Published in the Toronto Star, June 18, 2016
Everyone knows this person. They attend all of the family gatherings, play golf or sail or fish and play bridge. They have time to cook and travel and yet, in spite of all of their busyness, they have a great looking lawn and garden. How do they do that?
‘Their’ secrets are my secrets. Here they are. My top 5 shortcuts to a great looking lawn and garden.
- Plant densely. When the low-maintenance gardener plants, she spaces the individual specimens closely together. If the label on the fibrous begonia says ‘space 20 cm apart’, she plants them 12 or 14 cm apart. When you plant densely you crowd out potential weed problems, thereby eliminating much of the work associated with weeding. The ‘show factor’ goes way up as well: more plants, more colour. Note that this works best for annual and perennial flowers, not so well for vegetables as they generally require some space to produce an abundant crop.
- Mulching Miracle. Excuse me if you have heard this one from me before: mulch can reduce watering by up to 70% and weeding by up to 90%. Think of the time that you will have for other pursuits, while neighbours who did not make the mulching investment this time of year become slaves to the hoe and the watering can. It is a concept worth repeating. A layer of finely ground up cedar or pine bark mulch spread over the surface of the soil about 6 to 8 cm (2 ½ to 3 inches) works like a charm.
Do not use ‘landscape fabric’ under your mulch. It does nothing to reduce weeds over the long haul but it will frustrate you in the third year when you start pulling weeds that have rooted into it. urrgh!!
Do not spread the mulch up to the trunk or main stems of permanent shrubs and trees. The moisture harboured there can cause the bark to rot.
Do not use wood chip mulch (including the artificially coloured products) as the wood draws nitrogen from the soil as it breaks down, starving young plants and causing yellowing leaves.
Do spread your bark mulch generously. Smothering weeds is a job that requires some aggression. They are called ‘weeds’ for a reason.
- Weed early. This is early June and the plants in your garden are now off to a fine start. So are the weeds, unless you have been out there clear-cutting them down. That is the secret to reducing your weeding efforts later in the season, to remove them while they are young and vigorous early in the season. Today it is almost effortless, with the right tool (try the Back Hoe, it is new and amazingly efficient). Small effort early in the season means more time for leisure later in the season. The best ‘weeding weather’ is a sunny day, though not necessarily hot. As the newly cut weeds sit in the sun, they bake and die quickly. It sounds more nasty than it really is.
- Large containers. Where planting in containers is concerned it is always a good idea to over-size the pot that your plants grow in. The larger the container, the less frequently you need to water it and the better the performance of the plant as it matures through the season. A tomato needs a minimum of two bushels of soil to thrive (about three standard 20 litre bags of quality mix). A hanging basket that measures at least 16 inches across at the top will out perform the standard 10 and 12 inch versions any day, regardless of what you plant in it. I use a lot of ‘coir’ product in my potting mix. It is a by-product of the coconut, the fiber from the shell. It absorbs water quickly and lasts three times longer than peat.
- Lawn: Cut high, mulch and fertilize. Where your lawn is concerned, be sure to cut it at least 6 to 8 cm high. The higher the blades, the deeper and more drought resistant the roots. Speaking of blades: use a mulching mower to return the nitrogen-rich goodness of grass clippings to the root zone. Fertilize with a quality product that contains slow release nitrogen, the element that your lawn craves the most and at least 1% chelated iron, a special form of iron that grass plants are able to absorb. If you have not fertilized yet this spring, now is a good time to do it. If you did, wait for 8 to 10 weeks after that first application before you apply the important second one. Use the same quality product for best results. A strong lawn this time of year will survive the stress of a hot summer and the competition of weeds much better.
The dream can be a reality: a great looking lawn and garden without excessive work.