So you want a great garden and you really want to know what’s important. In a nutshell, there are three things that make and break your garden, lawn, container baskets, trees and shrubs and just about anything else you can dream of to grow or ask about.
Here’s what you really need to know.
Get the Soil Right
That wasn’t hard was it?
So here are the slightly expanded versions of that – you can find even more information in following chapters.
- With annual flowers and vegetables you want superior growth so you’re going to apply a balanced, organic plant food once a month for the entire growing season. You can apply it in a solid fertilizer such as alfalfa pellets or other organic fertilizers available in your area or through a hose end sprayer such as a Hozon using fish emulsion or a soybean based liquid-feed. Containers get a weekly feeding (at least)
- For perennials, a single feeding early in the season with the pellets will keep them growing all season long but if you want to spoil them, do it monthly for May, June and July. Do not do it after that as you want the plants to harden off – getting tough for the upcoming winter.
- For trees and shrubs. Feed plants organic pellets late in the fall – after all the leaves have fallen and all the garden is dormant. The feed will dissolve into the ground and the roots will pick it up and make it ready for the leaves first thing in the spring. You’ll get better results with a fall feeding of trees and shrubs than you will with a spring feeding.
- For lawns, feed with pellets around the end of May to mid-June after the first flush of growth is done and then again in mid-to-late fall to prepare the roots for winter (the fall feeding is stored by the roots for quick growth in the spring)
Water is the engine of plant growth. Period. Without water, nothing else happens so if you want to see great gardens, then you have to water. You can feed all you like, complain all you like about the cost but it’s a choice – water them or watch them struggle.
Plants will often survive on natural water but seldom thrive in a garden setting. If you want thrive, this is what you do.
- You need to provide 1 inch of water a week on average soils for flower and vegetable gardens.
- If in the shade of trees, you need to increase that to 2 to 2 ½ inches of water a week (some for the trees and some for the plants
- Your lawn only needs 1 ½ inch of water a week.
- A mature tree (say a 40-foot high maple) will use 200-300 gallons of water a day. You need to put the hose on trickle once a week overnight at the base of that tree and let it drip out there. Your tree will thank you as will your maintained property values from having healthy mature trees.
- For gardens and vegetable beds. Drip irrigation is cheaper to install, easier to maintain and puts the water where the plants need it. Overhead sprinklers are beloved by installers but waste 50% of the water you apply to evaporation before the water gets to the plant roots. A drip irrigation hose will soak a path approximately 3-feet wide.
- For lawns. Drip irrigation is impractical for lawns; overhead impact sprinklers spread water faster and you can mow around them. Do not install them on automatic timers. There’s nothing funnier than a sprinkler system running during a driving rain.
To measure the amount of water put a wide mouth container (a plastic yogurt container or similar sized quart container works well out in the path of the sprinkler system. Keep track of the length of time it takes to put an inch of water into the container. Once you know this time, you can adjust for 1 ½ inches or 2 inches or whatever you need.
Getting The Soil Right.
There are several things you need to know right about now. There’s an easy way to do this and a tougher way to do this. The easy way is right here but it will take time to work. The tougher way is explained later on; it works faster (and is recommended for some plants) but is a lot more work.
Put down a permanent mulch. It can be hardwood chips, pine bark or whatever you like the look of and can afford but it has to be biodegradable.
This is going to do a great many wonderful things in your garden starting with reducing moisture loss, preventing weeds from germinating, decomposing to feed your plants, stopping disease from spreading to lower leaves and giving beneficial insects a place to hide during the day.
You want these beneficial insects by the way because they hunt the pests eating your plants.
Do not use peat moss as a mulch (doesn’t wet easily) or shredded paper or cardboard in deep layers (turns into paper mache and impervious to water) but stick to organic material.
Using stone or rubber mulch is asking for problems.
I could go on and on about mulch but the bottom line is to simply do it. A three-inch layer of mulch is about average for most flower beds.
Top it up every fall (when mulch goes on sale in your local garden shop) because it will degrade. Note – that you want this degradation because this is what is feeding your plants and creating your great soil under there. Mulch degrades and keeps all the good microorganisms in your soil alive and happy. (One of several reasons not to use rubber or stone.)
Every spring, throw compost (along with the organic fertilizer) on top of the mulch around the plants that are there. No, you don’t have to pull the mulch back, rain will wash the small bits down between the spaces in the mulch and worms will haul down the larger bits.
Yes, just toss it on unless you’re a glutton for punishment and want to do all that work of pulling back and replacing mulch.
Yes, organic compost (increasingly available at garden centers) is best but the cheaper composted manure works too. (just understand it isn’t certified organic because of the chemicals used in beef production and that these sometimes get passed through in the manure)
Pull the mulch back away from perennials because mulch holds moisture and many perennials will rot over the winter if there’s too much water around them. The list of bone-tough perennials in the perennial section will tell you whether you need to really do this or whether the plant will survive under a full mulch.
Doing just those three things will allow you to grow a fine crop of annual plants, most vegetables, all the perennials listed on this site as well as superb hedges and flowering shrubs.
Yes, there’s more you can do but if you only want the serious essentials, the things you really can’t avoid doing to have a superb garden, that’s what you need to do.
Let me put it another way. If I were only to spend money on three things in the garden, it would be the feeding, the watering and keeping mulch at the deep level.
And the plants of course 🙂