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10 ground rules for a glorious garden

by Timber Press on October 31, 2018

in Gardening

Mosses, irises, and azaleas, all adapted for shady, moist conditions, combine naturally to make a lovely, distinctive garden.

Gardening doesn’t have to be difficult, and Kate Frey—expert gardener and designer—makes it easier than ever in her new book, Ground Rules. Here are ten of the top tips to keep your home garden gorgeous, healthy, and thriving.

1. Plant what works.
All plants have evolved in specific climates, exposures, and soil types. Of course, many common landscape plants are fairly forgiving about the conditions they grow in—that’s why they’re common. But plenty of plants are more particular. You’ll find that many plants adapted to shady sites will burn in full sun. Likewise, plants adapted to sunny, dry sites will likely die in shady, moist conditions. Some plants need deep, nutrient-rich soil with a high organic matter content. Others thrive in areas with rocky, nutrient-poor soils. The moral is—get to know your site. Look up your weather patterns, dig a hole to determine your soil type and its depth, and watch each part of your garden throughout the day and seasons to learn the patterns of sun and shade. Then do your homework: if there’s a specific plant you want to grow, look up its requirements before you buy it. Impulse buying can lead to disappointments.

2. Don’t buy rootbound plants.
It’s an unfortunate fact that nurseries sometimes sell plants that aren’t in peak condition. Plants that have been in the pot too long will have tightly packed roots, and most do not recover well when planted, especially annuals, trees, and shrubs. In particular, woody plants are apt to develop “circling” roots, which can strangle the plant long after it’s in the ground. Don’t buy these plants. Instead, select one where the roots just fill the container.

3. Be kind to your soil.
Your entire garden depends on soil for its life, so it makes sense to nurture it as much as possible. Depending on what plants you grow, your soil should have an organic matter content between 6 percent and 10 percent. If you grow plants like annuals, vegetables, and those (like roses) requiring rich, fertile soils with high amounts of organic matter, spread a one- to three-inch layer of compost or mulch on top of the soil each planting season. Spreading a layer like this is often just called mulching and is different from digging in or tilling. Perennials and trees should be mulched with compost once yearly. All plants, even cacti and succulents, benefit from compost—though these need small amounts infrequently.


4. Embrace mulching.
Mulch is a plant- or manure-based material placed on the surface of the soil. A good, nutritious mulch is basically coarse compost. It can be made from composted green waste, plant waste, and manures. (Green waste is a good-quality compost produced by many municipalities from plant debris collected by homeowners and landscapers.) The texture should be just coarse enough to appeal to earthworms, but not so fibrous or coarse as to rob nitrogen from the soil as it decomposes—beware of compost with large chunks of tree bark in it (bark mulch contains very few nutrients). Mulch acts to suppress weeds, protect the soil from the drying effects of the sun, and help develop soil structure. It also increases soil fertility as it breaks down. As an additional benefit, it can cover drip irrigation lines and protect plants from rain splash. It is both an attractive cover on the soil and an essential element for healthy gardens.


5. Don’t forget about your containers.
The commercial potting soil used in containers and planting boxes is intentionally designed to drain quickly. Fast-draining soil is highly porous, so nutrients move through it very quickly, which can lead to your plants’ becoming starved. The remedy is to apply fertilizer monthly. An excellent organic fertilizer ingredient is feather meal (made from ground chicken feathers). It’s most effective during the warm months, and releases its nutrients gradually. One application lightly dug into the soil lasts two to three months. Topping containers with compost is also highly beneficial, since the plants get fertilized every time you water.

6. Deadhead spent flowers for additional bloom.
Get out your pruners! Removing spent flowers often stimulates additional bloom. The flowering stems of herbaceous plants can be cut back individually as they fade, or all at once to promote strong, new, lower growth. Some perennials, such as lungworts, yarrow, and hardy geraniums, will even regenerate completely when cut to near the ground after bloom. The new foliage is fresh and attractive, and usually stays that way the rest of the season. One hint: don’t leave gawky, leafless stems—cut them back to a cluster of leaves or the base of the plant for a more pleasing, natural look.

7. Don’t plant too high.
Keep roots in the dark. When you put a plant in the ground, make sure it’s at ground level—not above it with roots exposed to the sun. Potting soil is designed to drain quickly, so if part of the root ball is above the soil level in the garden, the plant will dry out faster than the surrounding soil and will either fail to thrive or die. Cover the root ball at time of planting with one-third inch of native soil to keep it at the same moisture level as the surrounding soil.

8. Repot when necessary.
Plants in containers often decline in vigor and appearance over one or more years as they become rootbound. When this happens, they need replanting into a larger container or into the ground. A five-gallon container is the smallest size to use for just about everything besides succulents. When replanting into another container, use one that’s at least four or more inches larger to allow for new root growth.

9. Welcome in the good guys.
For us, flowers are a source of beauty. But many beneficial insects require flower nectar as a food or energy source. As adults, hoverflies, lacewings, and parasitic wasps feed only on nectar. Their larvae are carnivorous and help control insect pests. No garden is pest free—gardens need a healthy pest/predator ratio for predatory insects to survive—but prevention is the best approach to pest control. For a resilient garden, include a lot of plants (one or two will have little effect) that offer nectar for predatory and beneficial insects. Some of the best choices are plants that have short, easily accessible floral nectar tubes like fennel, alyssum, celery, parsley, cilantro, dill, bishop’s flower (Ammi majus), white lace flower (Orlaya grandiflora), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), blazing star (Liatris species), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia species), mountain mint (Pycnanthemum species), yarrow (Achillea species), and small-flowered members of the daisy family like calico aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum). Many native shrubs also make good choices.

10. Design a paradise.
Many think of gardening as a chore. This mind-set leads to gardens that are no more than utilitarian spaces occupying the front or back of houses. Their owners don’t interact with them much except for needed care. But imagine an inviting, engaging space, soft with moving foliage and bright with a variety of flowers, perfumed day and night, shaded from the hot sun, graced by hummingbirds and butterflies, alive with song, and offering berries or fruits to nibble—where the rest of the world slips away and we find ourselves in a haven we have created ourselves and can enjoy every day. Our gardens, no matter how large or small, can be paradise.


Kate Frey is a consultant, educator designer, and freelance writer specializing in sustainable gardens and small farms that encourage biodiversity. She is a frequent and popular speaker for master gardener programs, garden clubs, garden shows and horticultural groups. Visit her website at freygardens.com.



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