In a world filled with fake news, you must question everything—well, within reason. Thanks to centuries of scientific experimentation and pointed research, modern science is pretty much sure of how plants work. But still, misinformation and tall tales abound. When planning your garden, it’s important to be able to tell a well-researched, expert source from a dud. Confusing an unsubstantiated claim for the gospel truth could spell disaster for your plans—and shake your faith in what good gardening means. To stoke your critical eye, here are some common gardening myths we’ve encountered in the industry. They may sound real, but—after a little research—they’re easily debunked.
If Your Plants are Stressed, Fertilizer
Somehow, fertilizer has become a plant “fix-all.” Plants showing any kind of distress are quickly hit with a hefty dose of nutrients and assumed cured. In reality, browning, drooping, and other common signs of plant distress are often caused by planting errors: too much sun or heat, roots are overcrowded, or the soil is too compact. You should fertilize plants as recommended by a horticulturist, and then add additional fertilizer only if your plants show signs of lacking a specific nutrient that fertilizers contain. Too much fertilizer can actually damage healthy gardens. Always look at symptoms of plant sickness carefully and specifically, research possible causes, and then determine the cause that seems most relevant to your plants.
Pesticides are Miracle Workers
Not quite! Using pesticides is always a tricky game—many store-bought pesticides (even the organic varieties) are toxic to humans, pets, and the environment. Some gardeners use pesticides as liberally as fertilizer—spraying them on plants without much discernment. Really, there are thousands of varieties of pesticides and each has different uses and different application instructions. Though these products can be helpful tools in fighting an infestation, they are not a cure-all, and they will hardly prevent against problems caused by improper maintenance or improper planting. Always use pesticides carefully, and be aware of how injurious many are—for the sake of the world, chose the least toxic defense.
Add Sand to Hard Soil
Sand is a horrible solution to hard, heavy soil. Yet, somehow, this myth persists and many an amateur gardener has made already difficult soil even more difficult by adding sand to it. If you want to soften your soil, add natural compost on top of it, or put in a soil amendment. A natural ingredient like compost will help soften the consistency of the soil and fill it with needed nutrients. Plus—compost can be made for cheap at home. As a general rule, never add anything to your soil without first researching its effects.
Stake Young Trees
At first, this idea makes a lot of sense. Young trees are fragile and can easily succumb to bad weather or a strong gust of wind. However, like people, trees grow stronger when they are subjected to normal stress—like wind and rain. Horticulturists suggest that trees should be staked only for the first 18 months of their life; after that, they should be allowed to grow on their own. Like removing training wheels from a bike, young trees freed from their braces develop necessary skills by struggling against the forces of gravity. There are some exceptions—if the weather is severe and unusual, you can stake young trees to keep them safe. If rain and wind behave as expected, just leave them be.
Add Gravel to Pots to Help Drainage
Some gardening guides have recommended adding gravel to the bottom of planting pots to assist with drainage. This trick is, frankly, a total waste of time. Adding gravel has little effect on draining. In fact, gravel is more likely to restrict plant growth and soak plant roots in water trapped between rough stones. Soil is more porous than rock, and any pot that has holes in the bottom of it should drain just fine. If you’re having draining issues, check your soil consistency first—and don’t add gravel.
Getting out in the garden during a blistering January isn’t easy—but, for gardeners who want to keep ahead of their new year’s resolutions, getting prep out of the way early in the year is necessary to set the foundations for a successful garden in the spring. So look out for a few mild days, bundle up, and start digging in the dirt again. Here’s some of what can be done:
Gardening in January
Now is the perfect time to prune dormant rose bushes. You’ll want to cut back to just above the bud and remove any dead branches. You can also cut back ornamental grasses to a few centimeters above the ground, cut old stems on perennial plants to encourage new growth when the weather warms, and remove withered flowers from winter bloomers like pansies. Fruit trees are also best pruned while dormant, so, if you’re growing apple or pear trees, trim them up.
Though not much grows this time of year in the soil, you can begin your vegetable harvest by gardening indoors. Mushrooms can be grown indoors using a simple growing kit. Herbs and spices can be cultivated on a well-insulated window ledge, and you can begin sprouting potatoes in egg containers kept in a bright, cool spot–or you can grow an early harvest of potatoes in a covered container. As long as the soil is malleable, you can plant new trees and shrubs in the ground while they’re still dormant.
When the weather is poor, gardens and landscapes need regular maintenance to withstand the cold, ice, and snow. Heavy blankets of snow should be brushed off of evergreens and tree branches to prevent breakage. Old Christmas trees can be shredded up and used for hearty compost. Empty plant pots need a thorough wash to prevent mold from growing. Be sure to check on indoor plants regularly—indoor heating can dry out the air and cause damage. Water them with increased frequency accordingly.
Now is the ideal time to order seeds for the upcoming season. Before you order seeds, have a detailed garden plan drawn out so you know exactly what you need. Be prepared—as soon as the weather starts warming up, seeds reserves start dwindling.
Don’t forget about wildlife this time of year. Installing a few bird feeders in your yard will give native birds a much-needed habitat. Growing winter plants that produce berries and seeds can also help feed local fauna—but be on the lookout for pests that might be overwintering on dormant plants. Decaying debris can harbor all kinds of unsavory diseases and critters alike.
2018 began under a wave of bitter, relentless cold that made even a short walk out to the driveway seem impossibly daunting. Subfreezing temperatures persist into the first week of The New Year, and—considering that—few of us are thinking much about gardening and landscaping. But even though Appalachian winters can be harsh, they don’t last forever—or even for very long. In just a couple months, spring-like weather will be upon us, and—with it—a new year of gardening and landscaping trends to keep up with. Of course, one does not need to pay attention to trends in order to create a beautiful garden or landscape. The beauty of nature is pretty universal, after all. Researching landscaping trends is just one way of creating a unique lawn and garden look for 2018—a year that, we hope, will be as colorful, empathetic, and innovative as these ideas:
Shifting trends reflect a shifting reality. These days, ample space is expensive and hard to come by, and more and more people are downsizing, simplifying, and minimizing to compensate. If you’ve recently downsized a cushy home in the suburbs for a compact and economical apartment, you can also downsize your cushy suburban garden. The trick is creating space that has multiple uses, and can combine disparate elements seamlessly. Small gardeners may opt for an outdoor table that also fits a portable fire pit, or container plants that are stacked vertically on outdoor shelves. Building up and in, rather than outward, is the key to compact gardening.
Add Homemade Touches
The increased popularity of DIY home maintenance coupled with the success of custom home goods sites like Etsy have created a fervor for home crafted gardening and landscaping accessories. A quick google search yields hundreds of homemade fountains, yard decorations, bird feeders, flower pots, and natural stone and wood fixtures homemade by artists. Buying homemade décor adds uniqueness to curated landscapes while also supporting the efforts of artisans who put real work and love into their creations. You can even DIY by looking up an online tutorial for, say, how to make a rain garden from scratch or turn an old boot into a flower pot. This year, taking advantage of online resources and small time craftsmanship will make your landscape special.
Be a Good Host
Landscapers are considering the ecological impacts of their landscaping decisions now more than ever before. Urban development has caused a number of longstanding ecological crises—running native species out of their homes, increasing pollution, and, in some cases, irreparably damaging local ecosystems. To their credit, homeowners are doing what they can to create landscapes that build on, rather than detract from, natural ecosystems. For a landscape that is both beautiful and environmentally friendly, considering planting primarily or exclusively native plants, growing trees that yield berries and seeds, and avoiding pesticides and herbicides.
Go Boldly Forward
Landscaping experts say 2018 will be a year of experimentation: new plants, new designs, and new possibilities. The increasingly popularity of community gardens and garden-share programs (and the number of seeds available online) has created a rich resource of unique crops and flowers available for planting. Gone are the days of neat, traditional, and safe landscaping. Now, people are branching out by growing more diverse plants, playing around with different styles, and taking risks. Risk-taking is healthy in the garden and in life, and a strong community that is willing to share knowledge and resources makes new risks seem doable. So take a deep breath, try something new, and don’t be afraid to ask your neighbors for help. In 2018, we’re all growing something together.
As Landscaping professionals, we do a lot of defensive gardening. What is defensive gardening? Well, it’s essential any tactics used to protect a garden or a landscape from natural elements that are out of a gardener’s control: severe weather, drought, cold, and critters, namely. Gardening is, naturally, a mercurial endeavor, and all avid gardeners are used to leaving outcomes to chance. However, there are old techniques—and some newfangled technologies—that can help gardeners and landscapers alike protect their hard work from outside threats.
Critters, perhaps more than any other natural element, have a reputation for disrupting and destroying gardens, and most gardeners have some kind of plan in place to keep deer, squirrels, bugs and the like out of their way. Squirrels, in particular, are frustrating to deal with due to their size and agility—they easily sneak through fences and wiring, and can climb up almost anything. To deal with a squirrel pest, we recommend a combination of hard-hitting tactics:
Recognizing and Treating a Squirrel Infestation
Firstly, gardeners must be able to identify a squirrel pest. Because of their nimbleness, squirrels are hard to catch “in the act.” Luckily, they leave plenty of clues behind. Common symptoms of a squirrel infestation are shallow, gold-ball sized holes in freshly planted seedbeds; small bite marks on fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers; signs of digging in container plants; and partially eaten flowers and seed heads. If you’ve noticed these signs in your garden, you may indeed have a squirrel problem.
In many places across the country, squirrels are as ubiquitous as weeds. It would be nearly impossible to eradicate them completely, but gardeners can outsmart and prevent a squirrel infestation. Prevention is a good place to start: in order to keep squirrels out of the garden, clean up the plant and produce debris that typically attracts them. Fallen seeds, fruits, and nuts make easy squirrel food, and such detritus could lead squirrels to other parts of your garden. Be mindful of the space beneath your trees and shrubs, and dispose of any organic material that falls there.
Another option is using a repelling spray. There are many homemade spray recipes online, similar to the kinds of sprays used against deer and other mammals. They often have a hot pepper or peppermint component, and need be continually applied to plants. Repelling sprays can spoil produce, so be sure to apply carefully and specifically in affected areas.
Squirrels can also be frightened away—though the frightening tool should ideally be a bit more threatening than a scarecrow. Generally, pets make great squirrel repellents. Most dogs and cats like chasing squirrels around by nature, and a garden guarded by an agile dog is sure to be well-protected. If you don’t have pets, spraying the urine of a predator animal (like a wolf or coyote) at the base of vulnerable plants can frighten all kinds of potential animal pests away—though this method might make your produce seem wholly unappetizing.
The most sympathetic method of squirrel prevention involves creating a squirrel-friendly decoy station that will distract and satiate would-be pests. By setting up a place in the garden where squirrels can pick up treats, drink water, or even munch on some decoy tomatoes, gardeners can hope to keep local squirrels satisfied. Being no expert in squirrel psychology myself, it’s hard to say how much some simple generosity can quell the critters’ voracious appetites, but, for those who have a soft spot for squirrels’ lyrical chittering and bushy tails, this method seems good enough.
Ultimately, gardening will never be an exact science. The forces of nature continually challenge, disrupt, and complicate even the most seasoned professionals’ gardening projects. Many of the gardeners I’ve talked to have testified that this, in fact, is their favorite part of the craft: no matter how well your plan and plant your beds, there will always be an unforeseen challenge on the horizon. In my mind, that makes all of us gardeners seem pretty adventurous—even if, most of the time, we really just feel like we’re wrangling squirrels.
When it comes to holiday decor, many of us opt for the flashy, vibrant, and decadent. 20ft tall inflatable yard snowmen and 500ft of glittering, rainbow string lights are sure to make an impression—how could Santa miss a runway strip so graciously adorned? But, for others, holiday cheer isn’t worth a $500 electric bill. Personally, I’m a fan of simple, natural-looking decorations that are light on the eyes and on the bank. To me, the best decor is the kind that utilizes and emphasizes what’s already there. So, for this holiday season, I’m thinking about ways to deck out my existing landscape and bring some winter greenery indoors—here are a few suggestions.
Shape Up Your Winter Landscaping Plan
Many of the images we associate with the holiday season—evergreen, holly, fresh cut wood and fluffy patches of pearly snow—are natural landscape features. Still, many homeowners let their landscapes go to waste this time of year. Yellow grass, droopy shrubs, and unkempt piles of rotted leaves don’t exactly say “winter wonderland!” With a little upkeep, an unloved yard can be transformed into a holiday paradise—fresh holly shrubs add color to a winter landscape that sticks around year-long, and the addition of winter ground coverings like cypruss, juniper, or euonymus help make a dormant garden look lively. Rather than let your yard hibernate for three months out of the year, invest in a winter landscaping plan that utilizes evergreen plants, berries, and cold-season flowers. These all natural decorations will stay with you even after the holiday season has passed.
Bring Clipped Greenery Indoors
More on that last point—why go out and buy a fake wreath or garland when evergreen trees abound? Clippings off evergreen plants make easy holiday decor. I like to clip the low hanging branches off my Christmas tree and use them as centerpieces around the house, adorned with sparkling ornaments, string lights, and pine cones. These homemade decorations are cheap, pretty, and they smell exactly like the holidays are supposed to smell—fresh, green, and nostalgic. Another option: use dead branches from the garden as a wreath base and adorn with berries, greenery, and lights. With a little ingenuity, you can transform garden trash into just about anything.
Emphasize Landscaping Features with Simple Lighting
Landscaping lighting packs a big punch, even when it’s kept simple. I love holiday lights but hate expensive electric bills, so I always opt for the simpler designs. LED string lights look great strung around the bare branches of winter trees and shrubs, and a couple basic spotlights in the garden can illuminate holly bushes and other cold-season garden gems. Plus, white light looks beautiful glimmering on a fresh layer of snow. If all your neighbors are trying to outdo each other with a candyland-esque rainbow light display, maintaining a natural look might be the best way to distinguish yourself after all. At the very least, your wallet will thank you for foregoing that $200 inflatable yard-monster and settling for a slight sparkle instead. After all, it’s quality–not quantity–that makes the holidays so magical.
This time of year, lounging by a roaring fire and feasting on holiday sweets seems far preferable to braving the cold to dig out in the garden. But don’t completely surrender to holiday lethargy just yet…there’s still a few cold-season gardening and landscaping chores to complete before a deep freeze sets in. Before you settle into the winter, make sure your yard is prepped for a productive spring—no work now could mean a lot of work later.
December Landscaping Checklist
Add Mulch after First Frost
Once a good frost has hit, you can fortify your trees and shrubs by adding a 2-inch layer of straw, fallen leaves, or mulch around their bases. This extra layer of warmth will help keep plant roots protected during prolonged cold spells.
Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly
An indoor, potted holly plant is perfect for the holidays. If kept well-watered, holly plants can thrive inside for up to 10 days. After that, they need to be undecked from the halls and moved to a sunny spot outside, where they can be transplanted into the soil and mulched along with other evergreen shrubs.
Gather Leaves for Compost
If you’re not using your dead leaves as mulch, it’s not too late to compost them. Likely, the ground is still covered with crunchy, brown leaves that would make the perfect food for a compost pile. Add dead leaves into a mesh of organic matter (egg shells, coffee grinds, manure, banana peels etc) and let “cook” over the winter.
Feed Winter Flowers
In December, winter temperatures are still relatively mild and cold-season flowers can thrive as long as they’re tended to. Flowers like pansies and snapdragons should continue to be fed with fertilizer and watered if it’s dry.
Feed the Birds
Nothing invigorates a dull and drab winter day like watching birds peck at a bird feeder. This time of year, suitable bird food can be hard to come by, and birds could use a little help getting the nutrients they need to brave colder temperatures. Plus, bird feeders can help bring some life to a lifeless garden.
Seasoned gardeners and landscapers know that lawn care is a year-round investment. A lawn left alone during the winter months is likely to have a hard time coming back to life in the spring. This winter, remember to get outside when you can and reconnect with your landscape. Working a bit in the yard could provide welcome relief after all of that turkey and pie.
It’s a practice tried and true: preserving fruits and vegetables for the cold, barren months by canning them. Those of us who grew up around produce gardens and green-thumb families are likely well acquainted with the taste of canned beans or peaches. For some of us, home canned fruits and veggies are a kind of modest delicacy—cheap, easy, and made possible by a labor of love. If you’ve never tried canning before, now is the perfect time to try it. In weather this chilly, a bit of preserved summer freshness is a welcome relief.
The Basics of Canning
Before the advent of refrigeration, canning was an essential practice used by many families to preserve their summer haul of fruits and veggies. Back then, canned fruits and veggies were about the only kind of fruits and veggies available during the winter months, and so families had to use preservation tactics to ensure that they would have access to produce year-round. Now, canning is less essential for middle class families. Most households have refrigerators and freezers, and anyone can buy canned or frozen fruits and veggies at a grocery store. But, for some, canning is still an important post-harvest ritual.
Not all produce is ideal for canning. Generally, any canned vegetable you can buy at the store can be replicated at home. Some common canning vegetables include: beans, carrots, peas, peppers, tomatoes, corn, and pickled cucumbers and onions. Canned jams and sauces are also popular canning recipes.
The canning process involves packing fruits or vegetables into a sterile (boiled in water) glass jar that is then sealed with a lid to prevent the growth of bacteria and mold. Different vegetables require different forms of preparation before canning. Most vegetables need to be pressure cooked prior to packing to ensure lasting freshness. In the case of pickles or jams, ingredients like sugar, salt, and vinegar are added during the canning process to create specific flavors. A simple canning recipe for just about any suitable fruit or veggie can be found online.
Canning is relatively easy, but finding the space and storage for canned goods can be difficult. Canning requires mason jars, pots for boiling water, and a place to cook fresh vegetables. If you can regularly, investing in a pressure cooker could make the process a lot easier and less time consuming.
For more on the specifics of canning vegetables, pressure cooking, and the process and theory behind canning, check out: http://www.healthycanning.com/canning-vegetables/
It may seem counter-intuitive to think about growing grass in the off-season, but sod installations are surprisingly durable. Technically, sod can be planted any time of year—as long as it’s well taken care of after planting. Temperature, soil conditions, watering schedules, and other environmental changes influence how quickly a cut of sod acclimates to an existing lawn. If you’re planning on putting in sod, it’s important to take the necessary precautions to ensure its success considering the environment it’s being placed into. Here are some tips on cultivating sod during the cold season:
Planting Sod in Fall
Many landscapers suggest that spring and fall are actually the ideal times to plant sod because the weather is cooler and wetter. In the summer, new sod installations require an intense watering routine to combat extreme heat and dryness. In winter, freezing temps can damage grass roots. In spring and autumn, temperatures are mild and rain comes more readily, which makes sod maintenance easier. Generally, spring is a good time to plant warm season grasses like Zoysia and Bermuda, and fall is better for cool season grasses like ryegrass and fescue. In Southwest Virginia, cool season grasses are generally more popular than warm season grasses, which means that fall is prime time for sod installation.
Caring for Sod
Though fall may be the ideal time to install sod, new sod still requires a regular maintenance routine, especially late in the season when temperatures can drop suddenly and dry spells are more common. Ensuring successful sod growth starts before an installation even begins. For sod rolls to acclimate properly, the soil beneath them needs to be thoroughly combed and leveled out. Sod will struggle atop rocky, debris-covered soil. If soil conditions are poor, ass soil amendments to existing soil to encourage healthy root growth.
Once the underlying soil is prepared, sod installation should proceed quickly and without much interruption. Ideally, install sod 24-72 hours after it is first harvested. When it is laid down, it should be dark green and cool to the touch. If it is dry or browning, it will likely keep deteriorating after it’s planted. The whole installation should take approximately one day. Any sod left unplanted could dry out if it is not kept in a cool, wet place.
Once sod is planted, water thoroughly twice a day for two or three weeks: once in the morning and once in the afternoon until roots are established. If the weather is unusually dry, water more frequently. If the weather is unusually warm, the sod might need to be watered earlier and later in the day to avoid evaporation. In winter, dormant sod can be planted just like regular sod. However, dormant sod will not root completely until temperatures warm up in the spring, and is thus especially vulnerable to drying out/freeze damage. In Southwest Virginia, hard freezes are rare at this time of year. Even if you wait until December to install sod, you will probably still have enough time to get roots established. To check on the sod’s roots, pull lightly and test for any resistance. Strong roots will keep the grass tight against the ground.
Holiday gift giving is as tender and heartwarming as it is frustrating and stressful. Though all of our loved ones likely proclaim that they care not for material things, the pressure to make people feel special through carefully curated holiday gifts is still very real. If that special someone in your life happens to be a gardener, you’re in luck: we’ve scoured the farthest corners of the internet searching for the niftiest gardening gift ideas so you don’t have to! Here are some suggestions:
A Stylish Pair of Gardening Gloves
For the gardener who also dabbles in looking fabulous: throw away that dingy old pair of brown gardening gloves and replace them with something a bit more vibrant and expressive. After all, why shouldn’t your gardening gloves—one of the most essential gardening tools there is—be any less exciting than your flower pots?
A Succulent Garden
A succulent garden is the perfect gift for an amateur gardener—someone who is interested in cultivating a green thumb but frequently forgets that plants need water. Succulents are beautiful, suspiciously cute, and shamelessly easy to take care of. Buy a succulent starting kit online and watch as your favorite amateur gardener gets a colossal confidence boost.
It wouldn’t be 2017 without the word “rustic” being used to describe everything from weddings to craft beer. If you ask me, rustic planters make a little more sense than rustic beverages. Try one made out of weathered tin or a repurposed wagon wheel. You could even make your own, though we know you’d probably rather buy one from Etsy.
Tree Planting Kit
Giving into consumer impulses feels a lot more wholesome when you can help better the environment at the same time. Truth is, planting trees never goes out of style, and the entire family can come together to enjoy this experiential present. Perfect for those who like giving as much (or almost as much) as they like gifts.
A Quirky Birdhouse
Your typical, plain cylindrical bird feeder is well and good—but have your ever considered upgrading to a full-blown Large Victorian Birdhouse? This kind of present is sure to impress eccentric, bird-loving relatives and birds alike. After all, even the birds deserve a home for the holidays.
To me, one of the most profound gifts of gardening is the way it teaches us to appreciate and love our industriousness, and the industriousness of the world around us. In the modern world, people are often separated from the fruits of their labors. We work mostly for abstract things: paying bills, buying groceries, saving for retirement. It is easy to feel a lack of control and, perhaps, a lack of appreciation for what our bodies can give us. People remedy this feeling in different ways. I like to take the occasional camping trip out to the boonies, where I can sleep in the forest and build a fire for warmth—self-reliant and self-sufficient for the most part. During the work week, I commune with my body by exercising and, in the warmer months, I dabbled in gardening. It’s vital to have these unfiltered, physical moments in the midst of a life filled with work, screens, and virtual realities. After focusing ad nauseum on bills and deadlines, I like creating something that has nothing to do with money or prestige.
Gardening, in particular, is a humble hobby. It requires pushing your hands into the dirt over and over again, ruining blue jeans, and getting freckled in the sun. There’s not much money to be made in gardening—most of us make a living doing something else. But gardening does produce a reward—one that is intimately tied to the work gardeners do with their bodies. After months of planning, planting, digging, weeding, beautifying, feeding, and carefully observing their plants, gardeners can enjoy a bountiful and well-deserved harvest. I’m not the best gardener out there, but I know how it feels to hold something homegrown in my hands, to savor its deliciousness and the modest beauty of eating a food that I created. No, it didn’t come from a box or a bag I picked up at the super market, I didn’t buy it with my paycheck, and I know exactly what kind of work went into making it. This knowledge always fosters within me a sense that the world still works right, despite how often it seems to be falling apart. Beneath the politics and grievances and daily moments of exhaustion, there is still an underlying system in which a seed that is planted into the ground can grow into something sustainable.
This Thanksgiving, give thanks to your own industriousness by adding some homegrown fixings to your dinner spread. Speaking from experience, I can say beyond a doubt that fresh cranberries are even better than the slimy (but delicious) canned version. And potatoes plucked fresh from the earth taste spectacular mashed with butter. Garden fresh-food is best paired with conversations about simple truths, namely: money and work and the things we each have to do to put a roof over our heads and food in our mouths are not the only parts of life that matter. We have ourselves, our families, and our love—and that matters more, maybe even most.