And other plant-related wisdom.

I come from a long line of gardening trend setters. Way, way before succulents once dotted every third-wave coffee shop across the country, my Mississippi-born grandmother landscaped with them in her tiny Southern California yard. Many moons prior to farm-to-table becoming a prized restaurant moniker and growing your own food a hipster homesteader activity, my mama harvested Cherokee Purple tomatoes, oakleaf lettuces, and herbs from a picket fenced kitchen garden that mystified our neighbors.

My mama has been gardening since she was a toddler, following my great grandmother around the yard as she dug holes for rose bushes. Back in the day she would even plant geraniums in her bikini in the backyard of her Memphis house, again mystifying her neighbors. Now, she’s a published author (Pollinator Friendly Gardening. Add to cart.), a newspaper columnist, a magazine writer, and speaker. When she comes to visit my house and my small container garden on the porch, we often end up taking a trip to Home Depot or shaking containers of Osmocote on peakid plants. Once, I came home from work to find that the entire strip of barren earth where I park my car had been turned into an herb garden despite an encounter with a snake that turned out to be a skink.

Even more importantly, she’s also steered me away from ill-fated gardening projects. When I was in graduate school, Pinterest was still in its infancy and mason jar gardening seemed novel and even cool (Is this what being old feels like?). Luckily, my mama saved me from wasting my time and effort on what would only result in a moldy mess. Still, images of said project pervade Pinterest (now known to me as lies.com) and my mama shakes her head at jars filled with languishing succulents at Home Depot. And that is why, dear Southern Living readers, I am gathering together some of my mama’s best advice, so you too can feel empowered and wise in the garden.

Don’t forget drainage: Whether it’s a jar, an expensive ceramic pot you found on Terrain's sale section, or a galvanized pail, if it doesn’t have holes in the bottom for drainage, anything you plant inside is doomed. If you remember anything from this piece, remember that drainage is the one non-negotiable in gardening.

  • Size is important: I hope you're shade tolerant for this next piece of advice. "The smaller the pot, the more you have to water,” says my mama. “Those tiny plants in teacups are mighty cute, but seriously?” 

  • Not all soil is equal: Before you go hoisting the wrong bag onto your cart, make sure you’re buying the right kind gardening soil. If you’re a container gardener-type like me, make sure to buy potting soil. It has more of the material you need to retain moisture.

  • Dress your plants in pebbles and gravel: “The gravel holds the moisture, while reflecting the heat that keeps the plant crown dry, avoiding rot and fungal disease,” advises my mama. “You can use small pebbles, seashells or even marbles. Gravel top dressing is especially good for potted herbs.”

  • Water the darn plants: Perhaps one of the more persistent questions my mother asks me is “When did you water this?” or the variant, “Did you ever water this?” Her technique to seeing if a plant is underwatered: “Stick a finger into the soil, at least to the first knuckle, and see how far down the soil is damp. If the first inch of soil is dry, it’s time to water.”