Be more efficient, save time, save money
Digging in a bed
What to do about all those fall leaves
A lazy gardener’s compost heap
Digging in a bed
No shortcuts here, but work done properly now will save tons of time later. Cold climates cause enough work for gardening, so eliminate whatever work you can by doing things right. Whether the planting bed is for annuals, perennials, vegetables or bushes, you want it weed free, well tilled and full of nutrients.
Lay out the area first with a garden hose if you need to remove sod. This will help you visualize the finished shape of the bed, and give you a line to follow cutting out the sod. Remove ALL sod, root systems and rocks. Any roots you leave in the soil will grow.
Now "double dig". Dig deeply along the front edge of the bed, and pile dirt up on the far side of the bed. Do the same along the first trench you just dug, and continue until about half way through the bed. Now go back to the front of the bed, dig deep and turn over the shovelfuls until you have turned over the second layer of the first half of the bed. Shovel the pile back into the bed. This is also a good time to work in organic matter. Your homemade compost is best, but use purchased if you need to. If you have heavy clay or sandy soil, add organic material. This is the best time to add material that decomposes slowly, improving your bed for many years. Gardens that are enriched only with chemical fertilizers will produce well for the first several years, but over time the soil becomes so depleted of organic material that your plants need, your soil will be in worse shape than it is now. Check the Soil Amendments page for complete information on the best organic matters for your soil type. Now repeat the process with the back half of the bed.
When you are done you will have loosened the soil quite deeply which your plants will adore, but the bed will be slightly high because it is loosened so well. It will settle in time. When you smooth out the final layer, you may also want to work in (rake in is adequate) a garden pre-emergent if you are using the bed for plants rather than seeds. You have stirred up a multitude of seeds while digging. Those near the surface will germinate. If the bed is for plantings that you don't expect to move such as flowering bushes, roses or perennials, you can use a weed barrier such as thick layers of newspaper, plastic or landscape fabric under mulch.
Don't forget to edge your bed! To prevent the lawn from creeping into the bed, edge with plastic landscape edging, brick or some other barrier.
What to do about all those fall leaves
Opinions vary on this subject, as a layer of leaves can sometimes be beneficial. Most of us feel the need to remove them, but dread the process of raking, bagging and disposal.
Leaf removal can be a time consuming and costly process. You need to purchase bags, plastic or recyclable, rake the leaves from the lawn, dig and pick them out of bushes, bag them up, and pay to have them hauled away.
Consider instead, a one time purchase of a blower/vac/mulcher. You will find yourself using the blower itself a multitude of ways...blow out the garage...blow off the patio...blow the grass off the driveway and mower after cutting the lawn (not to mention the grass clods all over the lawn because you let the grass get too long). The Toro Ultra Blower/Vac Mulcher is the best at it’s price point. For around $80 you get 235 MPH maximum air speed and a 12 amp motor with variable speed. It is electric, so you need outlet access and have to deal with the cords, but for the price, that’s a bargain. Tons of blowing power, a little more for the vac/mulcher would be nice, but you will pay quite a bit more for it.
When autumn finds you knee deep in leaves, fire up the blower. Work with the wind if it's breezy, blowing everything loose into one corner of the yard. Stick the blower right into the bushes as you go, blasting all debris out. Leaves and debris left in bushes will be a soggy rotting mess to clean out in spring. On the other hand, plants and bushes not yet well established will benefit from that mulch over winter, keeping soil temperatures more stable. Landscaping with heavy rock will generally stay in place while you blow leaves out of the edges and corner, turn the power down for small or lightweight decorative rock. If your landscaping is mulched, the leaves are simply more mulch. If you prefer to remove the leaves try your blower on it's lowest setting.
There! Raking is done, as well as "picking" everything out of the bushes, landscaping and corners.
Now snap on the mulching attachment and collector bag, it's time to make mulch rather than driving to the garden store to buy your winter plant bedding. This process can be a bit slow, but autumn comes with some warm sunny days, and you can stand outside in the last of the year's beautiful sunshine making mulch without breaking a sweat. The first bags filled go to the roses to ensure they get as much as they need. When you cleaned out your vegetable garden last week, you already put the tomato cages over the roses (!!great idea!!), now just fill them with the mulched leaves. The leaves will spill out some, but that's all the better. (Tradition dictates that mulching not be done until the ground freezes, but the purpose of mulch is to prevent dramatic changes in soil temperature. The soil around you plants will just freeze more slowly. If you prefer, store the mulched leaves in a pile until it gets colder. Cover with burlap if the pile is exposed to the wind.) Next give young plants and perennials a blanket, and if you have enough, evergreens are thirsty all winter and love to hold on to their soil moisture.
Next spring remove the mulch from tender plants by hand, but get that blower out again to gently blow away the remaining debris, and give the sturdy bushes another blast to remove additional leaves collected over the winter.
A lazy gardener compost heap
Certainly you have read complicated instructions and formulas for making compost, generally involving purchasing a rather expensive compost bin (the rotating ones would be great for turning the pile though!). Much of it is really unnecessary, nature has been making compost without equipment or formulas for eternity.
However, even for a "lazy heap", keep some basic guidelines in mind in order to produce a rich compost relatively quickly. First, select a well drained spot. Ideally "hidden", perhaps behind bushes or tall perennials. Pile up plant and kitchen waste as it accumulates. Add grass clippings whenever available, leaves green or brown, and other organic material. Add a shovelful of dirt once in a while (taking it from your gardens will help you rotate spent soil with compost). Keep a container in your kitchen to collect only raw whole fruit and vegetable waste. NEVER put in meats, eggs or cooked foods, however eggshells and coffee grounds are fine. Each evening deposit the waste into the pile, bury it a bit to discourage pests (or neighborhood dogs) from rummaging the pile. Farm animal (plant eating animals) manure is excellent if you have it available, NEVER pet waste. Do aim for roughly 1/5 green and moist with 4/5 dry and brushy. Keep the pile moist, but not wet.
Turn the pile with a pitchfork frequently to speed up decomposition. If you have deposited large pieces in the pile, they will take a little longer to decompose. If all is working properly your heap should be quite warm inside, if not downright hot. If it's not, you may need to add more green or moisture, or turn more often. A "cold compost" will not kill weed seeds and should not be used for spreading in your gardens, as the seeds will germinate. An easily managed heap should be about 3 cubic feet. Rather than continue to make your heap larger, slowing down the process, start a second heap to decompose while you use up the first.
If you get a little too neglectful of the pile, no problem! It will just take a little longer to produce nice compost. The compost is ready to use when it looks dark and rich, beginning to resemble soil. Before digging it in to a planting bed, remove larger pieces that have not fully decomposed and either keep it in the heap, or add it to your second heap. Compost that is not quite finished and a little rough can be dug into an empty bed in fall, the decomposition will continue until you plant in spring. The decomposition process will use nitrogen to complete, so dig in a little fertilizer to offset, especially if it's close to planting season. For additional information about compost and soil amendments, see the Soil Amendments page.
If you have never used fresh compost, you will be amazed at how grateful your plants will be!
First, minimize weeding by using a weed barrier or thick layer of mulch wherever possible. Some planting areas, such as annual and vegetable beds are not conducive to using a weed barrier such as filter fabric or plastic, but most areas will welcome the mulch. Also use a granular pre emergent such as PREEN (yes, they really do work) made for gardens unless you will be planting seeds, in which case wait until the seeds have germinated. Unfortunately weeds will still manage to grow. The trick is finding the easiest way to remove them.
If you tackle weeds while they are small, they are easy to pull and will not have produced seeds yet. In unmulched tilled garden areas, just working the top soil with a hoe will cut down and bury small weeds. Frequently working the soil will not only take care of weeds while they are small, but will benefit your plants.
Being the busy gardeners that we are, we wind up with some big or out of control weeds. Especially when the weather has prevented us from getting outside to manage our weeds and other chores. Both human deterring heat and rains are adored by weeds. When the weeds have gotten ahead of you, it is tempting to cover large areas pulling "the big ones" as they are most visible. But is probably more productive to start with a small area, completely remove all weeds big and small, then mulch or apply pre emergent if possible. This approach is also much more satisfying mentally. At least one area then is "DONE".
The best time to weed is after a good rain or thorough watering. Roots will pull out more easily if the soil is soaked deep. Those roots are important. Many weeds, such as dandelions, will produce one or more new plants from roots left in the soil. Special tools are available to help remove the roots, generally marketed as some sort of dandelion digger. These are particularly helpful if the soil is a little dry.
And if you are not opposed to chemicals, a weed killer is a good solution in areas that are not planted. There are a couple of varieties available. Use the weed and grass killers such as Round Up to spot spray, but be extremely cautious not to over spray a desirable plant. It will kill EVERYTHING it comes in contact with. Be aware of wind drift, carrying the spray several feet. Selective killers such as Weed B Gone will not kill grasses, but WILL kill annuals and perennials, and damage bushes and shrubs.
Just like the kids, feed, water and keep their hair trimmed.
Minimizing watering and fertilizing will definitely reduce mowing. But it will also damage the health of your lawn. It will become weak and thin, allowing weeds to sprout and flourish. Weeds don't need water, fertilizer or rich soil, so soon you will have a dandelion field.
To reduce watering, you need to make it as effective as possible. Water early in the day to reduce water lost to evaporation, and soak deeply. Water allowed to soak deep in the soil will not evaporate like a little water laying on the surface. If you must water in the heat of the day, work with the shade. Sprinkle the exposed areas early in the day, then follow the shade.
Fertilizing regularly will keep your lawn healthy, which will also help reduce the need for frequent watering. The lawn will get through the hot dry periods of summer much more easily if it is healthy. Early in spring, before the soil temperature reaches 50 degrees, apply a fertilizer with pre-emergent for crabgrass and water it in. Crabgrass seeds germinate at 50 degrees, so apply too early rather than too late. Frequent light applications of fertilizer through the rest of the season is preferable to heavy doses. Light application will reduce the possibility of burn if it gets hot, and prevent growth "spurts" requiring frequent mowing. Weed control included in fertilizer is not always effective. I needs to be applied when the lawn is wet so the granules adhere to the weeds, and should be left in contact with those weeds for 2 or 3 days without watering. In the meantime if it gets hot, you may burn your lawn. Selective herbicide such as Weed B Gone applied with a hose sprayer or spot sprayed is much more effective and economical. In autumn, apply fertilizer one last time. Even though the grass will be dormant soon, the roots and soil will store up the nutrients for spring, ensuring a healthy start to the next growing season.
Now that your lawn is green and healthy, don't get behind on the mowing. Cutting too much off at once does damage the health of your grass, and even with a mulching mower will leave large clumps laying on the lawn. This is not only unsightly, but it gets dragged in the house and can kill the grass underneath. In hot dry periods, leaving the grass a little long will "shade" the roots, reducing the need for watering. So raise the blade a little until cooler weather.
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