Gardening is a satisfying hobby when plants flourish, but nothing's more discouraging than finding a prized perennial limp and brown. Plants are a bit like children. When their needs are met, they generally grow quickly and thrive. If they are neglected or planted in the wrong spot, their growth is stunted, they may lose leaves and they rarely produce flowers or fruit.
Plants fall into several broad categories, all with varying needs. Trees and shrubs are long-lived, woody plants that require little maintenance once established. Perennials are grown for their flowers or foliage and come back year after year. They also require little care after the first year. Annuals and vegetables are usually frost tender and die at the first heavy frost. They grow rapidly for one season and require the most care.
All plants need water, food and light to grow. Plants also vary in their ability to withstand very cold or very hot temperatures. Some plants, such as succulents, cactus and drought-tolerant trees, shrubs and perennials grow happily in poor soil and require very little water. Other plants, such as vegetables, annuals and tender perennials, must be babied a bit for optimum growth. Weeds crowd out beneficial plants and compete for nutrients and water, while disease and pests may wreak havoc on young plants.
Purchasing healthy, disease-resistant plants that are suitable for your climate is the most important consideration for optimum growth. Consult a local nursery specialist or garden guidebook for specific directions on growing individual plants to provide the best growing conditions. Good soil, amended with compost or manure, drains well and provides nutrients. Plant young seedlings or transplants in full sun to partial shade, depending on the plant's growing requirements. Most plants prefer soil that is evenly moist but not soggy, so water accordingly. Vegetables and annuals benefit from two or three balanced (10-10-10) fertilizer applications during the growing season. Shrubs, perennials and trees may require fertilizer in the spring.
Buying seeds and plants is an investment, and the best way to protect that investment is by understanding plants' needs. A well-tended flower garden adds beauty to the yard, while a vegetable garden may reduce a family's food expenses. Gardening is also a relaxing, satisfying hobby when plants are well-chosen and given the care they require.
Gardeners learn to care for plants through experience and observation. "Good gardening is very simple, really. You just have to learn to think like a plant," advises Barbara Damrosch, landscape designer and author of "The Garden Primer."