Garden Care Tips

Like playing a lively game of tennis, keeping your garden looking great depends on having the right equipment, developing a good technique, and being organized enough to do the right things at the right time. This may sound like a lot to juggle, but once you understand the basics, it's easy.

For a start, you need good hoes, spades, rakes, pruners, and a sturdy wheelbarrow. Then you need to learn how to control weeds with cultivation and mulch. A few basic pruning cuts will help you rejuvenate and control the size of your shrubs and trees. Other helpful suggestions in this article will help you polish up the rest of the landscape. Let's get started with suggestions on how to take care of garden tools.

  • Buy the best tools you can afford. There is no substitute for good tools. Tools that cost half the price but last only two years (instead of 22 years) are not cost-effective in the long run. They may also fail you in the middle of a big project, just when you need them most.

    One way to ensure good quality is to buy tools from a reputable dealer willing to guarantee their performance. For another quality test, look at the way tools are made. Tools with steel blades are strong enough to last for years without bending. Stainless steel is even better, because it won't rust. Spades, shovels, and forks with hard ash handles are unlikely to splinter or break in the middle of a heavy operation. People with smaller builds can find specially designed tools with smaller blades and shorter handles, which are easier to control than oversized tools.

  • Keep hand tools in a basket on the garage or pantry shelf so they are always easy to find. Nothing is more frustrating than seeing a branch in need of a quick trim but having to search all over the house and garage for a pair of pruning shears. If all your tools are kept together -- and returned to their proper basket after each use -- simple garden projects will stay quick and uncomplicated.

  • Always set hoes, soil rakes, and other tools with horizontal teeth or blades face down on the ground when not being used. If stepped on, the teeth or blades sink harmlessly into the soil. But if left upright, an unwary walker might step on the teeth, making the tool tip and the handle spring up into his or her face. This hurts!

    For an even more organized approach, attach a topless and bottomless coffee can or similarly shaped plastic container to a fence post, securing it with wire. You can slip in the handles of rakes, shovels, and hoes, keeping them together, upright, and out from underfoot.

  • Keep a bucket of clean sand and machine oil in the garage to cure tools after each use. This is particularly helpful for rust-prone digging instruments such as shovels, garden forks, and hoes. After use, rinse with water and dry the blades. Then insert them in the oil/sand mixture. The sand will scour off debris, and the oil will coat the metal, retarding rust.

  • Keep garden tools together in one place, preferably close to your basket of hand tools so they will be easy to find when needed.

  • When a hoe blade begins to get dull and takes more effort to use, sharpen it like a knife with a sharpening stone.

Often the best way to keep a plant healthy is know when to cut back old growth. The tips on the next page offer guidance on pruning.

Want more gardening tips? Try:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Pruning Your Garden

Make the task of cutting back your garden a bit easier by learning about the types of pruning equipment available as well as techniques to use when pruning.

  • Prune with top-quality pruning shears, loppers, and a saw. Sharp blades and sturdy handles make pruning a breeze. Dull blades -- rusty and sticking -- make projects harder than they need to be. They can also cause wood to be crushed or torn, which is damaging to the plant. Look for hard, durable blades capable of being resharpened and a sturdy, smoothly operating nut holding the blades together. Hand shears should also have a safety latch to keep the blades closed when not in use.

Pruning is an important aspect of garden care.
Pruning is an important aspect
of garden care.

  • Hand pruning shears are used for small stems under about 1/2 inch in diameter. Look for scissor-type blades, which make sharper, cleaner cuts than the anvil type with a sharp blade pressing on a flat blade. Also check out new ergonomically designed pruning shears that minimize repetitive motion stress.

  • Loppers are long-handled pruning shears with larger blades for cutting branches up to about 11/2 inches in diameter. Pruning is easier if you buy a model with ratcheting action for more power with less effort.

  • Pruning saws should have narrow blades, be easy to maneuver into tight spaces, and be toothed on one side only.

  • Candle-prune pines to control their size or make them branch more thickly. Candle-pruning (also called candling) refers to manipulating the candle-shaped new shoots that arise in spring. Before the needles enlarge, use your pruning shears to cut off a little, half, or most of the soft candle, depending on how much you want to limit size. The cut should slant at an angle instead of slicing straight across the candle. Come the following spring, clusters of new side branches will appear. Continue candling each year for more dramatic results.

    Candling is especially handy for keeping mugo pines small enough for use near the house or in a mixed border. It also can help lanky, open-branched pines fill in to form a more solid and substantial cone.

  • Renewal-prune flowering shrubs by removing 1/3 of the stems once each year. This modest effort acts like a fountain of youth, keeping these shrubs young. It's much better than shearing, which reduces flowering, has to be repeated frequently, and can even accelerate aging.

    Use pruning loppers or a pruning saw to cut the oldest stems off at the ground, ideally in early spring before the shrubs break dormancy. This timing encourages quick renewal, but a few spring flowers will be sacrificed on early bloomers. If you can't bear that thought, wait to prune until after flowering. As spring and summer progress, new branches will take the place of the old branches. If pruned every year, the shrub will be continually rejuvenated, remaining healthy and beautiful.

    Spring-Blooming Shrubs
    These plants flower in the spring and benefit from pruning:

  • Rejuvenate tired, overgrown, or weak shrubs by cutting them to the ground. Although this may sound like giving up, just the opposite is true. It can be the start of a whole new shrub. This technique works well with easy-growing shrubs such as lilacs, viburnums, butterfly bushes, and common boxwoods but is generally not effective with evergreen shrubs (except boxwoods).

    The idea is similar to renewal-pruning, only more radical. It should be done in early spring before leaves or flowers emerge. Shrubs with strong root systems will resprout with a fountain of new stems. So that they don't crowd each other out, you should thin out excessively thick clumps to allow the strongest to continue growing and form the foundation for the new shrub.Shrubs with weak root systems or disease problems may not resprout. If there are no signs of life a month or two after cutting the shrub back, start looking for a replacement plant.
  • Prune to the outside of a tree's branch collar for fast healing and good tree health. The branch collar is the swelling located at the base of the branch, where it arises from another limb or the trunk. The branch collar is like a hospital isolation ward; it houses protective chemicals that help keep diseases from invading the parent limb. When removing a branch for any reason, leaving that branch collar in place shuts out any passing pathogens.

  • Slant pruning cuts away from the bud to encourage water to run off. This helps keep the bud healthy so it can grow and prosper.

Mulching is another important aspect of garden care. Learn more on the next page.

Want more gardening tips? Try:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Mulching Your Garden

Mulch helps keep moisture in and weeds out. What's more, it can provide nice texture and a clean look to your garden. Read on for helpful mulching tips.

Mulch provides a nice look and added benefits to your plants.
Mulch provides a nice look and
added benefits to your plants.

  • Cover garden beds with a layer of mulch to keep weeds down and reduce the need for water. Annual weed seeds are less likely to sprout when the soil is covered with enough mulch to keep the soil surface in the dark.

  • When it comes to water, even a thin layer of mulch -- nature's moisturizer -- will reduce evaporation from the soil surface. Thicker mulches can reduce water use by as much as 50 percent.

    Mulches vary in their appearance, makeup, and texture, which will influence how you use them. Here are some examples:

    Varying appearances: For a soothing, natural-looking garden, use dark-colored organic mulches made of bark or compost. For a brilliant-looking garden, consider a mulch of bright gravel. In utilitarian gardens like a vegetable garden, plastic or straw makes excellent mulch.

    Soil improvement: This calls for the use of organic mulches that break down to add organic matter to the soil.

    Texture: For maximum effectiveness with only a thin mulch layer, look for fine-textured mulches such as twice-shredded bark, compost, or cocoa hulls. For an airy mulch, try thicker layers of coarse-textured mulches such as straw or bark chunks.

  • Kill off sod or dense weeds by layering newspaper, compost, and mulch directly on the garden site. This treatment cuts off the sunlight to unwanted vegetation, which will eventually decay and add organic matter to the garden. The newspaper decomposes, too. (What a bargain!)If you build the compost layer at least 4 inches high, you can plant shallow-rooted annuals or vegetable seedlings into it. In a year or so, loosen the soil deeply or build it up into a raised bed if you want to grow deeper-rooted perennials, shrubs, and trees.

    Mulch new plants with straw or chopped leaves after planting in the fall to prevent root damage during winter. A little mulch used immediately after planting can help to keep the soil moist and encourage continued root growth.But the main reason to mulch lies ahead, in winter. Alternately freezing and thawing, expanding and contracting soil can break new roots or even push new plantings out of the ground, a process called soil heaving. By mulching generously with an airy material like straw when the soil first freezes, you can help keep the soil frozen until winter ends, at which point the mulch can be removed.
  • In winter, mulch evergreen perennials and ground covers with evergreen boughs to protect them from winter burn (the cold-weather opposite of sunburn). When the soil is frozen, the wind is strong, and the sun is bright, moisture is pulled out of the vulnerable leaves and cannot be replaced by the frozen roots. A protective layer of evergreen boughs, possibly obtained by recycling the branches of a Christmas tree, forms a protective shield over vulnerable greenery. Straw will also do the job, especially in colder areas where there is less chance of rot in winter.

  • Celebrate if you live in a snowy area. Snow is the best mulch of all, and it may allow you to grow plants that won't survive winter in snowless areas farther south.
  • Check out the next section for other garden care tips, including how to stake floppy plants and when to give up on a plant that's not thriving in your garden.

    Want more gardening tips? Try:

    • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
    • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
    • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
    • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

    Other Garden Care Tips

    Dandelions have underground roots
    that can make them difficult to pull up.

    The following tips are sure to make caring for your garden a bit easier.

    • Watch the calendar and note the dates things need to be done in advance. This lets you encourage desirable plant growth and deter difficulties before they happen, thereby keeping your maintenance chores to a minimum.

    • Pile dug-out earth on a tarp instead of on the grass when digging a hole for planting or excavating a garden pool. You can easily drag away any excess soil, and you won't have to rake up little clods trapped in the turf. Don't waste that soil. You can use it to build a waterfall beside the pool or to fill a raised bed for herbs or vegetables.

    • Use wire grid supports instead of individual stakes to easily hold up bushy but floppy perennials such as peonies. You can buy commercial grid supports, which are handsome round or square grids neatly set on legs; green grids are more camouflaged amid the foliage than metallic grids. Or you can make your own grid supports out of a sheet of wire mesh, cut a little wider than the plant it will support. The extra length can be bent into legs.

      The supporting process takes one simple step. Set the grid over a newly emerging perennial in spring. The stems will grow up though it, retaining their natural shape while staying firmly upright.The alternative (which occurs when you let the plant sprawl before staking it) is more difficult and less attractive. Corsetting the drooping limbs with twine and hoisting them up with a stake of wood can result in broken stems and a miserable-looking specimen.
    • Use a sharp hoe to cut off weeds, especially annuals, instead of stooping and pulling them. Using a hoe is quicker and easier than hand-weeding, plus it does a superb job. If you catch weeds when they are young seedlings, a single swipe will be all it takes to eliminate them. If they are older, cut them down before they go to seed to prevent future generations of weeds.

    • Perennial weeds such as dandelions may have large underground roots that will resprout after hoeing. You can keep hoeing in hopes of wearing them down. Or, as a faster alternative, when the soil is moist, use a corner of the hoe blade to dig down and help you loosen the root, then pull it up by hand.

    • Use a lawn mower equipped with a bagger when you mow the grass and any fallen leaves in autumn. The mower will begin to shred up the leaves and mix them with the grass. This does twice the good of ordinary mowing: It saves you from raking, and the blended leaves and grass clippings are a dynamite combination for making compost. Empty the mower bag in an out-of-the-way place to make a compost pile. Use a garden fork to fluff the pile occasionally during winter, and you could have great compost by spring or summer.

    • Grow a plant for at least two or three years before you decide to remove it. It can take that long for a perennial plant to get comfortable in a new home and begin to really show what it can do. Allowing a trial period of several years also lets the plant get beyond setbacks from difficult weather -- slow growth after an exceptionally cold winter or poor flowering during a long drought, for instance.

    • Don't assume you can't grow a plant if it dies once. If you like that plant and are willing to buy another one, put it in a different place -- one better suited for its light and soil needs.

    Caring for your garden can be an enjoyable experience, especially if you're armed with the handy tips outlined in this article.

    Perennials that Often Need Support
    The following plants will benefit from wire supports:

    Want more gardening tips? Try:

    • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
    • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
    • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
    • Gardening: Discover how to garden.