The Easy Way to Start Your Perennial Flower Garden

There have been a few questions about perennial flower garden bed or soil preparation and maintenance. In short, “how do we do this?”

And like all things in my garden-world, there is a simple way and a tough way to do this kind of thing. I’ve never understood why gardeners go through all the hard-way exercises when Mother Nature does most of the work for you if you’ll let her.  My best guess on this is beginning gardeners think the experts who do all these strange things must be right so they copy them.

Here’s my take. I like easy gardening that works. Many of the way-more-work techniques work faster or slightly better. But I’m an 80:20 kind of gardening guy. I know 20% of the work produces 80% of the results so I’m happy to identify the 20% and focus on doing that well.

The Hard Way

You can take soil tests and adjust the soil pH and fertility based on those tests. This is often recommended by garden writers with more time on their hands than is safe for their readers. You add whatever nutrients the test recommends and you add copious amounts of organic matter into the soil before planting. You create a super soil.

Or, The Easier Way

You can dig and cultivate the soil around plants and add copious amounts of compost every spring. Or, even middling amounts of compost.

Or, The Really Easy Way.

You mulch the perennial flower garden bed. Period. Oh sure, you can apply compost if you have extra but that decomposing mulch is going to work wonders for you.

Gardening isn’t rocket science (unless you like the fiddling around). And if you simply create an environment that supports a “natural” kind of growing system, the plants will take care of themselves (for the most part).

Yeah, it sounds simple but here’s the deal for those of you who care about such things.

An organic mulch composed of old bark, leaves or other material that breaks down replicates what Mother Nature does. it provides a layer of decomposing organic matter at the soil line that supports a massive number of micro-organisms. Do not use inorganic material such as stone or rubber. My own bias is that I also don’t like dyed mulches (they contain dye – a chemical and they don’t look at all natural).
These micro-organisms are responsible for modifying that organic matter and turning it into useable plant food for your perennials.

They are responsible for balancing the soil pH and maintaining it within the limits created by the underlying rock material that made the soil in the first place.
They are responsible for more “things under the sun” than we normally think of – things like eating bad fungi and bacteria that want to attack your plant but get eaten by nematodes in the soil.

Mulch allows roots and worms and other larger soil creatures to loosen up the soil and keep it well aerated the way you want it to be.

Somebody is going to ask so yes, you can simply toss a bit of compost on top of this mulch in the spring or if you’re really bent on feeding the plants, you can toss some organic feed or spray fish emulsion over top of the mulch.

So you mulch your perennial flower garden bed – top it up every fall and maintain a 3-4 inch layer. (Pull back the mulch away from plant crowns so the excess moisture there doesn’t rot the crown and kill the plant over the winter).

You create paths and don’t walk on the soil unless necessary

I remember talking to an orchid expert who was doing research on wild orchid populations in North America and talking about how just putting one foot down next to an orchid would reduce the flowering compared to one that wasn’t walked near. A single step compacted the soil enough so the natural micro-organism chain was disturbed in that specific region for this sensitive plant.

I’m not saying regular garden plants are that sensitive (they aren’t for the most part) but mulch will loosen up the soil and the only thing that will reduce that is if you walk on it.

That pretty much takes care of ongoing soil work. Mulch and don’t walk on the bed any more than necessary.

Initial bed preparation

There are any number of ways to get a garden bed started. From double digging, to tilling to not-a-darn-thing but laying on the mulch.

You need to eliminate weeds before you mulch – that’s the only trick to ongoing maintenance.

In my latest beds, I tilled up the big bed (here’s my roto-tiller review) but hand dug the smaller beds. Then I mulched and am on weed prevention detail now as I plant and maintain.

For ongoing maintenance however, it’s the mulch, don’t walk and weed routine.
I like it when things are simple. And this is the simplest way I know to keep a perennial flower garden bed healthy and productive for many years – with the smallest amount of work.

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Do I Cut Perennial Flowers Back In The Fall?

Photo by Samantha Gades on Unsplash

There are two different points of view on whether to cut back perennial flowers in the fall or whether to leave them alone.

Cut Them Back And Remove Them From The Garden

This leaves the garden neat and tidy going into the winter. All seed heads are put into the compost or shaken off the plants to germinate the following spring.

But your garden does not attract or feed overwintering birds.

Some gardeners do it because they believe it removes any diseased stems/leaves from the garden. In my opinion this is highly overrated as a reason. If you’re paying attention, any serious problems have already been pruned out and removed.

And common fungal problems such as botrytis (the gray fuzz on decaying leaves or black spots on peony leaves) is one of the most common fungi in the world and you won’t ever reduce or eliminate it on susceptible plants.

Leave Perennial Flowers Alone To Winter In The Garden

Doing this allows the seed heads to feed the birds. Any they miss will germinate the following spring.

It’s far less work but it’s not neat and tidy until later in the winter when the stems fall over naturally.

In my opinion, you do whatever seems right – but you do have to do this at some point.

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Four Flowers You Want To Trap Insects In Your Vegetable Garden

One of the interesting things in the vegetable garden is the existence of “trap plants” we can use to both attract and identify pest infestations as a form of companion planting.

We say these plants act as “insect traps” for the rest of the garden.

For example, beans and eggplant are beloved of spider mite and white flies so if you want to know if these pests are a problem in your garden, check these two plants first.

Or, if you’ve had a problem with these pests in the past, do plant these plants so they’ll both attract the pests (taking them away from other plants such as tomatoes) and give you an easy  place to spray insecticidal soap for control purposes.

This means you can actually put some eggplant and bean plants next to other plants that have had insect problems in the past to use as “traps” and infestation early warning signals.  A few plants scattered here and there through the garden works really well instead of concentrating these two plants in a section all by themselves.

Trap-cropping has several things in its favor in the home garden.

The first is that it works and has a great deal of scientific study behind it. The second thing is that it’s easy to do.

Trap-cropping is a simple system with limited plants to use.

The plants listed below attract the indicated pests. Period.

This means the insects prefer to eat the trap crop (most do anyway) instead of your preferred plant.

This gives two positive results –

  • the first is that your preferred plant isn’t being eaten and
  • the second is that the majority of pests are all in one place, making it much easier to kill them.

Because this is what you’re going to do – kill the pests attacking the trap crop.

Differences To Note

I note much of the research has been done on commercial farms where the trap crop is a row or two on the outside or running between rows of the desired crop.

It is on a much larger scale than backyard gardens so there are a few more details to be aware of and techniques to be used along with trap-cropping.

Diverse Planting In The Home Garden

This means plant a lot of different kinds of plants – vegetables, herbs and annual flowers in the same area.

Insects are less likely to build up into total crop-devouring numbers when there aren’t large mono-cultures. (All the same kind of plant.)

Did I mention to include flowers in the vegetable garden?

These will attract a great many beneficial insects as well as provide some beauty in your garden. And a cutting garden of your favorite flowers will fit right into a vegetable garden as both flowers and vegetables are constantly being cut and pruned.

My advice about which flowers to plant would include:

  • marigolds,
  • geraniums,
  • asters and
  • zinnias

All of these plants have been shown to attract insects.

Also include your favorite flowers for cutting. Don’t be restricted by what’s “good” for the garden but instead consider what’s good for the gardener.

Commercially Used Combinations You Can Use in the Home Garden

These suggestions are gleaned from commercial vegetable production research and studies and are recommended for big growers. I suggest home gardeners can take advantage of these as well.

Again, a trap crop will attract the pest first but it won’t “protect” the main crop in any way.

You do have to control the insect but at least you know where it’s more likely to be first. Check these trap crops regularly for the beginning stages of insect infestation.

When you see them on the trap crop, control immediately before the insect moves to your preferred crop.

  • Chevil attracts slugs. Plant with everything as it’s a favorite slug food.
  • Chinese cabbage seems to attract more Cabbage webworms, flea hoppers and mustard aphids than regular cabbage. Plant this form next to your regular cabbage.
  • Dill and Lovage are preferred foods of the tomato hornworm so mix these herbs into your tomato plantings.
  • Hot cherry peppers are used as trap crops for regular sweet bell peppers to attract pepper maggots. Plant all peppers in the same area but check those hot cherry types first for problems.Peppers also attract aphids probably more than any other vegetable – check this crop first and plant it next to any other plant you want to protect.
  • Marigolds deter root-knot nematodes in the soil so plant next to legumes (peas, beans) that are a main food crop of this pest. (Contrary to Internet advice, I haven’t seen research they actually “work” in any other way. But it never hurts to grow flowers in a vegetable garden and who knows….)
  • Nasturtiums are beloved and eaten by aphids, flea beetles, cucumber beetles and squash vine borers. Plant them either next to or among your cabbage and squash plant families.
  • Radishes are eaten by flea beetles and root maggots more than cabbage so plant radishes between your cabbages.
  • Tansy is a great food source for Colorado potato beetles so plant it next to your potato crop.

Remember though

Trap crop plants don’t deter insects, they attract them. This makes it easier for you to find/control/eliminate the bad guys.

How You Can Easily Clean Up Pollen From These Lilies

You know a plant is wonderful when you see a football playing jock carefully harvesting the blooms of lilies because “They look pretty good.”  And with that direct approach, a large armload of flowers trucked off to an unnamed university town somewhere in Ontario to grace a student apartment.

While it is too late to plant lilies for blooms this year, there will be boxes of them at your favorite garden center this fall. It is important to recognize a few differences between the more than 100 species and 7000 registered varieties available on the horticultural market.  While those are the ultimate choices, a garden center is likely to carry the four major groups: Asiatics, Orientals, Longiflorums, and LA hybrids with a choice of varieties in each of the groups.

And I do have to admit that the garden, now minus a few blooms, was spectacularly lovely with its display of lily blossoms and didn’t miss that armfull.

Asiatic Lilies

Asiatic lilies have medium height stems with a massive display of brightly colored flowers and make the best cut flowers of any of the lilies on the market.

Their flowers vary in shape from simple bowl-shaped to fantastically recurved petal shapes so do examine the photographs on the packaging to ensure you like the flower you are planting.  Not only shapes vary with the Asiatics but also the color range goes from the softest pastel shades of the French watercolorists to the most dramatic and fiery reds and oranges imaginable in a flower.

Asiatics normally produce five flower clusters per stem and they are usually the cheapest of lily bulbs.  With this economy, you can buy enough to give you massive displays that will be the envy of the neighborhood.

The only negative with Asiatic lilies is they are not fragrant.

Oriental Lilies

Oriental lilies, on the other hand, are prized for both their large flowers and the heady fragrance.  These are flowers the way flowers are meant to be!  Recurved petals gracefully roll away from the main flower body, the flower is one of the largest of the lilies, the colors are flamboyant, the long stamens mark them as different and the center markings down the throat of the blossom are quite distinctive.

These are show-stopping plants both in the gardens and in floral arrangements.  They are also the most expensive of the lily bulbs.  This is the story of my gardening life; it seems I always want the most expensive of plants.  I console myself with the fact that plants are cheaper than bingo or booze.

Madonna Lilies

I’ve written about Madonna lilies or Lilium longiflorum before.  This will be the first lily I’ll replant in my new garden.  Fragrant, a wonderful cut flower (although I resist and resent anybody who would cut one of my Madonna lilies) and a classic white flower shape and form make this one of the longest cultivated flowers in world history.

Remember they throw an evergreen rosette in the fall that resembles a weed and in my younger gardening days, I actually tried to weed this rosette out of lily patch. It was not one of my finer horticultural moments.

L.A. Hybrids

LA hybrids are a modern introduction and are a mating of longiflorum (L) and Asiatic (A) lilies and not the city of Los Angeles as is sometimes suggested.  These are wonderful general use lilies but do check the packaging to ensure you get the growing habits you want.  As you might imagine, some are fragrant while you could spend all afternoon with your nose stuck up others and still not smell anything. They are, however, excellent garden performers and make superb cut flowers.

Cut Flowers

If you have lilies in the garden and you want to cut them for flowers or you want to buy a few stems, let me suggest a few simple techniques to make them last longer.

  • Cut or purchase the lilies with buds that are just about to open but showing a bit of color.
  • A flower or two being open is OK but resist those whose stems are covered with open flowers.
  • When you get the stems home, recut the bottom of the stem taking about one-half an inch off and immediately put the stem into a vase of water.
  • Do use a floral food but cut back the amount by half.  Lily blooms are light feeders in the cut flower world.
  • And know that a cut flower arrangement featuring lilies can last upwards of two weeks if you change the water every few days.

How To Deal With Lily Pollen

One drawback to lilies is their sticky pollen.  This yellow sticky stuff can indeed stain upholstery or other fabrics if untreated.  The International Flower Bulb Centre passes along these tips for dealing with lily pollen.

  • Do not brush the pollen off the fabric with your hands.  Oils from your skin will set the pollen into a stain as will the use of water or a wet cloth.  Instead, let the pollen “dry” for a bit and then carefully brush it away with a soft tissue or brush.
  • Sticky tape also works really well.  Gently dab bits of tape on the pollen to pick it up.
  • Use this magical trick if some pollen remains on the fabric after this cleaning; put the fabric in direct sunlight for a few hours and the pollen should disappear.  Don’t ask me where it goes, I’m as intrigued as you are.
  • And last but not least, the solution of choice for cleaning gardening clothes is to use one of the enzymatic detergent pre-cleaners.

I note that using or growing the first pollen-free lily ‘Tiara’ will solve all these problems.
The only problem it won’t solve is how to shoehorn yet another lily into the garden.  But that is a problem for another day.

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6 Practical Tips for Mid-Summer Rose Care You’ll Want To Read

When it comes to midsummer rose care, there are several different things to keep in mind.


If you had the foresight to plant a rose as part of a container gardenlet me remind you that these plants, including the miniatures, are greedy feeders and if you want to see a lot of blooms you will have to feed the plant every week.

Plant food provides the energy to produce those huge blossoms and the extra shoots that produce even more blossoms. I use an organic liquid fish food fertilizer on all my container plants and roses love it as well. You also do not want to let your rose get thirsty.

Remember that if you touch the soil and your finger comes away dry, it is time to water that pot. Continue applying water until water comes out the bottom of the pot to ensure the soil is soaked right to the bottom and no roots are allowed to dry out. Feed and water those containers and you’ll have fragrance this summer but without this essential bit of rose care, your containers will disappoint.

In Ground

If you have roses in the ground, whether it’s traditional rose gardening or a plant here and there, let me remind you that the above two rose care suggestions are equally valid. Feed those roses with a liquid plant food and watch the plant grow.

And remember that blossoms are over 90 percent water so if you reduce the water, you reduce the size and number of blossoms on the plant.

Rose Pruning

Rose flower pruning is one of those dull rose care chores that are necessary in order to keep the rose producing more blossoms, reduce disease in the garden and just keep things looking good. With hybrid tea roses, once the blossoms start to fade, each bloom should be pruned off.

There is some disagreement about how much of the stem to cut off along with the fading rose and while some rosarians suggest only taking a few inches, there is research that suggests cutting at least twelve inches of stem or cane off along with the rose will produce more blossoms in subsequent bloom flushes.

I have always taken the longer stem cutting in the belief that the longer the stem I cut off, the more new buds will develop to produce even more flowers. What is important is that you do remove spent flowers before they become sites for diseases to establish themselves.

Rose Deadheading

Other kinds of roses should also be deadheaded as the flowers are finished blooming and that includes all climbing roses. Suffice it to say that pruning them immediately after they finish blooming is traditional rose care.

Pruning Mistakes

And that brings me to a question I get asked regularly. What happens if I make a mistake with the pruning? The short answer is that this is a plant, it is not brain surgery. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Well, you might kill the plant, but the chances are that the plant will simply grow back and you’ll get another chance to do it correctly.

It is certainly that way with roses. Many of them will simply die over the winter anyway so why worry about a few poor pruning cuts. Do your best and let the plant live with your efforts; you might, however, try taking a book on pruning out of the library next winter.

Black Spot and Rose Care

The last thing that many rose lovers are concerned with right now is the dreaded black spot. This disease starts out as small black spots and these spots enlarge and multiply. The spots go yellowish and the leaves drop off the rose. Planting resistant varieties only delays the inevitable.

Let me suggest that a weekly spray mix consisting of: 3 tsp. baking soda, 2 1/2 tbs. summer-weight horticultural oil, mixed with 1 gallon of water will control black spot enough for the average gardener. Yes, you’ll still see it later in the summer but you’re still going to see it with the expensive, chemical bomb you use as well.

Spray this every week and immediately after rains for complete coverage that will slow blackspot down to a dull and livable roar.

There is also some research suggesting Neem oil can be used  as an alternate spray (spray with the homemade spray one week, the neem the next).

Twist with Powdery Mildew

If your growing tips on your roses are twisted and curled, it is likely you have powdery mildew. You might never see the white powder that is evident on other plants infected with this problem but those twisted leaves are a dead giveaway on roses. Uncurl the leaves to make sure the curling is not an insect making a nest in there and if no insect is present, powdery mildew is the culprit.

Prune off the infected tips and start a weekly spray of the above recipe. Do not water the leaves if at all possible but apply water to the base of the plant.

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Download This Alternatives For Invasive Plants Information

Invasive plants are really the bane of a gardener’s existence and while I’m not sure I agree with every plant on this list (good guys or bad guys) it’s a great starting point for the average gardener.

And finding decent alternatives is harder than it might appear. Many of the alternatives are not readily available at garden centres – and that too must be frustrating for those who’d like to switch.

This pdf is a good starting point.

Click here to download the alternatives to invasive plants pdf.

And when you’re done that – subscribe to never miss another issue of resources to make your garden better.

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