I love to read and search the Internet, but when it comes to gardening, there's just no substitute for hands-on experience, especially working side by side with a knowledgeable gardener. Sometimes help is as close as your next-door neighbor.
When I first tried my hand at gardening, I lucked out. My neighbor Frank Curtis was a generous man in his 70s with boundless energy. He taught me to sling a mattock into compacted soil, to make compost and to germinate seeds. His wife, Sadie, showed me how to start cottage pinks from cuttings and enjoy a cocktail at the end of the gardening day.
Volunteer and learn
If you don't have gardening neighbors, mentors are plentiful in the gardening community. For example, one of the more daunting garden tasks is planting a tree. How big should the hole be? Should you amend the soil and stake the tree?
Get some experience by helping Friends of Trees beautify city parks and Portland neighborhoods. They'll show you how to plant and put you to work practicing.
I spoke with Logan Lauvray, green spaces initiative manager for Friends of Trees. He specializes in planting native species along rivers, streams, parks and the 16-mile bike and pedestrian path parallel to Interstate 205.
'Crew leaders show volunteers how to plant the trees, and work safely with tools. Anywhere from 20 to 100 people show up,' he said. 'We get a variety of folks - Boy and Girl Scouts, high school students, families who want to do an activity together. People have fun!'
Check www.FriendsOfTrees.org for a list of Saturday planting dates and locations. Free coffee and snacks keep volunteers energized.
Participate in plant societies
Even though I never built a rock garden, I joined the Columbia-Willamette chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society to learn about alpines. It was garden graduate school - this group has a wealth of expert gardeners and professionals, many of whom travel the world in search of unusual plants, and then share their experiences through slide shows and lectures.
Meetings are at 7:30 p.m. on third Tuesdays at the SMILE Station, 8210 S.E. 13th Ave., in Sellwood. Some upcoming programs include Alpine Flowers of Southeast Tibet on Feb. 16, a pot show on March 16, and Following in the Footsteps of Reginald Farrer in the Dolomites on April 20.
For more information, check the Web site www.nargs.org and click on 'Local Chapters.'