Real Gardens, Real People

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Whether you wish you could spend every free minute tending to your roses, or would like to spend more time swinging in your hammock than swinging a hoe, no one wants to waste precious plant time.

Don’t buy into the urban growing myths that all gardening takes time, money and plenty of products. Instead, try these tips to maximize every blooming minute.

Grow plants that grow well where you are

This concept doesn’t just mean avoiding cultivation of the tropical Bird of Paradise if you live in Toronto, although that’s part of it. Pay attention, too, to the shade and sun supplied in your garden, as well as the type of soil in your yard, the other plants around your new cultivars and the paths your kids and pets trample. Then, select plants that thrive in those conditions.

Some plants, like myrtle, do well in clay soils; so don’t force them to grow if what you’ve got is a lot of sand. Specialty catalogs offer plants for specific climates. options.

Think long-term

Sure, the Princess Diana rose sounds romantic, as do the Barbara Bush and other celebrity roses. But just because a plant is registered with an appealing name doesn’t mean it is one you ought to pluck out of the nursery, says Suzy Bales, author of Down-to-Earth Gardener (Rodale, 2005).

Instead of picking the plant with the appealing name, or an award winner that is the darling of every gardening magazine come spring, look for plants with longevity. If a celebrity plant has been on the market for 10 or 20 years, it is likely a good performer. For more insight on the heartiest plants for your part of the country, visit a nearby botanic garden and see what’s consistently in bloom.

Evaluate what you like to do

Just like the interior of your house reflects your tastes, so, too, should your garden.

Ellen Sandbeck, author of "Green Barbarians: Live Bravely on Your Home Planet," (Scribner, 2009) suggests something so obvious most occasional gardeners overlook it. Create your garden based on what tasks give you pleasure. If you like the methodical regularity of mowing wide strips of grass, plant more lawn. If deadheading roses bores you, plant fewer roses and more hydrangeas.

Talk to your plants

And listen, too. Avid gardeners have long talked to their green companions, and some believe the exchange of oxygen helps them grow.

“Plants talk back. A plant will tell you if it is happy or not,” says Bales. A droopy stem or a leaf that isn’t the right shade of green can tell you that something is not quite right while there’s still time to heal a plant.

Do it one more time

Just as plants will tell you when they’re unhappy, Bales says plants will let you know when they’re pleased as punch.

“If you see it is growing twice as big as it says in the [gardening] book, then you know you have fertile soil, and there are all these signs that the plant is doing well,” she says. “Repeat plants that do well.”

Find a companion

Even the most novice gardener knows plants are living things. And like living beings, they get along with some plants better than others. Certain plants may add nutrients to the soil that other plants need. Tall, hearty plants may provide shelter from sun for more fragile plants. Louise Riotte’s "Carrots Love Tomatoes," (Storey Publishing, 1998) and "Roses Love Garlic," (Storey Publishing, 1998) are staples of companion gardening.


It is one word, but the one on which smart gardeners agree. Decomposed organic materials – ranging from fallen leaves to apple cores – turn into what most experts refer to as “black gold,” a rich humus of dirt that can be used to improve soil or mulch plants for the winter.

Because composting uses the natural state of decomposing, it is hard to do wrong. Having a covered container, adding the right mixture of materials that provide both nitrogen and carbon and watering adequately can speed the process. But eventually even an untended open pile of leaves will decompose.

Stop raking

To some gardening neophytes, this advice might sound like skipping combing their hair in the morning. But smart gardeners don’t waste the energy – or risk the pain to their backs – by raking.

Instead of raking up grass clippings post-mow, leave them be. They’ll help fertilize the grass, help retain moisture and burn up under the sun in a day or two, Bales says. In the fall, instead of raking up dried herbaceous perennials, leave them be. They’ll give your garden some winter interest, and will be easier to pull out in the spring.

Cut the lawn

No, don’t mow it. Reduce the amount of lawn in your garden. The traditional North American lawn may meet our preconceived notions of what a backyard should be, but Kentucky bluegrass and other varieties of grass seed require more watering and upkeep than native plantings, ground covers and flowers.

Go to the birds

Bales says that attracting birds to her garden has helped reduce her insect population. In particular, the winged wonders come for the pollen, and feast on grubs and Japanese beetles – pests that wreak havoc on her neighbors’ gardens. This helps her avoid using pesticides.

“People think if pesticides are for sale, they are safe, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true,” says Bales. Installing a bird feeder, in addition to planting sunflowers, coneflower and other bird-attracting flora, will help lure them to your habitat.

Contain yourself

If you have a bare patch, perhaps a space where your dog buried a bone or where the shade killed off a sun-loving perennial, don’t worry about toiling the soil. Instead, fill a container – a flowerpot, a watering can or even a wheelbarrow – with annuals or fast-growing hosta and other perennials. The container will quickly fill the spot with color, and perennials can be moved to the ground at the end of the season.

Be a rainmaker

Even if you don’t live in a drought-plagued region, smart gardeners say you’d be wise to use water wisely. Catching rain water as it flows from your gutters is one way to reduce water bills and help plants thrive even when they skies don’t open. Just one inch of rain that falls on 1,000 square feet can yield 600 gallons of rainwater.

Rain barrels are readily available at gardening stores and websites, but even plastic trashcans work as long as you have a cover or screen to keep out mosquitoes and leaves.

Get soaked

When you do need to add water from the tap, forgo the sprinklers, which waste more water than they get to the root of the problem. Instead, opt for inexpensive soaker hoses buried under mulch. Like a more elaborate drip irrigation system, soaker hoses deliver a steady stream of water into the ground, instead of into the air where much of it is evaporated before your plants can get a long, cool drink.

Embrace trial and error

That’s what gardening is, adds Bales. “Even plants get colds, pimples. You can’t stop it. Don’t obsess over it.”

Image: Park Seed 

Tags: gardens, plants, maintenance