On our 8-acre property, where we established over 4,000 square feet of gardens and 2 acres of ponds, my late husband, Craig, and I founded Hawk’s Nest Nursery. When we opened the perennial plant nursery for business in 1990, we quickly realized that our customers could benefit from garden tours and classes.
We conducted garden tours every Sunday, from Mother’s Day to Labor Day. The tours added a ton of work to our already crazy schedule – we were busy enough growing and maintaining 30,000 plants in the nursery, two greenhouses and 3 acres of lawn! But the tours were such a valuable educational and marketing tool for our business that we decided to make the gardens a priority – and we developed a system of maintenance that really worked.
While I no longer have the 8-acre property or nursery, I continue to maintain gardens for a living, and teach gardeners the successful system that we developed. I’m happy to share some of my methods with you here.
Step One – Cleaning
Ideally, perennials should be cut down and cleaned out in the fall. But if you didn’t get it done, then spring is your time to get squeaky clean. If left to decompose in the garden, spent plant material and tree leaves can create insect and disease problems. Most plant diseases are soil-born, so be sure to gently rake out the garden. I use a small, metal expanding rake which can be used between plants, or extended to rake light leaves.
It’s best not to step into your garden in early spring, when the soil is still very wet. You can cause serious damage to the crowns of the plants and compress the garden soil, which restricts root growth. This summer, it’s a good idea to place stepping stones in some of the deeper areas of your garden, so in spring you will know where it’s safe to step.
Step Two – Weeding
Some of the most destructive weeds are evergreen. By the time you’re out in the garden in spring, they’re in flower and almost ready to go to seed. “Shot weed” (Cardamine oligosperma) is my gardening nemesis. As soon as the snow melts, this weed is bright green and growing right along.
Although it’s important to get out early enough in the season to stay ahead of the weeds, it’s more important not to work in a wet garden. Use a sharp tool, like a diamond or swoe hoe, or a hand tool sharp enough to cut the weeds just below the surface. Weed seeds can remain dormant in your garden soil for hundreds of years, just waiting for you to come along and pull them up into the sunshine and rain! Have you ever noticed that about two weeks after you weed your garden, there’s a nice fresh crop? I know some of you are thinking “no way,” because you’ve been pulling and shaking weeds all these years. Trust me, cutting off the weeds just below the surface is much more efficient. Let’s say that dandelions do grow back if you don’t get the entire root (the jury is still out on this). Well, then you’ll have one dandelion, not hundreds of weeds that you’ve brought up with that huge root.
Step Three – Fertilize
Liquid fertilizers are perfect for annuals and tropicals, but they are not as well suited to perennials and vegetables. I use only one kind of fertilizer for perennials: Osmocote 14-14-14. It’s a slow-release fertilizer that gives perennials the strong roots they need to survive the winter, and lots of flowers or fruit. In spring, sprinkle it on the ground around your plants and flowering shrubs. Don’t scratch it into the soil, so you can see where you’ve fertilized – you can mulch over it later. The fertilizer releases when soil temperature reaches 70 degrees, and lasts all season. One application and you’re done!
Step Four – Water
Perennial plant foliage should be kept as dry as possible. Most diseases are carried over in soil, and transferred to plants by moisture. Avoid watering perennials with overhead sprinklers, which tend to increase disease and fungus problems. The best system to use is soaker hoses. These keep water in the soil and aid in conservation by preventing evaporation.
Every time a plant wilts, it is stressed. Although it may perk up when watered, the weakened plant is more susceptible to disease and may not survive the winter. As a rule of thumb, gardens need 1 inch of water (rain) per week and shade gardens need twice as much. So, if you get less than an inch of rain in a week, you need to water to make up the difference. Measure and time your soaker to see how long it takes. Are you questioning the rule of thumb for shade gardens? It may seem like a lot of water, but it’s necessary – the trees that create the shade take all the water and nutrients first.
Step Five – Mulch
Mulch helps keep moisture in the soil, and prevents weed seeds from germinating. Using a composted material to mulch your garden helps to enrich the soil, and it improves the texture as it works in each year. Preferably, use your own composted leaves to mulch, but if that’s not an option, use cocoa shell (unless you have pets) or triple-ground hardwood. Do not use dyed mulch, this is inferior wood and does not decompose as readily. Only use 2 to 3 inches of mulch, and never let it touch the plants. Around trees, mulch should never touch the trunks, and you should always be able to see the root curve. Mulch right over those soaker hoses, and you’re set to go!
Here in the Finger Lakes Region, one of our biggest gardening challenges is to make the most of our relatively short season. Rather than spend half your summer weeding and watering, why not spend your free time sitting and enjoying your garden? If you follow these steps, I guarantee your garden will become (almost) maintenance-free!
by K.C. Fahy-Harvick