Techniques and Tips for Gardening
By Anita B. Stone, Photographs by Chris J. Kottyan
There are an endless variety of ideas for anyone who gardens and, of course, we all have our own tips and techniques that we enjoy sharing; it’s just a matter of plant selection that fits your personal style. The main goal is to plant your landscape for maximum enjoyment and low maintenance. Proper planning, planting and care are extremely important when you create a garden, whether it is outside or indoors, planted in soil or set in containers. Either way, patience is a virtue. We all want our gardens to be the biggest, the best and the fastest growing arena on the homestead. Whether your gardening adventure is just beginning or you are a seasoned gardener, each season is a new adventure. So permit your plants to grow at their own speed—which may take up to six weeks to become acclimated to their surroundings before they begin to thrive.
PLAN AND PLANT
It’s always a good idea to plan a design of sorts, prior to planting. The internet offers scaled drawings for garden plots along with new ideas. But if you want a unique garden, you must think out-of-the box. Don’t perform like everyone else. Look for unique plants, plants with a lot of color, plants that make you smile, plants that require low maintenance and plants that give you the biggest bang for your buck. I’ve known gardeners who use paper napkins to plan and design a landscape. Many of us plant out of sheer excitement because we become overwhelmed with the beauty and magnificence of gardening, but soon discover that we have placed too many plants in an area that will become over crowded, or have placed a sun-loving plant in a shady spot, maybe even planted a tree or two because it is so beautiful, only to find we have planted too close to the house where the roots eventually invade the foundation and intertwine with underground utility lines. Some large tree trunks begin to grow aboveground because there is no room for them to expand. And, of course, we have to be aware of whether we are planting for sun, shade or in between plants. Structures should also be taken into consideration. If you have a fence, mailbox, trellis, or a specific feature on the homestead you’d like to enhance, then consider those additions to the landscape. And always be aware of the longevity and expansiveness of what you plant. For example, a large palm set in a container can enhance a porch or deck. Just make sure it is watered sufficiently and receives ample light.
Three years ago I planted six daisy clumps in front of a rain barrel that sat at the end of my garage, knowing they would get ample sun and certainly much needed water. But not thinking or researching ahead of time, by the third year the daisies tripled and became invasive, spreading their lovely stems and heads into a nearby bed of iris. It became a battle of survival for each plant until I removed the daisies.
I quickly learned that although I desired a variety of plants to make a statement of beauty, each cultivar requires different care. So, awareness of growth habits is of major importance when selecting and planting anything. Once you feel secure about the plan, the next step is to consider soil, what I call a plant’s “lifeline.”
SOIL AND MULCH
The landscape offers a variety of soils from clay to sand, from rocky to terraced, and from saturated to crumbly. When it comes to selection, there are an abundance of choices in maintaining a good soil fix. But first, it is a good idea to get your soil analyzed. This can be done for little or no cost from your county’s department of agriculture, or a master gardener group can advise you. Once you realize what the soil lacks in nutrients, then you can adjust the soil needs to the plant.
The first consideration is that soil should be loose and offer proper drainage. Also, the color of the soil should give you a dark rich texture, free from any obstacles such as twigs, debris, mold and rocks. When you are ready to plant, the hole should be two to three times the circumference of the pot it was in. Always know the size of the hole you will dig—do not guess or you may find you have over-dug or under-dug to fit the size of the plant. Whether the hole is small or large, it is preferable to work in peat moss, manure, humus or leaf mold. Use bone meal as an additive—it will boost root growth. Once you have applied sufficient organic matter you are ready to mix everything together and let it sit for a day. If your soil contains a lot of sand or clay, it is advisable to add a good grade of black topsoil in addition to the organic matter. Be careful where you get your topsoil, because sometimes it will contain bits of weed seed that sprout when exposed to the air. Choose a reputable brand name for high-grade selection and simply work it in with the original soil. A rule of thumb is one-third original soil, one-third organic matter and one-third topsoil.
Make sure you mulch the garden frequently to keep it weed-free, improve soil nutrition, and give it a well-groomed appearance. You don’t need to buy expensive mulch; just use items that are around the homestead such as compost, woodchips, grass clippings or decaying leaves.
DEPTH AND CARE OF PLANTS
When you have established soil balance, dig the hole twice the width and depth of the root system you are working with. If you are planting from original potted plants directly into the ground, it is preferable to have from six to eight inches of space around them. For trees or shrubs, dig approximately two to three feet around the plant. Make sure you leave seven to eight inches of loose soil at the bottom of each hole. This allows the roots to thrive in enough soft soil to grow and expand once the plant is placed. Before you release any plant from its original container, check out the old soil line on the plant. That way, you can gauge the depth at approximately the same level as the plant was grown originally. If you are not able to identify the soil line, the top of the root system should normally be right below the soil surface (it depends on the plant). Remember not to tamp down the soil to much once you have planted. This is important because too much tamping will invite compaction and the plant roots will suffocate.
Plants stress from any change in temperature or location, so move slowly, carefully and gently. Do not fertilize new plantings until set, which can take up to 10 days. However, be sure to water well, especially during the cooler months so the roots can soak up the water. But be careful not to overwater or you will cause root rot or root freeze. There are a variety of methods when planting; you can use the no-till, raised garden bed, vertical, horizontal, repurposed pallets or containers, to name a few. All are excellent methods, just be sure to research the type of planting you are going to use prior to building or planting.
When I first began to garden I was told that I could plant anything in the fall as long as I could dig a hole, no matter how cold it was outside. I quickly learned that planting techniques differ according to each season and location. Check your agricultural zone for freeze dates and be sure to follow the rules about planting or results may prove to be negative. If it is hot, provide enough water to any newly set plant. Do not allow plants to dry out. The same applies to spring bulbs, which can be planted even if it’s hot outside.
Do not fertilize any bare root materials until the second year. This is the time when the roots will be established. Bare root items, such as roses, are sensitive to fertilizer the first year in the ground. If you fertilize the plant it may cause harm to the root system, even possibly killing the plant. I have noticed that some thick-root systems deteriorate after a few years in the ground. This results in a “sick” trunk and will breed diseases like black spot or invite chomping insects. So pay special attention, not only to the topside of your plants, but check out limbs and trunk systems where life and death occur frequently.
Another tip is to recognize whether a plant is dead, alive or dormant. Several years ago I fell into the trap of the “unknowing gardener.” I purchased and planted hydrangeas. When the blooms expired a clump of sticks remained standing vertically from the plant. My initial reaction was that the plant had died, so I pulled it from the soil and tossed it away. Later I found out that hydrangea appear dead during the winter, with only sticks where the flowers had been. So how do you know whether a plant is dormant or really dead? If in doubt, do a scratch test. Scratch away a small amount of the bark, approximately one inch up from the base of the plant. If the plant tissue underneath is white or green, it is alive; if it is brown or black, it is dead.
Another faux pas is planting bulbs incorrectly, which I also admit to doing—150 of them. As time passed, I couldn’t understand why there were no flowers popping up from the ground, until I realized the bulbs had been planted upside down with the tip faced down into the soil. Frustration was at its ebb until I began to research everything I wanted in the garden prior to planting.
Any weather-related gardening should be done with common sense. Don’t leave your palms outside when the temperature gets below freezing. Hibiscus plants should be brought indoors or the leaves will freeze, the potential blooms will become stricken with curl and the future will not be positive. Plants like beautyberry, oakleaf hydrangea and yew have to be cared for during the cold weather. One year, while working at a greenhouse, several of us placed bales of straw around a section of outdoor shrubs, which insulated them from the cold weather. You can perform that task with any group of plantings — simply surround them with an insulator to keep them warm.
CERTAIN STROKES FOR CERTAIN PLANTS
Some plants and shrubs need special attention. Roses, for instance, should not be fertilized after August in cold climates. Prune one-third to one-half of the previous year’s growth and remove all suckers as they appear. Make sure you pull out any damaged or diseased-looking branches. By removing faded blooms, you will also promote additional flowering.
When planting bare root trees and shrubs always keep roots covered and use good topsoil.
If you wish to store items during the winter, you can store bulbs in a frost-free refrigerator. Place them in a container covered in sawdust, sphagnum moss or shredded newspapers. Do not put near any fruit products and do not allow the plants to freeze. If mold should develop, wipe the mold off, then place them in newspaper or paper towel for protection and return to the refrigerator.
Once you plant, you can control weeds with frequent, shallow cultivation. It also eliminates weeds that compete for moisture. Mulch is favorable for perennial plantings and helps keep weeds down. Favorites are wood chips, peat, grass clippings, manure with straw (not “fresh”), marsh hay or compost for ornamental trees. The first year, evergreens require ample water in late fall before freezing begins. Do not allow the ground to dry out, but do not let it get soggy.
If you want to plant vines, make sure they are planted a minimum of one inch from any structure for adequate air circulation. Cut them back and stake very securely. Firm the soil around the roots and fertilize as soon as new growth occurs. Vines require a lot of water. It is best to train vines so they will beautify the landscape, whether along a fence, trellis, mailbox or light pole. Vines are quite self-sufficient. Just make sure they are guided properly or they will run rampant where they grow.
Networking is an excellent method to learn about tips and techniques for gardening. Contact your county for listings of garden clubs. The internet offers meet-up groups, nurseries and free information as well as free classes. Through the department of agriculture, master gardeners are always willing to help anyone who wishes to learn better gardening skills.
Beautification is important to most homesteaders. So keep in mind multiple combinations of plants, shrubs, trees and color when you plan, design and plant your garden. Learn the techniques that are available and never be afraid to ask questions.