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April, 2013

Well, folks, it's been a long, drawn-out winter, but at the time of this writing the end is in sight!  Accordingly, I thought I might put just a few good all-around gardening tips out here that will help set the stage for the rest of the gardening season.  Let's get out there and enjoy!

Tip 1 - Don't forget the mulch!

Admittedly, mulch is not a super-sexy gardening topic, but without it, your garden will never be the best it can be.  As such, applying mulch is the number one technique that every serious (and even not so serious) gardener should use.  Nature itself has a mulching system for much the same reason that we use mulch in our gardens Ė soil enrichment, weed and moisture control, and topsoil retention.   As far as aesthetics, mulch makes a garden look remarkably more finished by giving its floor a tidy, uniform appearance.   By simply spreading a 3-6 inch layer of mulch around your garden, you virtually guarantee a better result overall as far as soil and plant health. 

Unfortunately, many people donít even start a garden because of the labor involved in preparing the garden bed itself.  I have not tilled a garden in decades because I discovered that cutting the grass and weeds short, and then applying a thick layer of mulch is all that is necessary.  I have done this in virtually all my garden beds, and the results have been impressive, with minimal labor on my part other than finding and placing various materials to edge the bed and keep the mulch in.  I have beds that have been mulched on a regular basis for years, and the soil beneath is now a crumbly organic mix that plants thrive in. 

As far as what type of mulch to use, imagination and budget are your only constraints.  Shredded newspapers, shredded paper from the office, fallen leaves, pine straw, tree limbs that have been run through a chipper, or store-bought bags will all perform more or less the same. Various options are listed below, some free and some not so much, but none completely out of reach for most of us.   

Paper:   Obviously, using shredded paper or newsprint by itself wonít make your garden look like something out of a magazine, but if funds are tight, this technique can save money when used with a thin layer of pine straw or leaves on top to cover the paper.  I worked in a medical office that shredded everything, and for years I used that shredded paper in my garden with good results.  When installing paper, it helps to thoroughly wet the paper as you are putting it down or it could very well end up all over the neighborhood.  Once it has been wetted the first time, however, it is remarkably stable. When preparing newspaper sections, donít use glossy colored ad paper because the ink has some potential for toxicity,  However,  photos or ads with color here and there on regular newsprint wonít hurt anything. The one downside to using paper is that it decomposes rapidly, making it one of the more labor-intensive choices for year-round mulch.  However, it is a great choice for seasonal situations such as a summer vegetable garden.     

Pine straw:   If you live in an area with a lot of pine trees, pine straw is a wonderful free resource that looks good and can compete with the best of the other mulches.  The problem is that it can be difficult to get enough to do any real good.  In my younger days, I lived near a church with a big parking lot surrounded by pine trees, and I would go there during the week when the lot was empty and rake pine straw by the bagful.  Although this was fairly labor-intensive, my gardens always looked great and I didnít have to spend a dime on mulch. 

Fallen leaves:  Another freebie from nature, and a remarkable one at that. For a long time, I used store-bought mulch exclusively and when the leaves fell in the fall, I mowed them into the lawn and felt good about it because  I was improving the turf by adding organic material.  Finally, one year my lawnmower died at the end of the season, so I raked all the leaves and added them to the flower beds all over my property.  The next spring as I pulled back those leaves in preparation for new planting,  I found many of my tender annuals from the year before were not only alive, but looking pretty good!  I have had very few tender annuals survive a winter, but I discovered that almost the entire beds had survived underneath those leaves.  I went on to plant as I usually do in the spring, moving the leaves out of the way where necessary, and that leaf mulch looked as good as anything store-bought all the way through the next growing season as far as continuity of the floor of the garden.  Leaves gathered in the fall are all I use in my backyard beds today.

For those who appreciate the convenience of store-bought mulch, there are plenty of options for every taste, including the fairly new colored mulches.  The only way to truly know which mulch is right for you is to try it and observe how it performs over time.  Iíve tried many, with a few real standouts that are readily available everywhere and perform well over time: 

Pine Bark:  For economy and ecology, pine bark mulch is at the top of the list.  It is a renewable resource and nobody is destroying the environment to produce it.  Itís reasonably inexpensive Ė about $3 a bag in my neighborhood.  It decomposes fairly rapidly so has to be renewed once to twice per year, but it is enriching the garden as it decomposes, and thatís always a good thing.   Pine bark mulch comes in either nuggets or mini-nuggets, depending on your needs.  Nuggets are fairly big chunks that decompose more slowly, making them suitable for an established bed that doesnít need much work, as around hedges or between shrubs.  Mini-chunks are for gardens in progress where the mulch will be moved around as new plants are added.  Pine Bark mulch is brown to reddish-brown in color and makes a nice, earthy looking floor for the garden.  It holds its color reasonably well without regular replenishing, and obviously will look great when regularly replenished.  It appears to be the mulch of choice for landscapers, and once you look for it, you will see it virtually everywhere.   

Cypress:  Cypress mulch is my personal favorite, although if pine bark is on sale, I have no qualms about using it instead.  Cypress mulch is a much lighter color than Pine Bark, and seems to be cut differently, with more of a shredded consistency.  Cypress holds its color well and decomposes much more slowly than pine bark, making it a good choice for those who arenít so thrilled with regular replenishing. I read a while back that cypress was being cut illegally for mulch and ruining our wetlands, but I think that the government ultimately got involved and has largely solved that problem, so we can now buy it with little fear of damage to the environment.    

Deserving of mention here is colored mulch, which seems to be gaining in popularity. Colored mulch is made from scrap wood such as old pallets and wood from demolished buildings, then dyed with a non-toxic dye.  Detractors say that the colors are unnatural and that although the dye is probably safe, the wood itself may not be.  Pallets are often coated with preservatives and old houses might have been in close proximity to asbestos.  Advocates say that the color enhances the look of plants and gives a unique look to the landscape and that the wood is perfectly safe. 

Plastic sheeting is often used as mulch, and although it is the best mulch there is as far as weed control, it does nothing to enhance the soil, and to me, that eliminates one of the best benefits of mulch.

Tip 2 - Gardening on the cheap

 ďLast night we had three small zucchini for dinner that were grown within fifty feet of our back door.  I estimate they cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $371.49 each.Ē  Andy Rooney.

Does that have a familiar ring?  Far too many people regard all but the most rudimentary gardening to be too labor-intensive and too expensive.  This doesnít have to be the case at all.  Gardening smart doesnít mean breaking your back or your bank account.  Every spring, Iím amazed to see little tomato plants costing about $3 apiece disappearing from the garden store shelves as fast as they can be stocked.   If we only needed one plant, this might be a valid way to go, but it is recommended that you plant 2-3 tomato plants for each person in the household.  Therefore, by choosing to buy pre-started plants, the cost will be approximately $6 to $9 per person just for tomatoes.   For a family of six, thatís a pretty good chunk of change.  Itís beyond me why people donít grow from seed anymore, when itís far less expensive, itís easy and enjoyable,  thereís a better selection, and it gives you bragging rights when a plant turns out well Ė i.e., ďThanks, I raised it from seed.Ē 

Iíve heard every excuse imaginable for not starting plants from seed Ė not enough room, not enough time, too much work, donít have this, donít have that, blah, blah, blah.  Not enough room might be valid in some cases, but the rest is just lack of enthusiasm.  It is not that much work to start a flat of seeds or to seed directly into the ground.  My gardens are so densely planted that I rarely start seed in the ground for fear of pulling up young seedlings as weeds before they become recognizable, but planting in the ground is a great solution if you have a clean bed to start with.  I generally start seeds in flats saved from previously purchased annuals.  You can also use just about anything that will hold a bit of soil, such as egg cartons, but I find that I get my best results from containers designed to grow seed Ė i.e. flats or seed starting trays.       

Certainly, there are times when buying started plants from the garden store is in order.  I buy impatiens and begonias in the spring and pansies in the fall in flats Ė and lots of them.  Yes, I could start them from seed, but I just donít have the room available to do that in the quantities I need.   I save my limited space for the more exotic plants I want to try, and this is where I really save money.  I have seen plants such as delphinium, foxglove, and Echinacea for sale at the garden center, but they cost over $10 per plant!  Why on earth would anyone pay $10 for a single plant?  I have a whole foxglove garden that I started with a seed packet I paid $1 for at the dollar store!

Another great way to save big money and increase abundance in the garden is to propagate plants by stem cuttings.  To determine if the plant in question is amenable, do this simple sight test:  If it has a straight stem all the way into the soil, it is not a candidate for stem cuttings. It if branches out above the soil line, it probably is a candidate for stem cuttings.  Itís really that simple.  Even woody plants like roses and hydrangeas can be propagated by stem cuttings by (look for new growth and avoid old woody growth). 

To propagate any suitable plant by stem cutting, use sharp scissors or a knife to cut just below the node (the slightly swollen area where leaves connect to the stem), and then bury in the soil, covering the node.  Itís best to keep cuttings shaded and very moist for the first couple of weeks, and some plants take longer than others to take root.  They probably wonít all take hold every time Ė we all have our little casualties Ė but most plants do root fairly easily with few problems.  You will almost always see some wilt for the first few days, but the cutting will usually recover within a few days and start putting out roots.  Stem cuttings are a fabulous way to get free plants for your garden, and sources for cuttings are everywhere.  I have never failed to get permission when asking friends or neighbors for cuttings, and I have even found a piece of chrysanthemum in my cart at the garden store that I took home and rooted successfully.  Once you get the bug, you will find yourself discovering new candidates everywhere you go.  The only word of caution I have is to invest in some good potting soil for your cuttings.  The kind with built-in fertilizer works really well.  I have no qualms about buying plants or seeds from the dollar store, but I donít usually get my potting soil there, because the quality is often inferior.  A stem cutting will not root in cement, if you catch my drift. 

The last tip for an abundant garden without breaking the bank is probably the most difficult to adhere to Ė buy small.  Iíve seen good-sized knockout roses for upwards of $30 in the garden store, and Iíve seen small ones for under $6.  You wonít get the instant gratification buying the smaller one, but a few years down the road you will never know the difference, and instead of having one plant for $30, you can have a whole hedgerow for the same money instead.  Same thing for chrysanthemums in the fall.  If you are in an area where chrysanthemums overwinter reliably, you can buy a plant for under $1, and the same time next year it will be a spectacular garden specimen that rivals anything in the garden store.   

Tip 3 - Curb Appeal

Did you know that a well-implemented front yard landscape is worth more in terms of value of your house than kitchen or bathroom remodeling?  Or that the an attractive front yard landscape design will net you up to four times your initial investment in that landscape when you sell?  These alone are two compelling reasons to start today on a comprehensive plan to fix any issues with your front yard landscape, and this does not generally mean spending huge amounts of money or starting completely over.  The goal here not necessarily to make everything new, but rather to make the best use of what you already have.  Just as your living room does not look its best if there are toys or magazines piled up in the corner, the yard does not look its best of there is a garden hose thrown to the side, if the shrubs are overgrown, or if the front door has peeling or worn paint.  So first and foremost, clean it up!   Even if you consider your landscape to be in pretty good shape, there is almost always something that can be improved upon.  Pull any weeds growing in walkways or sidewalks, and then sweep thoroughly.  Mow, de-thatch, and trim the edges of the lawn.  Weed and then put fresh mulch in the flower beds and between the shrubs.  Trim shrubs if necessary.  Obviously donít forget the house itself.  Make sure the windows are sparkling clean and replace any torn or frayed screens.  Scrub or power wash the siding.  Clean the roof and make sure the gutters are in good repair.  Paint the trim if it is worn or peeling.  Get a caulking gun and replace any worn or discolored caulk.  Paint the foundation if it shows discoloration or peeling paint.  And donít forget the details.  Get a hose reel to keep the hose under control if you donít already have one.  Get inexpensive covers for any vent holes in the foundation.  Spray paint your mailbox or get a new one if there are any problems with it.  Replace worn or ugly outdoor water spigots with shiny new ones.  Buy or make an attractive address marker to place on the house or in the yard.       

The front door is the focal point for the entire project, so absolutely give it special attention.  Look critically at your front door and do whatever is necessary to make it really shine.  If it has fingerprints all over it, clean it thoroughly, including any glass.  If it needs paint, paint it a beautiful color that complements the rest of the house.  Clean the hardware thoroughly and if it is just too worn to look good, either replace it or get some spray paint made for metal, lightly sand it, and spray it for a like-new look for only a few dollars.  Invest in a nice door knocker or wreath to give it some class.  Invest in an attractive doormat to further dress it up and to keep dirt out of the house.  Now look at the front stoop (or whatever you have just outside the front door).  Clean it thoroughly and do whatever is needed to make it shine.  If you have metal railings that are rusting, sand them down and give them a new coat of paint.  If you have pillars, make sure they are clean and in good repair.  Buy a couple of inexpensive pots and plant some cheerful flowers in them for a welcoming feel.  If the door configuration doesnít allow for this, maybe you could put a hanging plant somewhere nearby.  The whole idea is to make that front door the best it can possibly be.

By the time you have finished doing the basic cleaning and repairing, your house should be the shining star of the neighborhood, and it might just be good enough as is.  However, now that itís clean and organized, you might still want a little something more.  At this point you can evaluate whether to add a flower bed, an ornamental tree, a decorative bench, a path or walkway, or maybe even a fountain or water feature.  Choose plants carefully Ė darker colors like blue and purple make a space look larger, while brighter colors like yellow and red make the space smaller.  Tie flower and shrub beds together using mulch.  Donít put heavy mulch around trees Ė it may very well smother the roots and kill the tree.  I made this mistake with a stately 100 foot pine and it cost me a bundle to take that tree down after it died.   If you want to plant at the base of a tree, use something tough that can be planted directly into the soil under the tree and withstand less than perfect conditions, like mondo grass or liriope.  Avoid ivy at all costs because the stuff spreads like wildfire and is virtually impossible to eradicate once it has started its journey into the rest of your yard.   

One word of caution is in order.  In the end, you want a peaceful, memorable front yard that doesnít take all weekend every weekend to maintain.  Simple and elegant is better than overgrown and ill-maintained.  An overdone front landscape could conceivably reduce the value of the home because potential buyers may not be as energetic as you and could very well view it as a liability rather than an asset. 





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