Basics # 1 - 6/29/16
GARDENING 101: "When Should I Water It?"
The answer to that question is, “It depends.” It depends on what plant you're asking about, where it is planted (container? ground?), the soil it's planted in, how much rain there has been, how hot it's been, and how windy. Here are some guidelines:
Generally speaking plants get wilted and limp when they need water, but they can also get wilted and limp if they are being over-watered. This is especially true for houseplants and succulents. It's best to water before the plant shows signs of distress (wilted and limp), but this is easier said than done, so don't beat yourself up too much if you goof.
Plants in pots will need to be watered more often than plants in the ground. A big plant in a small container in full sun on your deck might need to be watered twice a day – or to have a larger pot. The best way to check is to simply put your finger in the top inch or so of soil. If its cool and damp, the plant does not need to be watered yet.
Plants in sandy soil will need to be watered more often than plants in clayey soil.
Plants will need to watered more often in hot or windy weather than cool or calm weather. Less frequent soakings are better than frequent sprinkles. On the other hand, newly planted plants need more frequent watering than established ones.
Try to keep the leaves dry by watering the soil and roots, not the leaves. Try to time your watering so the plants are dry before nightfall. Both of these practices help prevent bacterial and fungal diseases.
If your hoses are out in the sun, like ours, the water coming out when you first start watering can be really hot. Let it run until the water is cool to avoid cooking your vegetables before they're picked.
Water cacti when it rains in Tuscon, Arizona.
Basics #2 - 10/15/16
GARDENING 101: "Pruning Do's and Don'ts"
Do think about your goals before making the first cut. Why are you pruning this plant? Does it need to be pruned or does it need to be relocated or replaced? If you find yourself fighting the plant on a regular basis, it may be the wrong plant for that location.
Do think about when you are going to prune. Pruning stimulates growth, so avoid pruning heavily in the fall when the plant should be going into dormancy or hardening off for the winter. Generally speaking, the best time to prune is right after flowering - otherwise you may be cutting off flower buds. Don't prune “heavy bleeding” trees (birches, cherries and plums, maples, silver bells, and snowbells) when the sap is flowing in early spring. Wait until later in the spring. Don't prune during extremely hot dry weather. The plant is stressed enough as it is; give it water and wait to prune later.
Don't prune when you are in a hurry or a bad mood. The plant and you will both suffer.
Topiary has its place but don't blindly copy what the “professional” landscapers do. Some seem to think all plants must be turned into squares, globes and rectangles, and the results are hideous. Doc Hamilton, the landscape plants professor at Rutgers, once said, “They should have their pruning fingers cut off.” Harsh, but.... Check out for more information and examples of what not to do.
Do clean your tools with a 5% bleach solution or cleanser wipe (like the ones used to clean bathrooms) between plants. If you cut obviously diseased foliage clean your tools between cuts to avoid spreading the disease.
Do use sharp tools to make clean cuts – its easier on you and the plant will heal faster. If what you are pruning doesn't fit easily into your clipper, use a lopper. If it doesn't fit easily into your lopper, use a saw.
The Law of Gravity is firmly enforced. Think about that when you cut anything above you. Keep track of where your fingers are in relation to the pruning blades. Same thing for the electrical cord on your hedge trimmer.
The above applies to cutting living parts of the plant – go ahead and cut off dead flowers, leaves and branches at any time.
Basics #3 - 3/5/18
GARDENING 101: "When to Prune What"
Early Spring is a great time to prune many (but not all) of your trees and shrubs. You can see the structure of the plant without leaves in the way, you can avoid cutting off flowers (see below), and it is something impatient gardeners (like me) can do now when it's too cold to plant.
Bower and Branch has clear and easily understood gardening information on their webpage. Go to www.BowerandBranch.com and click on "Featured Guides". They have general guides for Winter pruning that still apply, and specific guides for pruning weeping cherry trees.
Just be aware that plants that bloom early in the spring set their flowers in the fall. Hold off pruning these until after they have bloomed so you don't cut off their buds. These include azalea, beautyberry, spirea, crab apple, forsythia, big leaf hydrangea, lilac, magnolia, mock orange, mountain laurel , rhododendron, service berry (amalachier) and weigela.
Basics #4 - 8/31/16
GARDENING 101: "Compost"
An old gardening adage is “Feed the soil, not the plant.” Compost is one of the best ways to “feed” the soil, but that's a bit of a misconception. What it helps with most is the texture of the soil, not necessarily the chemical or nutritional make-up. If your soil is too heavy, clay-ey and wet, compost helps it drain better. If your soil is too sandy, compost helps it hold moisture. It also supports the complex web of organisms that make for healthy, productive soil. Making your own compost is easy, good for the environment (keeps useful organic matter out of landfills) and essentially free. All you need is a space, patience, and a little bit of effort.
Space: The space can be a designated pile in your back yard or a series of carefully constructed bins. We have a big bin made up of concrete blocks, and 4 compost bags of heavy felt material. Both work well, but so did the “pit” my parents had next to the vegetable garden.
Ingredient Do's and Don'ts: All you do is collect plant material, pile it up, and wait for it to rot. Some people have elaborate “Green” and “Brown” categories and try to layer them to get the compost “cooking” faster. In our experience that's not necessary. Generally speaking smaller things rot faster than bigger things, so if you want finished compost sooner chop big things up. IE shred your leaves instead of just piling them in whole. Obviously, logs and branches will take a very long time to rot, so don't put them in. Plants that are infected with disease or infested with bugs may spread those diseases and bugs to whatever the compost goes on so don't put them in. Meat and grease are said to attract unwanted critters, so don't put them in. On the other hand, shrimp, crab, and lobster shells are said to make really good compost. (Who has that many lobster shells?) The gardeners I know don't put in grass clippings if the grass has been treated with chemical insecticides or weed killers. Grass clippings can get really stinky if you put in a lot (like 6” or so) at the same time so don't put in a whole lot at the same time.
Anyway - leaves, weeds, dead flowers, dead plants, kitchen scraps like vegetable or fruit peels, coffee grounds, etc., grass-clippings, rotten produce, straw bales, etc. all get dumped in. Herbivore poo and bedding (think gerbil, rabbit, cow or horse) is fine; carnivore poo (dog, cat, human) is not. Chicken manure is OK if you don't use too much and it is thoroughly rotted before putting it on plants. (The issue is the high nitrogren level.)
Some people try to get the chemistry right so the compost gets hot enough to kill weed seeds. We just try not to put weed seeds in. (And we fail.) Compost will rot faster if kept moist so some people water their compost during dry spells. I think it's more important to water my gardens during dry spells so the plants don't die and end up in the the compost bin.
Time & A Little Effort: Anyway, after about 6 months to a year the stuff at the bottom of the pile is probably cooked. Get a pitch fork or rake and remove the top layers of unrotted stuff to a wheel barrow or another bin or a tarp or whatever. When you get down to where the compost looks like dirt dig it out and use it. Throw anything that isn't done rotting back in the bin, including the top layers you just removed. See? You just turned your compost! That's all there is to it. And no, you don't need compost “starter” or activator or the like. Save your money. And compost tea? Don't bother. Get the compost in or on the ground around your plants, wait for it to rain, and nature will make her own compost tea.
Basics #5 - 7/16/16
GARDENING 101: "Deadheading"
No, deadheading is not what one does at a Jerry Garcia concert. Deadheading in the gardening world is the removal of dead (or “spent”) flower heads. It is not necessary for the health of the plant, but does result in a prettier garden and, generally speaking, more flowers. It's well worth the effort.
Roses – using a clean, sharp pruner, cut the flower stem just above an outward facing leaf with 5 or 7 leaflets. Roses have compound leaves – each entire leaf has 3, 5, or 7 leaflets. Look down the stem from the old flower until you find a leaf with 5 or 7 leaflets that's growing towards the outside of the plant. Cut the stem there – just above that leaf. Cutting above the outside facing leaf encourages the branches to grow out from the center of the bush. This results in better air circulation, dryer leaves, and less chance for disease.
Rhododendrons – pinch or break the old flower head off right at its base. It should break off cleanly. Don't go too far down - next year's flower buds are just below where the old flower was.
Daylilies – Daylilies are named that because each flower lasts only one day. Their Latin name, hemerocallis, means “Beautiful for a Day.” They make up for such a short flower life by having lots of flowers on each flower stem, or “scape.” The spent flowers can be messy, especially if they are the super big variety or it's been raining. Pinch or cut them off at their base, being careful not to damage the new flower next to them. When all of the flowers of that stem have bloomed you can cut it off at the base. Or you can leave it there until later in the year when it's completely dried and can simply be pulled out.
Peonies – using a clean, sharp pruner, cut the flower stem just above an outward facing leaf. If you go down into the plant far enough the cut-off stem will be hidden by the other leaves and the plant will look nicer.
Pansies, petunias, geraniums, etc. Cut or pinch the flower at the base of the flower stem, down in the foliage. If you go down into the plant far enough the cut-off stem will be hidden by the leaves and the plant will look nicer.
Still confused? Stop by the garden center and we'll demonstrate.