The Easy-Does-It Guide to Gardening

No brown thumbs here. Plant expert Martha Swiss shares her tips and tricks for making gardening easier and upping your ante for success.

Trick: If you’re new to gardening, start small with a few containers. Many flowers and veggies are bred to grow well in containers, including this Kale Storm seed mix I Photo courtesy of Ball Horticultural Company.

Great gardens start with great soil.   

Anyone who has ever sunk a shovel around here knows our soil is riddled with clay, rocks and shale. Unless you’re planning to go with native plants that tolerate these conditions, you’ll have to prep your soil for a garden. Happily, the easiest way to do that doesn’t involve digging, just lots of organic matter, plus time.

For the organic matter, use whatever is handy: homemade or bagged compost, leaves, grass clippings, manure, straw (not hay) or wood chips. Pile it up thick — 8 to 12 inches — right on your new garden area, all at once or over time, as you acquire it. 

Leaves work best when chopped by running a mower over them. If there’s a farm nearby, ask if you can have manure and take it from the oldest, most decomposed part of the pile. Many municipalities offer residents free leaf and wood mulch, and bagged wood mulches work fine too.

Once you have piled up all that lovely organic material, sit back and let it rot for a season. Come planting time, you’ll dig right into dark, rich soil that plants love.

Photo courtesy of

Use straw bales to make quick above-ground planters. Place bales on a layer of newspapers or cardboard. Wet bales thoroughly for three days. Over the next three days, sprinkle a half cup of high-nitrogen fertilizer on the bales each day, then reduce to a quarter cup for the next two days. Keep the bales moist but not sopping wet. After a few days, plant right in the bale. 

Or, skip the wait and build raised beds and fill with a 50/50 topsoil/compost mix.

Lay down cardboard or newspapers first to help smother grass and weeds. Establish new beds in the fall; they’ll decompose all winter and be ready for spring planting. Top up established gardens with an inch or two of organic matter every fall to keep soil fertile. 

Right Plant, Right Place   

Understanding your growing conditions is the key to growing healthy plants. Before you dig in, spend time learning how much sun and shade your garden gets and whether the soil stays soggy after it rains, or if it drains well. Then, don’t fight those growing conditions; instead, choose plants that thrive in the light and soil type you have. Here are the easiest perennials for various conditions.

Photo courtesy of National Gardening Bureau


If you’re growing vegetables, choose varieties that have been selected for vigor and disease resistance, such as Saladmore Bush F1, deemed a superior bush cucumber by All-America Selections

Bluestar is a no-fuss North American native, and pollinators love its summer flowers. It's deer-resistant, too I Photo courtesy of

Bluestar (Amsonia)
Cranesbill (Geranium)
False indigo (Baptisia)
Lavender (Lavandula)
Ornamental Grasses
Phlox (Phlox)
Russian Sage (Perovskia)
Stonecrop (Sedum)
Wand flower (Gaura)

Deer-resistant foamflower lights up the shade with springtime wands of white to pink flowers. Colorful leaves carry the show through fall I Photo courtesy of

Arum (Arum)
Astilbe (Astilbe)
Brunnera (Brunnera)
Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla)
Foamflower (Tiarella)
Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra)
Hardy begonia (Begonia grandis subsp. evansiana)
Hellebore (Helleborus)
Leopard’s bane (Doronicum)

Bee balm doesn’t mind damp soil. Deer won’t eat it and bees and butterflies sip its nectar throughout summer I Photo courtesy of Walters Gardens

Bear’s breeches (Acanthus)
Bee balm (Monarda)
Leopard plant (Ligularia)
Lobelia (Lobelia)
Hardy hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos)
Turtlehead (Chelone)

Dry shade is challenging, but tough little bishop’s hat takes it in stride. This floriferous variety is ‘Conalba’ Alabaster I Photo courtesy of Plants Nouveau

Bishop’s hat (Epimedium)
Cambridge geranium
(Geranium × cantabrigiense)
Coral bells (Heuchera)
Lady fern (Athyrium)
Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum)
Toad lily (Tricyrtis)

Water wisely

No one wants to lug hoses and watering cans on hot summer days to keep wilting plants alive. Here are easy tips to keep plants hydrated while you stay cool.  

Photo courtesy of Ball Horticultural Company

Soak the soil around the roots thoroughly in the morning once every few days. Midday watering evaporates fast and evening watering fosters fungal diseases. A good soak hydrates roots, but a daily shallow sprinkling doesn’t reach the root zone. Install soaker hoses or drip irrigation in the spring, before plants get large. These systems deliver water right where it’s needed: the plant roots.

Mulch to conserve moisture and cool roots with an inch or two of wood mulch or chopped leaves on perennial, shrub and annual beds, as well as containers; use straw on vegetable beds.

Self-watering containers are lifesavers in the dog days of summer with reservoirs you only fill once a week or so. Check out all the colors and styles at your local garden center or at

— Martha Swiss is a garden writer, designer and speaker. Visit her at

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