• January 25, 2013

15 Tips for a Beautiful Garden

Don’t miss Toby’s tips and advice on maintaining your garden.

Toby Bost

February Lawn and Garden

1. Experiment with a number of soil mixes to determine what works best for your project. Potting plants is a common gardening chore, especially if you are growing your own seedlings or sharing plants with a friend. The task is more enjoyable when there is ready access to quality potting soil. There are many great commercial mixes on the market, and most are better for seedling production than making your own. Weeds and soil-borne diseases can be avoided with soilless substrates. Most recipes contain a combination of pine-bark fines, sand, vermiculite, perlite, and peat moss (or sphagnum peat moss). Nurserymen use pine-bark soil conditioner with a little sand at percentages equal to 90:10 ratio when potting up woody plants. Limestone, and possibly a slow-release or organic fertilizer, is added to soil mixes.

2. It is time to create a new flower bed. You can use a garden hose to lay out the perimeter and shape of the bed in curvilinear form. Use utility spray paint or surveyor’s plastic tape with wooden stakes for rectangular beds. Double digging may be necessary in compacted clay soil, or where roses are to be planted. Otherwise, remove the top layer of sod, then rototill the bed to thoroughly aerate it. Test the soil and add nutrients that are deficient. Once the tilling is complete, rake compost or commercial manure into the top few inches of soil.

3. Using leftover seeds from previous seasons is acceptable for most plants, except grasses. Seeds that have been stored in airtight containers in a cool room will frequently germinate. It is best to check their viability before sowing. This can be done by placing five to 10 seeds on a moist paper towel. Roll up and slide the towel into a plastic sandwich bag. If the seeds are suitable for the upcoming garden season, they’ll sprout after a week in a warm location.

4. Certain trees will “bleed” or sap excessively when pruned in early spring, including common landscape staples like river birch, dogwood, and maple. Although the “sapping” is primarily water, it is nonetheless alarming. (Tree paints do not help!) Prune sparingly and remove only the largest branches. Since spring-pruned crabapple trees produce many suckers, delay pruning these until summer.

5. Pruning tender plants like rosebushes is best delayed until most of the cold has passed. In the Coastal Plain counties, pruning can begin in February. Annual pruning removes weak and diseased twigs; the goal is to encourage strong branches and increase flowering. Knock Out roses require less severe pruning than cutting roses.

6. If you are looking for an interesting flowering shrub as a specimen plant for a highly visible place in your garden, take a look at these two: Paperbush, Edgeworthia chrysantha, offers the look and fragrance of daphne, but is more hardy. Little Honey, Hydrangea quercifolia, is a compact, oak-leaf hydrangea with golden foliage.

7. Camellia societies across the state are a great resource for camellia enthusiasts. Camellias have had one of the longest bloom seasons on record this year. When the shrubs have finished flowering, rake up the spent flowers and enrich their soil with a compost application. Camellias can be pruned for size control. Specialty fertilizer applications and routine mulching may be beneficial.

8. Begin your winter pruning in the backyard orchard with the oldest fruit trees first. At bud swell, prune grapes, cane berries (brambles), and blueberries. Your county Cooperative Extension office is a great source for free publications on pruning trees and small fruits.

9. Pruning an old blueberry bush can be tricky. The objective is to open the top of the shrub to allow light penetration; this increases fruit production. Every several years, many of the oldest branches should be removed down to the ground to allow the younger shoots to dominate. By thinning twiggy growth along the perimeter of the bush, you can reduce fruit set and sustain larger berries and consistent yields.

10. Ground-cover plantings occasionally need thinning and rejuvenating. This entails removing blighted plants and mulching with leaf compost. Have the soil tested before applying limestone and fertilizer.

11. Refrain from fertilizing ornamental plantings until March. Most shrubs and perennial flowers utilize nitrogen fertilizer as their new leaves are expanding.

12. February is the month to begin fertilizing cool-season lawns, such as tall fescue mixtures. After the late-winter application of fertilizer, very little nitrogen is required on non-irrigated yards until late summer. Mulch-mowing or grass-cycling your lawn can reduce the amount of nitrogen that your lawn requires by up to 20%.

13. Cut back ornamental grasses now, or as new growth is observed at ground level. Shorter grasses can be pruned to 6 inches, while pampas grass is cut to one foot height.

14. Make contact with a landscape supply company to arrange delivery of mulching materials. Pine needles and double-shredded hardwood mulch are favorites for landscape plantings; buying in volume can save money. Consider applying a preemergent, crabgrass herbicide before mulching especially weedy borders.

15. Always sweep up herbicide granules and fertilizers on hard surfaces such as walks and driveways. These products are not hazardous when used on lawns and in gardens, but they are quite toxic when rain washes them into streets and storm drains. Many people don’t know that water passing through a storm drain flows directly into our streams and rivers. Aquatic life is in peril from urban runoff!

For more than 30 years, Toby Bost has been a resource to North Carolina gardeners and growers as an agricultural extension agent, a trainer for master gardeners, and an author. His books include The Successful Gardener Guide: North Carolina, North Carolina Gardener’s Guide, and The Carolina Gardener’s Guide. He can be reached through Our State magazine at gardening@ourstate.com

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