Gardening is a forgiving pursuit. Get it wrong one year and you can start fresh again the next, wiser, with lessons learned.
Study up between planting seasons. Scan the seed catalogs for bulletproof plants that anyone with the blackest of thumbs can grow.
"Start small," said Claire Watson, Wave brand manager for Ball Horticultural Co. in West Chicago. "Whether it's a vegetable garden or flowers, don't give in to taking on too much, too soon. A few small successes will give you the confidence to expand -- or at least you'll realize your limits."
Learn the rules of the row.
"The right plant for the right place" may be a gardening cliché, but it's an accurate one. So, too, is the caution, "Know your (USDA plant hardiness) zone."
"Like humans, plants will perish without water and food," Watson said. "So plants that can survive the stress of missing a few waterings, or can withstand poor soils and extreme weather, are the ones to look for."
Some proven low-maintenance varieties include:
• Shrubs: hydrangea (paniculata "Levana"), spiraea (japonica "Norman") and butterfly bush (Buddleia "Miss Molly").
• Perennials: Coneflowers ("Cheyenne Sprit," "Sombrero"), hosta ("Sun and Substance") and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida "Goldsturm").
• Bulbs, rhizomes and tubers: Canna lilies ("Whithelm Pride") and daylilies ("Lilting Belle") can endure a wide variety of challenging conditions.
• Annuals: Dragon Wing red begonia (full sun to full shade), zinnias ("Profusion" and "Zahara"), angelonia ("Serena," which is deer- and rabbit-resistant) and Cool Wave pansies. "Plant them in the fall and they'll bloom until the snow flies," Watson said of the pansies. "Then, they'll re-bloom to be your first pop of color in the spring."
• Succulents and cacti: agave (Parryi truncata "Mescal"), sedum (Sarmentosum "Yellow Moss") and yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora "Texas Red").
• Vegetables: Malibar spinach and okra (Clemson "Spineless" for heat tolerance); Brussels sprouts, garlic, leeks and parsnips for cold hardiness. "Those veggies are so cold-tolerant that they can be left in the garden and allowed to freeze outright," said Robert Polomski, an extension consumer horticulturist with Clemson University. Herbs (rosemary), lettuce, beans and peppers also are forgiving.
• Indoor plants: The aptly named cast-iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) and Grape ivy (Cissus rhombifolia) display striking foliage. The easy-care wax plant (Hoya carnosa "Variegata") produces attractive flowers. "I've accidentally allowed these plants to experience extended drought periods and they've always come back for me," Polomski said.
Annuals get a modest nod over perennials for being easier to grow, Polomski said in an email.
"Obviously, it depends upon species and cultivars," he said, "but I'd lean toward annuals. They typically grow rapidly and begin flowering in a short time."
A similar case can be made for seedlings over seeds, Polomski said.
"With transplants, you skip the process of germination and emergence, which can be fraught with difficulties. Nevertheless, you will pay more for transplants and not have the satisfaction of starting with seeds."
Many of these plants are like athletes at a training table. They need a robust diet to perform at their best, especially the annuals.
"Applying feed every 10 to 14 days according to the plant food label will really boost your bloom power and keep plants from getting stressed," Watson said.