Plan Your Best Garden Ever!
Get started today with these 50 expert tips
By Teri Dunn, Gloucester, Massachusetts
It's almost time to start making those gardening resolutions. You may miss the garden you had last year...or miss the garden you wish you had. But winter's respite is not the time for regrets. Instead, make good use of the off-season. Grab pencil, paper, gardening magazines and seed catalogs, and make your dream garden a reality!
To help you along, we've compiled some useful tips. As you imagine your future garden, bear in mind the wisdom of this old saying: "Don't work harder—work smarter."
How to use these tips: Don't worry about trying all these ideas or using them in order or in the winter months. Springtime's arrival in your area and the scope of your plans will guide you to the ones most useful to you.
Set aside a large-format wall calendar just for gardening notes. Use it for goals, several-step garden projects and timely reminders.
Shop early for containers, well before buying plants to fill them. There will be a bigger selection, and you can make cool-headed decisions.
Inventory your seed stash. Improperly stored seeds may have dried out and should be discarded. Be sure to store seeds in an airtight jar in the refrigerator.
Clean your hand tools now, while you have time. Chip off encrusted dirt and rub with a damp rag. Then wipe cutting surfaces with an oily cloth.
Review plant information in catalogs and gardening magazines. Resolve to try something new this year, and decided now where it will go in your garden.
Cruise through catalogs with a marker and/or yellow sticky notes, flagging everything you might want to order. You can always pare down the list later.
When ordering seeds or plants via mail order, fill out the order form (even if you intend to call in your order or use the Internet). This way, you are prepared and the process goes quickly.
Place orders early, before the companies get busy. These get filled faster, plus you can get exactly what you want, thus avoiding substitutions and rain checks.
Stockpile soil amendments. Order or buy loam, compost and mulch weeks before you need them. When you do, they'll be there.
Plan new beds and borders on paper. The drawing doesn't have to be sophisticated or perfect, though you should aim to make it to scale.
For new plants, always research "mature plant size." Of course, results may vary in your garden, but it's still important to know what to expect to allow for enough space.
Call your nearest cooperative extension office and ask when the last predicted frost-free date is, or check on-line. This information will help you calculate how early to start seeds indoors.
Start seeds of some of your favorite veggies and annuals indoors several weeks or months in advance. This way, seedlings can go right into the garden without delay when conditions are warm enough.
Sketch a new plan for your vegetable garden. It's important to rotate crops in order to thwart plant-specific pests and diseases. It also gives the soil a break because different plants use more or less of certain nutrients.
If you're planning a big garden installation this year—a water garden, a gazebo, a pergola—research what's involved. Also, line up contractors in late winter (before they book up).
Tour the yard with a sharp pair of clippers. Make way for new growth be removing deadwood, winter-damaged branches and suckers. If in doubt about whether a branch is alive spare it for now.
Feed developing seedlings with half-strength plant food every week or so. Proper care means more robust plants, improving their chances of survival when they finally move outdoors.
Plant bare-root shrubs and perennials earlier in the spring than container-grown plants. Bare-root ones are still dormant or just waking up and can make a gradual transition to garden life.
How do you know when it's okay to start planning? Check the soil—just scoop up a handful and squeeze it. If it's wet and soggy, wait a bit longer. If it crumbles in your hands, it's time.
Help acclimate young plants before they go into the ground. Set pots and flats in a sheltered spot (under a tree, on the porch) and gradually increase light received for a week or so—bring them in at night or cover them if frost is predicted.
Lay a garden hose on the ground to visualize the size and shape of a new garden bed. Leave it in place for a few days, so you can observe it from various angles and at different times of the day (to check sunlight).
To plant a shrub or rosebush, dig a hole that is the same depth as but wider than the root-ball. Backfill with a mix of organic matter and existing soil.
When buying perennials or annuals, resist the temptation to get blooming plants. A strong root system is much more important and will soon generate good top growth and flowers.
Get in the habit of creating a basin around the outer edges of every plant you install, large or small. When you water, precious moisture won't drain away but will go right to the root zone.
Groom emerging perennials, cutting out last year's tangled growth. This not only makes them look a lot better, but clears the way for fresh, new growth.
Plant in threes. This classic rule of thumb really works—it gives plants an opportunity to make an impression, yet not hog the garden stage. Plus, the odd number looks more natural.
Make compost! It's easy and it's free...and your plants will adore it. The most successful piles are in a sunny spot, about 3 feet square. Keep compost slightly damp and stir often.
Set out a rain barrel in a convenient, but out-of-the-way, spot (usually under a down-spout). Cover it with a screen to keep out leaves, dirt and mosquitoes.
Where grass meets flower bed, create a shallow trench bordering the garden. Fill it with gravel or edging material if you wish. Ideally, it will halt the grass, as well as encroaching weeds.
When it's in its prime, evaluate your spring bulb display. Take photos; make notes. Tuck this information away till later in the summer, when you can move bulbs and order new ones.
Fight weeds early and often. They're easier to pull out by the roots after a rain or after you water. Crowds of small ones can be cut out with a few swipes of a sharp hoe.
Add some quick color to your garden. Cold-tolerant annuals are great for filling the mid-to late-spring gaps—dependable favorites include pansies and snapdragons.
Always fully prepare a new bed before planting. Get all weeds, roots and rocks out first. Then dig the soil to a depth of 6 to 8 inches, at least, incorporating plenty of good organic matter.
Newly installed transplants appreciate a little protection from sun and wind at first. Use cardboard boxes, "row cover" fabric or even a carefully placed lawn chair.
Invest in a watering wand. This hose-end attachment delivers a soft, soaking spray that young plants appreciate (it's also terrific for watering hanging baskets).
Get in the habit of protecting newly installed plants with an inch or two of mulch. This helps moderate summer's high soil temperatures, retains soil moisture and keeps weeds at bay.
Clip flowers off your spring-flowering shrubs (lilacs, rhododendrons, azaleas, spirea and the like) as they begin to fade. It helps the plant conserve energy, plus it just looks better.
When watering larger plants or trees, set a hose at the base on slow trickle. Check back periodically, and turn it off for a bit if there's too much runoff. The idea is to give them a deep soaking.
Put in a ground cover! Clear out an area and dig in organic matter to a depth of several inches. Stagger the plants rather than make rows. Don't plant too closely—they'll fill in.
The best way to fertilize shrubs and rosebushes is with slow-release granular plant food. Follow label directions about timing and amount. Always water before and after for maximum uptake.
The secrets to a great focal-point planting? Choose a large-growing plant that looks good from all angles. Elevate it and/or surround it with lower-growers. Finally, be sure to pick a color that contrasts with its surroundings.
To make a great window box display, hold a "dress rehearsal" first—set potted plants inside and shift them around until you are satisfied you have enough and that they are well placed.
Prevent lawn-mowing challenges. Elevate garden decor items on level paving blocks or stepping-stones. This applies not only to potted plants, but also urns, birdbaths, benches or sundials.
For vines and climbers, put in stakes or other supports as early as possible—at planting time or soon after. This prevents puncturing the root-ball, plus it reminds you to keep after the tying. Redirect or prune back wayward stems.
Deadhead all perennials and annuals that don't shed spent flowers on their own. This simple chore persuades plants to direct their energy into producing more blooms (rather than going to seed).
Prevent plant diseases and insect damage by keeping your plants tidy. Get rid of damaged growth and yellowing leaves—clip them off the plant and, just as important, rake them out and away from underneath.
Spring is the best time to prune, shear or shape your backyard evergreens, whether they are solo performers or part of a hedge. It's important that you use a good, sharp tool for this kind of job.
Open your garden to more light and air with springtime pruning if needed. Remove a few of the lower branches of tall trees, thin over grown trees and shrubs and take out branches that are invading garden areas.
Check the effectiveness of your watering methods. Right after you turn off the hose or sprinkler, dig down with a trowel to see how far the moisture penetrated into the soil—you may be surprised.
Splashy and dependable color is easy—use potted plants. Move them in and out of displays as needed. Just remember: Don't neglect watering, as containers dry out quickly.