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22 tips for making magic in your yard


Published: 09/17/2012

by Richard Rix

Here are some useful tips, gathered during many years of gardening in Toronto. They work for the writer and might work for you too.

When planting an annual, dig the hole, fill it with water, and allow it to drain fully. Then plant the annual and water it in. In this way, subsequent water will tend to collect around the roots instead of draining away fast. This works for perennials, shrubs and anything else you plant. It provides them with moist surroundings for those first crucial days.

Keep a garden journal. That way you won't forget things and will be able to make year-by-year comparisons.

Need a 100-foot hose to reach the end of your yard? Fine, but consider getting two 50-foot lengths. You can couple them when you need to go the distance, yet still have a manageable length for those nearby jobs.

When staking plants, don't just loop the twine around the stake and knot it: Tie each end of the twine to the stake to prevent it from slipping.

When pruning a shrub, cut out anything that grows inward or straight up. What you are trying to achieve is the appearance of growth coming outward from the centre for aesthetic reasons, plus you are helping light and air reach the centre of the plant. Once you have done this, you can trim for shape.

When gardening under maples and other shallow-root trees, you may need to resort to container gardening. Alternatively, you can clear out the roots from a section of the soil and bury an old metal bathtub in which to plant annuals. Or you can settle for shallow, shade-loving perennials, such as fern, certain hostas and periwinkle. Add peat to the soil to help retain moisture.

The right time to put down a crabgrass suppressant is just before Forsythia blossoms in mid-spring. Too early and it can get washed away; too late and the seeds will already have germinated. Remember, crabgrass seed can survive for many years, so don't just treat it for one year and expect to eradicate it.

Coleus is the easiest of plants to keep year after year. Just pinch 15 cm sections off your favourite specimens before the first frost, root them in water, indoors, out of direct sun, then pot them a few weeks later and keep them in a bright spot over the winter. Next spring, you can plant them out again.

Deadhead all plants regularly to encourage fresh blooms. Some plants like pansies and nasturtium can be pinched back severely to encourage fresh growth. The only time you should let a plant go to seed is when you wish to collect the seed, or to allow the plant to seed itself.

Rain barrels are a good idea but don't let the contents become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. You can prevent this by using it on a regular basis (i.e. keep the water moving) and by pouring on some mineral oil from time to time. It is harmless and will form a layer on the surface that repels mosquitoes. Also, garden shops sell a liquid that, when sprayed on the water, breaks the surface tension, causing insects to sink and drown.

When landscaping from scratch, do the corners first. It will look better and give you a frame to build on. If you are looking for landscape design ideas, walk around the neighbourhood and see what works elsewhere. Remember too that many plants thrive in certain geographic pockets, so if your neighbours are having huge success with certain plants, then so might you.

Try to avoid living with a lot that slopes away, unless drainage is an issue. It generally looks more pleasing when land slopes gently upward at the edges toward fences and hedges, etc.

After sodding, sprinkle a layer of soil over the cracks where the turf butts and along the edges. It will help prevent the sod from drying out. Keep it well watered till it's established. Try not to sod in the hot summer months.

Ignore the directives of building inspectors to remove plants that grow up the sides of buildings. They tend to go ballistic over these things for no good reason. I have seen too much glorious hydrangea, wisteria, Virginia creeper and ivy (among other things) destroyed this way. Few plants will damage a building, though trumpet vine and siding are not a good mix. In general, all you need to do is keep climbers cut back at the top so as to prevent invasion of the eavestroughs.

Compost "tea" makes an excellent fertilizer. Fill a burlap sack with compost (like a giant teabag) and leave it immersed in water overnight (those 15-gallon plastic containers are ideal). Next day you'll have a brown liquid that roses and other heavy feeders love. Scatter the spent compost over the bed -- it still has value.

Don't forget the value of rocks in the landscape. Make sure they are in proportion to the size of the lot and to the plants, and try to vary the size of them. A scattering of rocks all the same size can look boring.

If gardening for vegetables, raise the bed six inches with triple mix, compost or manure mixed in with the soil. Most veggie roots appreciate the extra heat and will grow faster and develop higher yields.

Man who plants weeping-willow near house will weep more than willow will. No, that's not an ancient Chinese proverb, though it might well be. That's because the roots of the willow travel far in search of water and can be invasive of building foundations and sewer lines.

If setting out slug and snail bait or beer traps (preferred), do it after cultivating. With their regular trails disturbed by your spadework, the critters will all the more likely be lured to their destruction.

Take advantage of the various municipal water downspout disconnection programs. By diverting rainwater from the sewer systems to your garden, you help the environment and benefit your plants.

Those little plastic containers that come with rolls of 35 mm film make ideal seed containers when you're out and about and spot some seeds you like and need some way of transporting them.

Electric-power mower or gasoline? The choice depends not so much on the size of your lot (at least in the GTA) but on how many obstructions are between the mower and the electrical outlet. If you have plenty of trees on the lot, go with the gas mower. Otherwise electric will probably fill the need -- or go hand power if you are truly energetic!


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