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HowStuffWorks Answers Your Gardening Questions

Gardening Questions
Good shears will last a long time and ensure proper plant growth.
Good shears will last a long time and ensure proper plant growth.

These basic gardening questions and answers will have you successfully planting in no time. Become familiar with the language of gardening, and learn how to select plants that are appropriate for your gardening style and that will thrive in your environment. If you're a beginning gardener, reading up on these questions and answers is a good place to start building the landscape of your dreams.

Q: Which type of pruning shears is best?

A: There are basically two types of pruning shears: anvil and scissors. A good quality pair of shears should last many years. An advantage the scissors type has over the anvil is that it won't crush the stem while cutting. Good shears can be taken apart for sharpening, and replacement parts can be easily obtained for high quality models. Long-handled lopping shears are helpful when thinning shrubs and cutting larger stock than hand pruners can cut.

Q: Although I understand the benefits of using compost in the garden, I will probably never be disciplined enough to build and maintain a pile. What can I use instead?

A: Many municipalities have old piles of leaf mold -- from autumn collection -- that is free for the taking. Arm yourself with a few plastic bags and a shovel and head for the lot. Another option is purchasing composted manure from a stable or barnyard. You can also buy dehydrated manure or compost and incorporate it into the soil as you would with fresh compost.

Q: My neighbors have no problem growing a beautiful camellia, but after many failures, I've stopped planting them. Their soil seems the same as mine.

A: The successful camellia is probably growing in a microclimate that may not exist on your property. A protected microclimate is a good situation to try marginally hardy plant species, since it's protected from extreme daily temperature changes and winter winds. Visit your neighbors' site and try to determine the origin of the unique location -- you may have a site that is equally suitable.

Q: I'm looking for a particular cultivar that I can only find through mail order. Is it safe to buy plants from another temperature zone?

A: If you know the type of plant will grow in your climate, you should have no problem -- if it's a spring purchase. If the nursery's zone is warmer than yours, specify a safe ship date for your area. The newly installed plant will have all summer to acclimate to your seasons, and should survive the upcoming winter.

Q: There are a bewildering number of varieties available of the kind of plant I'm looking for. How do I make a wise decision as to which variety to purchase?

A: Sometimes the color of the bloom is the only difference in variety, making the choice one of personal preference. Other times the differences are more drastic, such as a resistance to a disease that may be prevalent in your area; and still other times the difference may be in the ultimate height, width, or form of the plant. Read nursery catalogs and talk to garden center salespeople to determine which varieties interest you and best suit your conditions.

Q: What does it mean to have "well-drained soil"?

A: Although it's necessary for your soil to have water available for your plants, too much water held for long periods of time will disturb the balance of air that is necessary for healthy root growth of most plant species. Without air in the soil, many plants will likely drown. Loam, a balance of sand, clay, and organic matter, is usually well-drained. Heavily compacted clay soils are often poorly drained.

Q: Being a weekend gardener, I'm not sure I want to spend the energy necessary to double-dig my new perennial bed. What are the advantages?

A: Double-digging provides a better quality soil for the deep roots that many perennials develop. Remember, perennials are long-lived plants, and the time and effort you use to develop a perfect growing environment is well spent. Imagine your investment withering up a few years after planting because the soil 12 inches under the surface is too compact for the roots to develop properly!

Q: How can proper site and plant selection make insect management easier?

A: There are many types of landscape plants that are virtually pest free (or at least pest resistant). Find out which pests are a problem in your area, and steer clear of plants that attract such pests. Additionally, a plant that is growing out of its optimal environment -- full sun as opposed to partial shade -- may not be able to support the beneficial insect predators that normally keep the pests at bay.

Q: I have seen collections of perennials, trees, and bulbs advertised so inexpensively that it's hard to resist purchase. Are such bargains worth the price?

A: Beware of such bargains -- you get what you pay for. The trees, shrubs, and perennials are often no more than rooted cuttings, six inches tall -- and sometimes they're species that won't thrive in your climatic conditions. Bulb collections are often an inferior quality of small size or outdated cultivars; they may take several years to become large enough to bloom.

Q: How do I select which shade tree is the right one for our property?

A: Determine the height, width, and density of shade needed for the site. Also decide how important the rate of growth is to your plan. Consider the environmental conditions -- temperature zone, soil type, light exposure of your proposed tree site, and how much pest control you are willing to use. Take this information and compile a list of possibilities -- with help from catalogs or by talking to local gardeners. Then go to a local garden center or botanical garden to see your choices.

On the next page, discover the answers to many commonly asked gardening questions, and learn about optimal planting conditions.

Want to find out more about growing a flower garden, a houseplant, or a vegetable garden? Check out: