Advice for New Gardeners

441da-daffodilsPerhaps you have just moved into a new home, or you have inherited an established garden. You may be finding the prospects of taking care of your place daunting. Here are a few basic tips to help you get started.

It is not Possible to Outsource the Design of Your Garden

A garden designer can listen to your requirements and come up with plans but only provide you with choices and ideas. It is your garden and you have to decide what you like and don’t like, and what you are prepared to look after.

Decide how much time you want to spend in the Garden and Design Accordingly

Answer this question: Do you escape to the garden to work there as a form of relaxation or do you escape from the garden because it is a lot of work and you would rather be doing something else? If you escape to the garden, you can afford to do something elaborate but if you escape from the garden, you need a low maintenance design.

The traditional design for new subdivisions is lawn in front, with foundation shrubs in a narrow band around the house. The back is fenced and a narrow flower border is put along the fence. In a hurry for shade, the fastest growing largest trees are planted, sometimes close to the house. A beautiful blue spruce is also planted right in front of the front door.
This very common scheme is the source of many regrets. The homeowner has not taken into account the eventual size of these trees and plants. The great expanse of lawn condemns the homeowner to a lifetime of servitude keeping it trimmed, neat and free of weeds. The foundation shrubs outgrow the location in a few years hiding the windows and blocking the view to the street from the house and the view of the house from the street. The border next to the fence in the rear looks boring and takes constant weeding. The shade tree is now a monster out of scale with the house under which nothing grows including lawn. The blue spruce is now 30 feet tall, 15 feet wide and the front door gets about as much light as the back side of the moon.

When choosing trees, pick ones that will fit in your garden when they are full grown. If you have room for large trees, locate them away from the house so that they are not out of scale. Never plant a Norway Maple (this includes the red, bronze and harlequin varieties). These trees are weeds and we already have too of them. When you are deciding whether you have room for a large tree, do not forget the roots. The roots will be found in a layer a foot or less thick near the surface reaching out 2 to 3 times the diameter of the drip line. Any disturbance in this zone will cause stress to the tree. There are a number of smaller trees and shrubs that are more suited to an urban lot.

Instead of a narrow foundation border or next to a fence, try a sweeping curved border that extends out some distance from the house or from the fence. If you wish to have trees close to the house, find one with an open habit that you can look through to the house like a magnolia.

Leaves are More Important to Garden Design than are Flowers

Most new gardeners think about flowers first but the look of a garden depends more on its foliage. Foliage comes in many colours, not just green. There are shades of green foliage from almost bright yellow to dark blue. There is red foliage and variegated (multicolour) foliage. Foliage has a great variety of texture from the thin blades of ornamental grasses that wave in the wind to the huge hosta leaves. There are fern leaves, and tree leaves that turn colour in the fall. What is more, while flowers last a few weeks, foliage lasts the whole season. If you get the design right with foliage, the flowers will be an added bonus. Look for a variety of texture and colour and plant so that you have large masses of colour rather than a hodge podge of tiny shapes.

Plant Annuals Closer Together and Perennials Farther Apart

Other than the obvious fact that annuals last one year and perennials survive the winter, many new gardeners do not well understand the uses each of these. Except in public parks, you are not likely to see many gardens entirely of annuals. It takes too much time to totally replant the garden every year. However, most of the annuals sold bloom solidly for most of the season and most gardens have at least a few for that reason. If you need to brighten a corner of your garden there is no better way than annuals. You can even put them in pots and move them around as needed.

Perennials may only bloom for a week or two, but there is nothing like the flower on a peony or a trumpet lily or a clump of irises. It is worth waiting for a year to see them again. The reduced expense and sometimes effort, make perennials the common choice of most gardeners. For example, an ornamental grass only requires that you cut down the dead material once in the spring. Most perennials require dividing every few years, providing them with compost and moisture, then cutting off the dead material in the spring or fall.

If you intend to grow vegetables, keep in mind that most need a lot of sun so find the sunniest location you have.

Whether you plant perennials or annuals or both, the best advice is to plant your annuals close together because they will never have a chance to become too crowded and you want them to grow together in one season. On the other hand, plant your perennials far enough apart so that when they grow, they will not crowd each other out.

Soil has Structure

Plants have been living in soil since before the dinosaurs roamed. No one was there to dig up the soil with a spade and hoe so there is little need for you to do it either. In fact, the soil in your garden developes layers and a structure that you can disturb by constant digging. Many plants have friendly associations with fungi in the soil that can be damaged by tilling the soil.

Here is a way to create a garden bed without digging. Put cardboard or several layers of newspaper (wet so that they don’t blow away) where you want your garden beds. Right on the grass is just fine. Add 3 to 10 inches of triple mix, then 2 inches of sterile compost from the city. Do not mix them together and make sure the compost is on top to keep the weed seeds in the triple mix from sprouting. You can plant right away. If you are going to put in shrubs, you can cut through the cardboard to do it. In a short time, there will be no grass or cardboard and you will have a garden without having to dig. Often there are so many rocks or compacted soil that it helps to garden on top.

It should be no surprise that nothing affects the growth of plants more than the quality of the soil. Some soils have heavy clay and don’t drain well enough, others contain sand or gravel and dry out too fast. There is one solution for just about any soil problem. Add more compost. Just keep adding compost every year by laying it on the top (There is no need to dig it in). Do this until you can pick up a handful of barely moist soil and it crumbles easily but when it does, it forms small pea-sized lumps that are loosely held together. It should not break and fall out of your hand like powder nor should it stick together in one big clod. You have to keep adding compost on a regular basis because it eventually breaks down to form air. But as it does so, with the help of the organisms that live in it, it gives your plants just the right ingredients they need to turn sunlight into plant material.

Water is the Best Fertilizer

One of the easiest ways to stress a plant is to keep it from getting the moisture it needs. Plants take in water at their roots and release it through their leaves as water vapour. When plants cannot get the moisture they need, as a defense mechanism, they conserve water by closing the pores in their leaves. When they do this, they cannot get the carbon dioxide from the air that they need to grow and they stop growing. As long as you have given the plant good soil with lots of organic matter, they will grow like crazy if they don’t dry out. A layer of mulch on the surface of the soil helps to retain moisture. Some plants like more moisture than others but all need some.

There is no need to fertilize your garden with chemical fertilizers. Your pots might need chemicals because they usually do not contain natural soil. Sure you can use chemical fertilizers in your garden with sometimes dramatic results, but these effects are short-lived and unsustainable.

You Cannot get Rid of Weed Seeds, You can Only Suppress Their Germination

Weeds are everywhere. Among them, are some of the most vigorous and successful plants there are. Most of them are prolific because they produce enormous numbers of seeds that stay viable for decades or in the right conditions, centuries. You can never rid your soil of these seeds. Your soil contains weed seeds in very large numbers just waiting for the right signals to germinate. Commonly, these signals are warmth, moisture and light. This is just what you provide them when you till the soil or use a hoe to cut the weeds down. It is much better to cover them with mulch or sterile compost to suppress their germination. When you weed, you need to disturb the soil as little as possible. A rototil will cut the weeds down but cause many more to germinate later.

Invasive or Aggressive Plants have to be Outsmarted

There are some plants you want to avoid having in your garden at all unless you are prepared to do a lot of work keeping them under control. Periwinkle, Ribbon Grass, Gout Weed, Lily-of-the-Valley, Forget-me-nots, some violets, and many more commonly used plants are “assertive” or even worse. It is best to avoid them and remove them if you already have some.

Other plants have arrived here from foreign lands and have no natural enemies. As a consequence they can take over and ruin your garden as well as those of your neighbours. European Buckthorn, Dog Strangling Vine, Garlic Mustard are some of the worst offenders. If you have them, may the Force be with you.

Native Wildlife Only Survives if we have Native Plants

You may not be aware that most gardens contain primarily plants whose origin is not Ontario or even Canada. Our wildlife, for the most part are native to at least North America. Our own wildlife is being slowly starved because they have trouble dealing with plants from somewhere else. Make a point of learning about and planting at least some native plants. There are great ones to choose from.

Tree Roots Grow Far Fast

Planting a tree or shrub is one of the most important tasks to get right. When you dig the hole dig a one larger in diameter than the root ball. Slope the edges out. Once the tree is in the hole so that the flare of the trunk is level with the surface. Make sure that the roots do not go around in a circle. Sometimes it is necessary to take a sharp knife and slice down through the outer edge to make sure that the roots will grow out. Backfill with the native soil. You can amend it a little with compost but we want the roots to venture out into the native soil as quickly as possible. You can add compost to the top and mulch around the tree but do not let the mulch touch the trunk. Staking is not always necessary but if it is because the tree is in danger of blowing over, make sure that it is removed as soon as possible or the tree will be strangled. It has been shown that within a year the feeder roots will grow far from the trunk near the surface of the soil so create as large a mulched area around the tree as you can get. Do not fertilize a newly planted tree. Do not prune a new tree either. Every cut on a tree or shrub causes stress. They cannot handle this until they have become established.

Pruning Most Trees and Shrubs is Straight Forward.

Wait a couple of years for the plants to get established before pruning. All cuts are stressful so never take more than 25 percent unless you know that the shrub can take it. You can prune any shrub or tree any time of the year, but if do not wish to forego the flowers for a year, you have to time your pruning. The simple rule is to prune a flowering shrub after the flowers fade. If the shrub flowers in late summer or fall and you prune it, it puts on new growth which may die during the winter. For these you should wait until they are dormant in late winter or early spring.

Trees in the forest, naturally shed their branches when they are no longer of use to them. When they do, the tree walls off itself from potential rot from the dead branch. Eventually it breaks off in a wind and the tree grows new bark to close over the wound. Inside the tree, this rot still exists where the old branch was attached but it is sealed from the outside by the bark. Some wounds are just too large for the bark to cover and the tree’s structure might be compromised.

When pruning a tree it is best to decide before the branches get to be an inch or two thick which you wish to keep and remove the unwanted ones. When you do make a partial cut from below a foot out from the trunk, cut through the branch a little closer to the trunk from the top. This way you will avoid damaging the bark. The third cut is trickiest. Look for a slight bulge under the branch near the trunk. Cut from the crotch to the outside of this bulge. If the stump is too long, the bark will take forever to close over If it is too short, you may damage the bark and it will take longer to close over. The objective is to have a strong central leader, to avoid multiple, co-dominant branching and to avoid weak branching. Weak branching happens where two branches come too close together at the joint encasing bark making the joint weak and subject to splitting.

Never top a tree – its as good as killing it. Also never attach anything like a clothes line to a tree. The bark will try to grow around it and but in most cases it causes a permanent wound. Most evergreens except Yews and Cedars will not do well with pruning at all.

When pruning, first take out any dead material, then anything dangerous, then take out crossing or rubbing branches or suckers coming up from the ground. After that you can take out material to allow air to flow freely and to let light in to the centre, then you can make cuts to give it a pleasing shape. Take your time and stand back to see the result as you go.

Learn from Other Gardeners

There is much more to learn but these were a few fundamentals. If you think this is a hobby worth exploring, the best thing to do is to join your local Horticultural Society or Garden Club. Many of the clubs in our area are listed on the Resources page of this website. You will never master all there is to know about gardening but the best place to start is by talking to other gardeners. They are interesting people to meet.

Keep in mind that you can always ask us a question using our “Contact Us” page.

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