25 Gardening Tips Every Gardener Should Know
When you're just starting out with gardening, it can seem like there's so much to know and you've got a thousand questions. How should you plant your veggies, and what kind of soil is best? When should you prune your hydrangeas and divide your hostas? Is everything getting enough sunlight and water? The good news is that nature is a terrific teacher. The more you garden, the more you'll learn about what works and what doesn't. But for now, use this list of basic gardening tips to find the answers to some of the most common questions beginners have. And don't forget to have fun while growing your own food and beautiful flowers in your yard!
1. Know your USDA Hardiness Zone. Use it as a guide so you don't plant trees, shrubs, and perennials that won't survive winters in your area. You'll also get a better idea of when to expect your last frost date in spring so you know when you can plant vegetables, fruits, and annuals outside in your area.
2. Not sure when to prune? Prune spring-flowering shrubs, such as lilacs, and large-flower climbing roses immediately after the blooms fade. They set their flower buds in autumn on last year's growth. If you prune them in fall or winter, you remove next spring's flower buds.
3. Apply only composted, rotted manure that has cured for at least six months to your soil. Fresh manure is too high in nitrogen and can "burn" plants; it may also contain pathogens or parasites. Manure from pigs, dogs, and cats should never be used in gardens or compost piles because they may contain parasites that can infect humans.
4. Perennials generally need three years after you plant them to achieve their mature size. Remember the adage that they "sleep, creep, and leap" each year respectively.
6. Deadheading is a good practice for perennials and annuals. Because the goal of annual plants is to flower, set seed, and die, removing the old blooms tells annual plants to produce more flowers. Removing spent flowers also encourages plants to use their energy to grow stronger leaves and roots instead of seed production. Avoid deadheading plants grown especially for their decorative fruits or pods, such as money plant (Lunaria).
7. Pay close attention to how much light different plants need. Grow vegetables in a location that gets at least 8 hours of direct sunlight every day. Most vegetables need full sun to produce the best harvest. If you have some shade, try growing cool-season crops such as lettuce, spinach, radishes, and cabbage.
8. The best approaches to controlling weeds in the garden are hand-weeding and hoeing. Avoid deep hoeing or cultivating that can bring weed seeds to the soil's surface so they germinate. Weed early and often so weeds don't go to seed. Use mulch to smother and prevent annual weeds.
9. Hostas don't need to be divided unless you want to rejuvenate an old plant or increase the numbers you have, or because you simply prefer the look of single plants. The best times to divide your hostas are in the spring as the new shoots begin appearing but before the leaves unfurl, or in the fall at least four weeks before your soil freezes solid.
10. Not all hydrangeas grow in the shade. Panicle hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata) need sun for best flowering. Some top panicle varieties include 'Limelight', Little Lime, Vanilla Strawberry, and Bombshell.
11. Don't clean up everything in your garden in fall. Leave ornamental grasses for beauty and the seed heads of perennials such as coneflowers to feed the birds. Avoid cutting back marginally hardy perennials, such as garden mums, to increase their chances of surviving a harsh winter.
12. Vegetable gardening tip: The optimal temperature for ripening tomatoes is between 68-77°F. And at 85°F, it's too hot for the plants to produce lycopene and carotene, the pigments responsible for the fruit color. Once temperatures consistently drop below 50°F, green fruits will not ripen. Tomatoes that have a bit of color change can be brought inside to finish ripening.
13. Plant spring-blooming bulbs, such as tulips, fritillarias, ornamental alliums, and crocuses, in the fall before the ground freezes. In general, place the bulb in a hole that's two to three times the depth of the bulb. While most hardy bulbs you only need to plant once, and they'll keep coming up year after year, note that hybrid tulips are an exception to this rule. It's best to pull them up when they are done blooming and replant new tulip bulbs each fall, or choose species tulips that become perennial.
14. Deadhead spent flowers on spring-blooming bulbs such as daffodils and hyacinths, so the plants send energy to the bulbs instead of into making seeds. Leave the foliage until it turns brown and can be removed with a gentle tug. The leaves store nutrients needed for the bulb to bloom the following year. Braiding or tying the leaves is not recommended because it reduces the amount of light to the leaf surfaces.
15. Fertilizer is not the answer to growing the best plants; soil quality is. Add organic amendments such as compost and well-aged manure to your soil. The best soil structure is crumbly, easy to dig, accepts water easily, and is loose enough to provide oxygen for plant roots. If you choose to use fertilizer, use an organic one to add nitrogen, phosphate, and potash (the form of potassium plants can use).
17. If your rhubarb sends up flower stalks, remove them so the plant will focus on foliage production, not seed production.
18. When transplanting container-grown perennials, dig a hole a that's twice as wide as the soil ball of the plant to aid with root establishment. Make sure the plant sits at the same depth in the hole as it did in the container. Use the same soil you dug out of the hole to fill in around your new plant instead of using bagged soil.
19. Mound your potato plants deep under the soil and store harvested potatoes in complete darkness. Exposure to light turns the skin of potatoes green, an indication that the potato has produced a colorless alkaloid called solanine, a bitter-tasting toxin that, consumed in large quantities, can cause illness. Cut away any green portions or sprouts on potatoes to avoid the problem.
20. Most in-ground garden plants grow best with 1 to 2 inches of water per week. If not enough rain falls, water deeply once a week instead of watering lightly daily. Frequent, shallow watering only moistens the top layer of soil and encourages the plant's roots to move there instead of growing deeper.
21. Don't send your fall leaves away! Chop them up and use them as compost ingredients. Pulverized leaves can be left to nourish the lawn. After several hard freezes, when plants have gone completely dormant, you also can use 3-6 inches of shredded leaves as mulch over tender perennials to keep them dormant over winter. Remove the mulch in spring.
22. Avoid digging or planting in wet soil; working it damages the soil structure. Wait until the soil is crumbly and no longer forms a ball when you squeeze some in your hand (it doesn't have to be bone-dry) to till or dig.
23. Understand your soil's drainage. Roots need oxygen, and if your soil is consistently wet, there are no air pockets for the roots to thrive. Many plants prefer well-drained soil, so amend your soil with organic materials to improve the soil quality.
24. Some plants flower in response to day length. Chrysanthemums, poinsettias, strawberries, and others need long nights to produce flowers. If you want strawberries that flower and produce fruit when temperatures are between 35°F and 85°F, choose a variety labeled "day-neutral."
25. Native species of plants are often better adapted to growing in your region than plants from other places in the world. They also are better for local pollinators that evolved with them. If you want to grow plants to support pollinators, avoid newer cultivars with double flowers because all the extra petals make it harder for insects to reach the nectar and pollen.