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Gardening 101: Why This Expert Believes Anyone Can Have a Green Thumb

Bee pollinating a cactus flower

Photo by Vlad B. via Flickr

In these turbulent times, an increasing number of Americans have channeled their inner domestic gods and goddesses—resulting in an uptick in gardening at home. Which is why Garden Tutor—a remote gardening course and kit—is perfect for creating domestic bliss even for those who weren’t blessed with a green thumb. The free course (and optional accompanying kit for purchase) was created by gardener extraordinaire Angus Junkin after the successful launch of his book by the same name. We recently sat down with Junkin to discuss Garden Tutor’s next steps, popular gardening trends and his favorite desert garden design tips.

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Q&A: Gardening Expert Angus Junkin

What would you say are some of the biggest new gardening trends?

Even before COVID-19, vegetable gardening and houseplants are two areas that have gained a lot of traction over the past 5 to 10 years. [Some said] gardening was in decline and just for baby boomers. However, gardening has never been more popular, and many younger people are getting started. The key difference is people are learning and connecting in different ways with social tools like YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram.

Another trend is an interest in helping pollinators that are disappearing in great numbers. This involves planting native plants that pollinators need for survival. This movement is starting to stick, and if enough people commit to this type of gardening, it could be a real success story someday.

What tips do you have for gardening in Arizona’s unique climate?

Go native and focus on gardens that don’t need lots of water and intervention. There will always be room for that unique rose or palm tree, but keeping lawns modest and landscapes less dependent on water is essential.

When planting vegetable and non-native plants, raised bed and container gardening can make life much easier, since you can bring in rich garden soil versus trying to ‘improve’ native soils by adding tons of soil amendments. Desert soils are often very alkaline. They don’t process organic matter as well as soils that are more pH neutral, so it takes a lot of work, if building rich, fertile soil is your goal. Also, watering is more controlled and targeted when planting in raised beds or containers.

What plants work best for Arizona’s climate?

Arizona is unique in that there are multiple regional climates in the state. For a state that many outsiders think is one large desert, Arizona has a range of plant hardiness zones from 4b up to 10b. From desert areas to mountainous regions and a lot in between. What works in Phoenix may not work in Flagstaff.

In the Phoenix area, desert environments can be particularly tough on plants due to high temperatures and arid conditions. Also, temperatures can fluctuate a great deal over a day. This is especially relevant in the cooler months, where temperatures can be in the 70s and 80s in the day and drop to the 40s and 30s overnight. Still, gardening can be a year-round activity in many parts of Arizona, which is terrific.

Even with these extremes, there is a large pallet of plants available to gardeners. Succulents and native desert plants are always a good choice, but vegetables, annuals and perennials all have a place here as well. Vegetables do well in Arizona, but it’s essential to plant them at the right time. Late winter and early spring for warm-season crops (corn, eggplant, squash, melons, peppers, and tomatoes) and in the cooler months, cool-season crops (many leafy and root vegetables) are ideal from fall to late winter. Ornamental grasses work well, too, and they are relatively easy to grow and maintain.

How did you first get into gardening?

My mother introduced me to gardening when I was 10, and we started a vegetable garden. I enjoyed learning about all of the plants and what it took to grow things. She entered some of the veggies we grew in a garden club competition, and we won first and second place in two categories. After that, I worked on a town-run farm for many years that supported local food banks.

What inspired you to launch Garden Tutor?

A lot of my landscape customers would ask me how they can learn how to garden. There were garden clubs or classes available at the time, but nothing simple and accessible. I saw a need for a concise step-by-step introduction to gardening that combined solid information with essential tools new gardeners could use to design, install and maintain gardens independently.

What is your best-kept gardening secret?

A landscaper once showed me how to use a level head iron rake to spread and grade soil and mulch. The trick is to hold the rake close to your body and at a steep angle (between 5 and 40 degrees). By keeping it at such a steep angle, you will have more control over it, which allows you to get a more even grade. Many people bend over and throw the rake out in front of them to pull things back toward them. This gives you less control and makes it harder to spread mulch or loam around evenly. Grading is an essential part of gardening. It makes a massive difference in the look and feel of a garden bed or lawn. By standing up and working the rake at a steep angle, you get the control and precision you need.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into gardening but is nervous to start?

Plants are remarkably resilient and are pretty forgiving. The critical thing is to work to ensure you choose plants suitable for your garden site and the style you are trying to develop. We all have favorite plants, but sometimes your garden location won’t support these plants. I always preach that most of the time, the site conditions and garden style come first, then you select plants that are appropriate for your site and style.

What is your favorite garden you’ve created and why?

I built a garden for a client near Cape Cod in Massachusetts, and it was in a grassy area that was enclosed by an ancient hedge. The owner had put a gazebo in at one end, and the area just screamed for a garden. I spent an entire winter working on the design, and it worked out perfectly. It became a place for people to get together and spend time outside, and it attracted lots of hummingbirds, which added to the experience. The garden even hosted a couple of weddings over the years. It is still in place, but like many gardens, it has evolved a bit.

What is your favorite plant in your personal garden?

There is a beautiful hosta called ‘Allan P. McConnell’ that a nursery owner gave to me as a gift. It is such a lovely little variegated plant, and it is easily divided so I can share it with others.

Would you say it’s achievable for anyone to start their own garden—regardless of their property size and skill level?

Definitely, there are so many ways to garden with or without a yard. A close family friend used to visit her college roommate’s family in Long Island. Her roommate’s mother, Kathleen Kellogg Meserve, grew cuttings from hollies on her windowsill above the kitchen sink. These cuttings ended up becoming patented world-renowned hollies that include Blue Prince, Blue Princess, Blue Angel and many more. A window box or some containers on a patio or balcony can be plenty. You need to determine your goals (growing food, flowers, or just adding some greenery), regardless of the amount of space available. Once you have a good list, you can come up with a plan.

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More Gardening Advice and Inspiration:

3 Fabulous Desert Flowers to Fall in Love With This Spring

Explore Lush Gardens and Spanish-Inspired Interiors at This Storied Estate

Meet Brian Kissinger, Horticulturist and One of Our Masters of the Southwest 2021

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