, weed and cut back."
We're here to help. Our "Gardening 101" series will offer season-appropriate articles throughout the year on what you need to know to become a gardener. We'll be talking to new gardeners and seasoned ones and giving you the best advice on topics such as soil, lawns, and buying plants. Today, the question is: What are the first steps?
Wait. The urge to redo the landscape may be as strong as the desire to get rid of that 1970s wallpaper. But it's a good idea to go slow. If you let some time go by -- even a year -- before making major changes, you can answer some essential questions about your property.
You'll know what kind of sun, shade, soil and wind you have so you can choose plants that are likely to thrive. A well-planned garden that suits its site and your needs will be much easier to care for and more enjoyable than one you rushed into.
Watch. "It's going to surprise you," says designer Brian Shea of Voltaire's Gardener in Chicago. Maybe the previous gardener planted bulbs that will pop up in spring. Shrubs or perennials may bloom at different times. There may be a lot more shade in summer, with leaves on the trees, than in March. As the year goes by, take photos and make notes (with dates).
Learn. Now, while it's still winter, get a good all-round gardening book (see accompanying story for our top picks) and read at least the introductory chapters. Leaf through garden magazines. Tear out pictures of gardens you like and ones you hate, and think about why. Are you drawn to formal gardens? Do you like looser, more natural landscapes? Find a good garden center with a knowledgeable staff (for starters, see chicagolandgardening.com and click on "Gardener's Resource"). Ask them lots of questions.
Take a class: Many garden centers, public libraries and park districts offer free or inexpensive seminars and talks on such topics as lawn care, houseplants and choosing perennials. The Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe has a series of Saturday "Weekend Gardener" sessions taught by top experts that are just right for beginning gardeners. "No knowledge required," says Julia Zanieski, coordinator of continuing education. For more information, see chicagobotan ic.org/school or call 847-835-8261.
Live. As you spend more time in your home, you will discover what kind of landscape your life requires: where you walk, where the kids want to play, where you'd like a screen for privacy, where the hot summer sun blasts your afternoon barbecues, where you'd like something interesting to see out a window in winter.
Does merely mowing the lawn bore you to death or keep you rushed? Maybe you need to keep your landscape simple.
Sneak peeks. Walk around your neighborhood and others and look for yards you like, especially those that seem to have the same kind of site as yours. Take a friend and talk it over. Go on garden walks (we will print a listing on May 11). And make those notes.
Keep up. Sorry, but the maintenance-free yard is a fantasy. "There is no easy fix for weeding," says landscape designer Eileen Klehr of Lakemoor, who specializes in helping new gardeners make a plan. "They have to be pulled. By hand." You will have to mow the lawn and water too.
Keep up with these few basic chores and your landscape will stay in shape while you settle into it. Neglect them, and you may have a monster to tame.
Plant. To really own your garden, you have to get your hands in the dirt. So plan to plant a little something this spring. A good bet: pots. They are small enough to master and can be moved to find the sun.
Place a couple of pots near where you think you'll want to sit. Invest in quality containers and ask the garden center for help choosing potting mix and plants. "You have some flowers, you have some beauty that you are happy with until you are ready to tackle the rest," says Linda Sarb, who coaches new gardeners through her business, Gardening Angels in Lisle.
It's not just flowers: Herbs and some vegetables thrive in big enough pots; even some varieties of tomatoes are suitable.
Don't overcommit the first year; you may end up overburdened or create problems down the road by installing garden beds or big plants in the wrong places.