I haven't killed my quarantine garden ... yet. Here's what I wish I'd known before I started.

Morgan Hines, USA TODAY

I don't have a green thumb and had zero knowledge about how to garden prior to the pandemic. But I have always loved flowers. 

Historically, my plants have survived for a month or so on my fire escape. But while quarantining somewhere with a garden, I found myself with extra time and a lot more space for a garden than 3 feet of metal slots above a two-story drop. 

With the help of a friend, I decided that now was the time to revitalize a space in the backyard that had once been a flower garden. When we began the project in mid-April, it wasn't exactly an Eden, though I was lucky that we had a head start since I had no idea what I was doing, and my friend wasn't exactly an expert in floriculture, either. 

We haven't killed the garden ... yet. But there are a few things I wish we'd known before starting. 

The garden in mid-April, ready for new plants.
The garden in mid-April, ready for new plants.

Figure out what grows well where you live for the best possible outcome

My first thought wasn't climate; it was "What will look pretty?" Which remained a concern throughout the process, but there are more important factors to consider first.

The country is split into growing zones based on plant hardiness. The U.S. Department of Agriculture breaks the zones down in an interactive map, upon which you can select your state, which is immensely helpful. 

Google, unsurprisingly, was also a great tool. It's simple to search for which plants grow in your zone, then pick those as you design your space. 

It's important, too, to consider the conditions you're growing in: Is it sunny or shady? This makes a big difference. Once you determine that, a quick search can help you decide which plants to pursue.

Big root in the way? Don't destroy it; it's there for a reason

A few plants from the old garden were still surviving, so rather than dig them out, we left them.

The roots weren't an issue while we edged, hoed and weeded. But when we went to plant, we found that the roots of a well-established bush and a small tree were more extensive than we had planned. 

I hacked one in half with a shovel, an error I hope won't kill the tree. It seems that we have been lucky so far – though according to Gardening Know How, an advice site for gardeners, cutting the roots can damage a tree. 

Most tree roots, called "feeder roots," exist 6 to 12 inches below the surface. To avoid them, it's best to dig small holes and move your location if you hit a root more than 2 inches in diameter, according to Gardening Know How. 

Don't fall in love with expensive plants

You want to make your newbie mistakes with discount-store flowers. 

When deciding what to plant, we researched our options at local flower shops and nurseries. The choices, while beautiful, were mostly expensive – and this project was, by all definitions of the word, an experiment, so not exactly the place to spend a ton of money.

We bought most of our plants from Walmart, which proved to be an economic choice. We bought two hydrangeas (my favorite flowering plant) of varying size, one for around $7 and the other around $14. Looking online, we had seen some hydrangeas that cost upwards of $40. 

The other flowers we purchased at Walmart were also very reasonably priced, so taking a sort-of shot-in-the-dark didn't seem like such a risk financially. 

Hydrangeas are my preferred flowering plant.
Hydrangeas are my preferred flowering plant.

Get your plants in the ground BEFORE you kill them

This one seems really obvious. But it wasn't.

A week after we purchased the plants, we left them sitting in potential locations around the garden without watering them. And then my mom served me a very "duh" moment in conversation about the garden: "Morgan, those are going to die soon if you don't plant them."

Give your plants some space to social distance

Looking at the garden after we gave each of our budding plants a home in the dirt, I felt a little disappointment. It didn't look like the lush shots I fantasized about on Instagram that featured flowers galore.

But that's not a bad thing because plants require space to grow. We chose mostly perennials; they're already growing, and next year, I expect they'll be larger. It's all right to have some wiggle room.

After planting two hydrangeas, we noticed they looked a little close and dug one up and moved it farther out.

Gardening Know How provides a breakdown for small, medium and large perennials and how much to space them out.

Things looked a lot better in the garden by late May.
Things looked a lot better in the garden by late May.

Google let you down? Ask a professional for help

I stopped in at a local florist, for cut daisies to put in a vase one day and noticed a small potted plant with pink flowers. 

I had no idea what it was. But it was pretty and bright, so I bought it. 

After admiring it for a few days, I decided it was time to plant it, but where? I didn't know what kind of habitat it needed since I didn't know what it was. I did some Googling with terms describing the plant but couldn't come up with an answer.

To find out, I took a very millennial route: Instagram. Pulling up Mar. Floral's account, I sent a direct message with a photo of the plant. I wanted to know what kind of plant it was and how to care for it.

Shortly after, I received an answer: It was an azalea, and it needed direct and indirect sunlight, which luckily, the garden space offered. It also likes water. 

Like any other project you embark upon with no experience going in, asking for help is always an option.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Quarantine garden: Don't make this beginner's newbie mistakes

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