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Gardening Tips
Great Learnings
Sad Observations 

I enjoy gardening.  Many people do not.  I understand that.  I don’t like to work on my car,  jog in the park or repair plumbing. Everybody has their thing.  That doesn’t mean I don’t try to keep my car in reasonable shape or get some exercise from time to time.   I get out the plunger from time to time with some degree of success.  I can always learn new things in those areas and I try not to be totally irresponsible in caring for my car or my body.

For those of you that don’t find gardening to be particularly interesting or remotely entertaining, I’ve assembled a few tips to help you out.  Think of it as an automobile enthusiast helping you understand how often you should change your oil and check the air pressure in your tires, or a health and fitness guru helping you understand the value of regular aerobic exercise.  With that in mind, here we go – comments to follow…

    • A chainsaw is not a garden tool. 
    • Hedge clippers are for hedges.  ONLY.
    • Round-up (or other weed killers, otherwise known as herbicides) will not make weeds go away.  It only kills them.  It won’t keep new ones from growing tomorrow, either.
    • A chainsaw is not a yard maintenance tool.
    • Plants at the nursery are like puppies and kittens at the pound.  They grow up.  They require care, attention, feeding and training.  If you don’t take your responsibility seriously, these cute, innocent plants can destroy fences, crack sidewalks and foundations, and in some extreme cases, pry the roof right off your house.
    • Trimming and pruning is an art.  It must be practiced to develop proficiency. 
    • Weeds in your lawn soon become weeds in my lawn.  I don’t like weeds in my lawn.  Did you know a weed free lawn is really quite easy to achieve, even without the broad application of poisons or chemicals?
    • And, last but not least, a chainsaw is great for cutting firewood.

Trimming and pruning

Did I mention that a chainsaw is not an effective tool for landscape maintenance?  Probably the most intimidating task of yard maintenance is trimming and pruning.  With a little neglect, even a beautifully landscaped yard can become overgrown.  Given a few years, those lovely plants that came home with you from the nursery are now as big, and sometimes way bigger, than your house. 

Here’s a rule of thumb.  If it’s too big to cut with a simple hand pruning saw, STOP.  First, there’s the potential for property damage when that limb comes down on the roof, the neighbor’s car, or through that window.   Then there’s personal injury.  People are killed in their own yards every year by that little ‘trim job’ that really should have been referred to the professional.

“But,” you say, “I can get the job done so much faster…” with a chainsaw?  Hey!  I’ve got an idea!  Let me give you your next haircut.  I’ll get it done in no time.  There are tools that will get the job done a lot quicker than scissors and a comb, and, sheep don’t seem to mind a bit!  Pruning and trimming is a thoughtful, reflective process.  Logging is not.  That’s why chainsaws were invented.  You only get one opportunity to make that cut.  Take your time.  You may have to live with a hasty cut for many years. 

Yes, Trimming and pruning can intimidating.  It can also be most rewarding when done well.  There are a couple of simple secrets to learn. 

·         Never leave a stub.  Always cut back down the stem or branch where another branch, stem or leaf emerges.  (Yes, dormant pruned roses can look like exceptions to this rule, but the rule actually still applies in a modified sense.)

·         Cut from the inside – Remember those deodorant commercials a few years back that said “Never let ‘em see you sweat” – well, the gardener’s mantra could be restated as “Never let ‘em see where you cut.”   When you’re all done, the plant should look maintained and controlled, but should never look like it just got hacked.  Reach inside the plant, cut where the branch you are removing attaches to the another branch.  When you remove that branch, the leaves of the remaining branches should fill the spot and completely conceal the evidence of your activities.  Remember:  evaluate carefully before cutting.  Branches can twist and emerge from the insides of the plant in surprising places.  More than once I’ve made the “ooops” comment under my breath when the clippers closed and an unexpected hole developed in another area of the plant.

Remember, little plants grow up to be big plants.  Sometimes it kind of sneaks up on you.  Don’t be afraid to get aggressive with an out-of-control landscape.  If the plant looks ugly or dies as a result, dig it up and throw it away, it probably won’t be missed – the plant next to it probably needs the space anyway. 

Learn a little about the plants you’re planning to trim.  When you buy that first little plant, purchase a nice pair of clippers at the same time, kind of as a threat.  Then, don’t be afraid to use them.  Most trimming is best done in the late winter or very early spring while the plant is still in a dormant state.  Many plants only send out new growth in the spring and stop growing entirely for the season by the end of May.  If you go in and trim the plant aggressively in July you could likely kill it. 

This is where you might want to consult an expert.  It’s possible by trimming in the winter you could remove buds that will bloom in the spring, again, depending on the plant.  Rhododendrons, azaleas, andromeda, etc, set on next seasons blooms fairly early in the seasonal growth cycle.  They should be trimmed immediately following their spring blooming before vigorous growth begins.  Sometimes it can take two or three seasons to bring a neglected plant into full control.

Some plants grow all season long.  Hedges and roses are a good example.  You can cut on them all season long.  The reason you can use hedge clippers on hedges is because they grow so rapidly that the resulting stubs are concealed by the dense, fast growing leaves.  Take hedge clippers to a rhododendron and you’ll suffer the consequences for years.  And, the rhody police may just come and take you away, besides. 

After 10 years, re-evaluate your plantings.  After that long it’s usually about time to remove nearly half the plants you’ve carefully tended over the years.  If you can’t see out of the windows in the living room, it’s time.  If you can’t get to the front door, it’s time.  If you planted more than one juniper, it’s time.

Lawn Care

Lawn care is easy – Water. Nitrogen. Water. Water. Water. Nitrogen.  Repeat.  Lawns are the St. Bernards of the plant world.  They eat a LOT.  Without adequate nourishment they become mangy and diseased.

Notice, I didn’t say anything about “weed-n-feed” or any weed control.  A vigorous, healthy lawn allows very little else to grow.  I typically pull three or four dandelions, a thistle or two, and a little clover every year.  I pull them as I mow and I never let them get big enough to bloom.  Total time invested – 15 minutes a year.  Clover and some other creeping broadleaf weeds can be a little tricky, and I will occasionally break down and use a spot treatment of a broadleaf herbicide – another 5 minutes per year.  By the way, if you choose to spray weeds in your flowerbeds, you still have to go back and pull them.  An herbicide only kills the plants.  New ones will immediately grow to take their place, and they’ll just add a confusing green tint to the satisfying brown of the dead ones. 

If your lawn is already out of control, full of weeds, short on fertilizer and in need of water, your task is a little more daunting if you don’t want to use commercial chemicals.  If you can rationalize one season of chemical treatment, a little overseeding to backfill the blank spots, lots of water and TLC, you’ll get there.  Otherwise, a sod job may be your only hope.

Water a lawn deeply.  If you have a programmable automatic sprinkler system, set it to water twice with a ‘soak-in cycle’ in between.  Let the water run just until you begin to notice runoff – don’t wash that fertilizer into the storm drain system.  Let it soak in for a couple of hours or so, depending on your soil.  Then, hit it again to maximize the deep penetration benefits with minimum runoff.  Then, wait several days before watering again.  My typical schedule is to water every five days, even in very warm weather, decreasing to three day intervals in the very hottest of weather (95 degrees and above).  I also water in the middle of the night – after midnight, completely done by 5am. 

In Conclusion

OK, that’s about it, I think.  It’s kind of like this – If you don’t like to deal with vehicle maintenance, don’t buy that Jaguar or Alpha Romeo.  If you don’t like to maintain a yard, keep it simple.  If you want more, plan to hire a gardener.  You’d be surprised how much of the perceived value of your property is contained in the appearance of your yard.  And, it’s not how fancy your landscaping plan is – it’s how well you maintain what you have.

Like auto maintenance for the uninitiated or uninterested, you will need to consult an expert from time to time.  There are lots of nice people around that love to talk about gardening.  Visit your local nursery and ask questions.  Unfortunately, your local commercial landscaper may not your best choice.  Be sure to get references and see his work somewhere else first!

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