Garden Maintenance & Improvement

Keeping your garden healthy is not only a way to beautify your yard, it can actually add significant value to your home.

Whether you’re a green-thumbed newbie or have been gardening for years, it’s important to know how to maintain your plants in the most efficient and cost-effective ways. From regular upkeep to making additions, we’re here to guide you through the best garden maintenance and improvements.

General Garden Upkeep

Watering

It’s important to note that some areas have watering restrictions, as well as strict laws when it comes to watering during droughts. Enter your zip code here to see if your area is experiencing a drought  and check local watering guidelines for your city.

Although watering your garden probably seems like the most straightforward part of upkeep, there are actually a few things to keep in mind:

  • Stick to a watering schedule and try to water early in the morning when the ground is cool and the sun isn’t as bright.
  • You should water deeply at the base of the plant so the roots can easily access the water. Focusing on the leaves and upper foliage not only deprives the roots of nutrients, it can lead to fungus.
  • Trees and shrubs should receive direct watering about every 7-10 days.
  • Potted and other contained plants in general should be watered once a day. (Not sure if you’re overwatering? Try placing your finger into the soil up to your second knuckle. If it’s dry all the way through, it needs water.)

If you use a sprinkler system, use one with fixtures close to the ground instead of those that waste water by shooting it into the air where it mostly evaporates.

There are also a few watering tools you should use for the most effective hydration depending on what kind of garden you’re raising:

  • For vegetable gardens, use a soaker hose.
  • For annuals and perennials, use a watering wand.
  • For potted plants, use a watering can or wand.

Soil Testing

It’s important to ensure that you use the best possible soil for your garden and the best way to figure out where yours measures up is to perform a soil test. This will allow you to discover its pH level, how acidic (sometimes called “sour”) or alkaline (“sweet”) it is, and thus how easily your plants are able to pull nutrients from it. pH is measured on a scale from 1 (most acidic) to 14 (most alkaline), with 7 acting as the general neutral point around which most plants prefer.

You can find a soil testing kit at most gardening or home improvement stores. Within minutes of testing, you’ll learn both your soil’s pH and nutrient levels. Some will also tell you specifically what your soil is lacking, as well as how to fix the issue. Generally, overly-acidic soil can be remedied with lime and overly-alkaline soil calls for a sulfur-based conditioner.

Read and follow the kit instructions carefully. Most will have you take a soil sample, then add a designated chemical along with distilled water. After a designated amount of time (usually just a few minutes), you’ll use a color chart to evaluate your results. Newer gardeners may benefit from asking for a gardening buddy’s expertise for the first test to help assess both the results of the test and how to best fix any problems.

Fertilizing

There are a few choices to make when it comes to fertilizing. You can buy manmade plant food and fertilizer from your local gardening, home improvement, or even some grocery stores. Or if you prefer the all-natural route, you can opt to compost or buy organic fertilizer.

Fertilizer comes in a few different forms such as dry, liquid, slow-releasing and manure:

Dry fertilizer is used mainly as a way to improve the fertility of soil ready for planting, or for increasing the nutrients in well-established plants. It can be dispersed around developed shrubs and trees, or even to perennial beds.

Liquid fertilizer is often used with fruit and vegetable gardens, or for other plants simply in need of a nutrient boost. You can dilute it and add it to soil or compost, or add it to a spraying system to use as foliage feed.

Slow-release fertilizer is great for the gardener on the go: it feeds plants over an extended period of time and typically only requires a single application. You can mix it into compost or add it right to the soil to be absorbed.

Manure is one of the most basic, albeit probably the smelliest, forms of fertilizer and has some amazing benefits. Not only is it rich with nutrients, it also has the ability to improve the soil’s ability to retain water. Use it as a kind of mulching for developed gardens or add it to dug areas you’re preparing to plant.

No matter the form, don’t forget to always wear gloves when working with fertilizer!

Let your soil test help guide your decision as far as what nutrients you look for in a fertilizer. Pay close attention to the product’s instructions for how much and often to fertilize. Too little can lead to weak plant growth, while too much can cause soft, sappy shoot systems attractive to bugs and weak against colder conditions. If a plant seems to be struggling but you can’t figure out its deficiency on your own, talk to a local gardening specialist, even bringing in the plant if possible.

Weeding

The key to preventing and eliminating weeds is to understand how they work. Though their seeds spread easily (and just about everywhere), not all of them are high enough in the soil to receive the sunlight needed to grow. However when you break into a piece of ground and move around the soil, you run the risk of bringing some of the deeper seedlings to surface and accidentally making them viable. A general rule to avoid this is to dig only when you must and once done, cover the area with mulch or other plants.

Ideally it’s best to weed while it’s wet outside and a fishtail weeder can help you pull invasive plants up from their roots. For weeding while it’s dry outside, use a sharp-edged hoe to cut a weed just below the soil line. Some more stubborn weeds may call for stronger or sharper tools like weed wackers, but always use them with caution and keep a close eye out for curious animals and children who may not realize the danger. If you’re unable to completely remove a weed, you can cut off their seed-spreading tops for a quick, but temporary, fix.

Garden Improvements

Perhaps you’re putting your house on the market and hope to add curb appeal with some nice accents to your garden, or maybe you’ve got a pest problem that needs resolved. It could even be that you’re simply bored with its current look. You can recruit the help of a landscape designer or come up with your own plan, but either way there are plenty of options for making improvements to your garden.

Tree and Stump Removal

It could be that you’ve decided to get rid of an overgrown eyesore, or maybe the old stump that once made a folksy addition to your garden display is now too rotted to stick around. Whatever the case, there are a few routes you can take to getting rid of unwanted trees and stumps. Keep in mind that if you’re not used to working with large power tools, it might be worth the investment to hire professional help to avoid personal injury or home damage.

Whenever possible, it’s best to remove the stump completely. Small trees should be cut with about four feet of height so they can be pulled out using a winch and a relatively powerful automobile. If the stump is too big to remove in one shot, you can use a mini excavator to break down the root system or with large but rotted stumps, use a grub hoe to clear it out. If you’re really experienced, you can opt for a stump grinder, though hiring a professional is always the safest route.

Stump killers are another helpful tool for this improvement endeavor. Often, this involves drilling holes or re-cutting the stump at the top since the chemicals used will be most effective on freshly-cut wood. Always read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely and wear gloves while working.

Paths

A pathway through your garden or yard is a beautiful addition that can really bring the whole look together. Whether you’re looking for a more polished look or something a little more rustic, there are a few basic options to choose from:

  • Mulch
  • Gravel
  • Stepping stones
  • Planted paths

Mulch and gravel will be two of the least expensive options and are relatively simple to build. Keep in mind, however, that you’ll have to edge your pathways to avoid the material spreading. Gravel will be heavier and somewhat more stagnant, but mulch is softer and more kid-friendly, especially if you have little ones who haven’t quite mastered walking just yet!

Stepping stones require little digging and because they allow you to maximize so much space with just one stone, they can be a cost effective option. Generally, you’ll want stones about 18 inches across and 2 inches thick. You’ll have to see specifically which kinds of stone are available in your area, but your local home improvement store should give you great insight into your best options.

Planted paths are a great choice if you’re worried about the tedious task of lining up the stones just right. Any imperfections or uneven placements can be hidden with ground cover plants and give it a more rustic look.

Garden fencing

If critters are creating a problem in your garden, a fence is a terrific way to deter them. The kind of fence you choose may depend on the look you want to achieve, but when possible it’s ideal to make it solid. If the animal can’t see what he’s missing, he’s a lot less likely to try to break in! An alternative would be to install an electric fence that, while more expensive, will be effective at protecting your garden as well as less restrictive on the view.

If it’s a household pet that can’t contain its curiosity, a 3-foot wire mesh fence with strong posts is an easy fix. If your pet is prone to digging, reinforce the fence even further by bending the base into a 2-foot wide apron. Rabbits can be deterred with a similar structure, though it’s recommended you use chicken wire with 1-inch diameter holes. Don’t forget the apron — a hungry rabbit just might dig to get his dinner!

Burrowing pests are especially troublesome and just a few visits can destroy much of your hard work. You’ll have to construct cages around your garden bed buried about 3 feet into the ground, lining the sides and bottom. These animals tend to be persistent, so do your best to check the fence for breaches every couple weeks or contact an animal removal service.

Turning Your Home’s Yard into a Community Garden

The benefits of starting a crop garden are endless: it’s great exercise, gives you the chance for fresh air and time in nature, can give you an outlet for burning off stress — not to mention the wholesome, fresh produce you’ll be adding to your diet. But one of the most wonderful things about gardens is the way they can bring together a group of people, large or small. Converting your yard into a community garden is a rewarding experience for a homeowner, and can have far-reaching positive benefits on your neighborhood.

This guide will cover all you need to know about turning your yard into a community garden, including the different kinds of community gardens there are to choose from. There are quite a few factors to consider in your planning and specific rules to set along the way, so don’t underestimate the power of getting organized. Talk to your home insurance company about your options for community garden coverage. Be sure to also check with your homeowners association or local municipality for any standards or restrictions your area might have, and be willing to make some compromises. You can create a truly beneficial garden even if your original plans must shift, so focus on what you can do and make the most of it.

A Cooperative Garden

One option you have for a community garden is a cooperative project, where neighbors and other volunteers contribute to maintenance and upkeep. The number of people who will be helping can be a major factor in determining the size of the garden, especially if you’re considering using a large portion of land, so assess community interest as soon as possible. You can start by reaching out to neighbors by mail, flyers, or perhaps in your neighborhood’s online community. Suggest a meeting where everyone can gather and talk over the idea.

At your meeting, you’ll want to discuss the positive impacts you see the garden having on the community as a whole:

  • It’s a great opportunity to give everyone a health boost by offering fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs to take home
  • It brings people from all different ages and backgrounds together for a common good
  • It can create a greater familiarity among neighbors
  • It can engage children in both the process of gardening and eating healthy, getting them excited about seeing a seed grow into delicious, nutrient-rich food
  • People at all ages and abilities can contribute in some way

Once you’ve established neighborhood interest, you’ll want to collectively think about expanding interest even further. See who has contacts with local businesses or other potential partners in the community who might be interested in donating funds, seeds, tools, or other supplies to your garden. Even a small one-time donation to help to get your project started can go a long way toward your goals, so be gracious for every gift.

 

It’s a good idea to come up with committees or groups in charge of certain areas: watering and irrigation, weeding, pest control, tool repair, and supplies are just a few to consider. Though you’ll want everyone to contribute to multiple tasks, designating people to keep a special eye on how the tasks are going can help identify and remedy problems much more quickly. Committee leaders might also keep track of who volunteers and which tasks are completed each work day.

Designate a growing season for your garden based on your area’s climate and conditions. It might only be a summer project, or if you’re in a more temperate region, it can extend from spring to fall. Establish what people want to grow during each. This might also settle the question of whether to assign plots or to simply have items in their own zones; go with whichever strategy will best maximize the available space.

The cooperative community garden should also come up with written, agreed-upon rules. This sets up expectations for all participants and establishes actionable resolutions to problems you may encounter. It’s important that everyone is held to the same standard and respects the established rules in order to create a harmonious working environment, but allow for several reminders or warnings before enforcing any consequences. Topics for rules might include:

  • Dues or fees (if any) — how much, how often, and how they’ll be used
  • The space each person is entitled to
  • How common areas like pathways and borders are maintained
  • Using and storing tools
  • Adult supervision for children who are gardening
  • Approved materials and products (some neighbors may want a section for organic gardening, for example)
  • How produce is gathered and distributed
  • Regular performance of certain tasks like weeding, watering, or sweeping

As the homeowner, you’ll also want to establish acceptable working hours. Talk to your family about what works best for them, but generally a schedule like 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. daily should suffice. Keep in mind that many neighbors may want to come in the morning before work, on their lunch breaks, during the afternoon if they work nights, or after work in the evenings. Give people an adequate chance to participate, but don’t sacrifice too much if you think it could become disruptive to your family’s life. For example, if you have a child who goes to bed early and is easily frightened in the dark, you might want to ask that people only come during daylight hours. In the beginning, you may simply need to let your neighbors know that the hours may change slightly once you see what works best — most families will understand!

Next, consider the tools that will be used in your garden. Have some kind of shed or other storage on-site that is kept locked when unused. Neighbors may want to bring and store their own tools for everyone to use, or dues can be used to purchase specific utensils for the garden. Make sure to cover which tools should only be used by adults and with adult supervision, ideally keeping them stored securely even within the shed. Have a plan for what to do if a tool breaks, including notifying others and seeking repairs. If some tools require cleaning or additional maintenance after each use, consider printing and keeping instructions on the process in waterproof sheet protectors.

Irrigation is another important conversation. Hand watering may be necessary for many of your plants, especially in the beginning. Come up with a watering schedule that holds everyone equally accountable. If you’ll be using your own sprinkler system, ask your neighbors to keep a sharp eye out for malfunctioning spigots or flooded areas so you can fix them as quickly as possible. Have a specific hose, watering can, and faucet designated for your garden so there are always tools present, and people can bring their own as needed. If the majority of watering costs will come from your household usage, consider proposing that a portion of dues are directed to the bill.

Most community garden cooperatives like to have regular meetings, typically once a month or so. You might have more in the beginning and fewer as time goes on and the kinks are all worked out, so be flexible to the schedule. Having some kind of home base for communication — like a group on social media, webpage, or blog — is a helpful way to distribute information and updates more quickly. Some gardens also have a water-resistant bulletin board set up. If your garden is in the backyard, consider placing some kind of marker or sign on your mailbox to let neighbors know where the garden is.

Finally, consider asking fellow gardeners to sign a hold harmless agreement to clear you of liability should injury occur in the garden. After an attorney drafts and checks over the document, hand them out to your neighbors and allow them plenty of time to let their own lawyers take a look. The chances that anything dramatic will happen in your garden are probably low, but it’s important to protect yourself and your family.

Grow-and-Give Community Garden

If you don’t have enough community interest for a group project, or perhaps you’re simply not comfortable with using your property this way, you can still use your garden for the good of your community. Some people choose to plant extra fruits and vegetables in their garden to donate to their local food bank, soup kitchen, or food pantry. You’ll need to consult individual organizations to find out who accepts fresh donations, as well as which days and times you can drop them off.

One of the great things about this method is that anyone who perhaps didn’t have the time to devote to garden work can still help out. Perhaps one of your neighbors works down the street from a food bank and can take donations. It could even be as simple as someone helping you buy more fertilizer with their truck on a Sunday afternoon. Every little bit of help counts, especially when it comes to ending hunger in your community.

Ideas to Remember for Designing the Garden

Deciding on the size will depend mostly on how much land you have and plan to use. If planning a cooperative garden, you’ll also want to consider how that space will be divided up: will each family have its own plot, or will everyone agree on which produce to grow and care for it collectively? Additionally, if you plan on growing more space-consuming foods like berries, watermelon, or gourds, you’ll want to allocate adequate space for them to thrive.

Creating some kind of perimeter, whether it’s bushes or fencing, can not only help ward off pests and the curious noses of pets walking by, it can even add curb appeal for projects visible from the street (and potentially quell any woes from the homeowners association). You may also need some kind of border or strategic landscaping to help irrigate your plants. And don’t forget about perimeters around plots: account for pathways throughout your garden. They should be big enough to easily navigate with a wheelbarrow. A locked gate is a good way to keep intruders out, but cooperatives will need to establish a system of transferring or creating keys among leaders.

If children will be involved, consider creating a special section just for them. They’ll still have the opportunity to get their hands dirty and experience the process, but at their own speed and without affecting crops people are depending on. Keep some child-friendly tools handy in your storage shed. You can even offer gardening classes for kids and newbies so that everyone can start off on a more solid foot.

However you plan and implement it, a community garden is one of the most rewarding ways to give back. You’ll create unforgettable memories and connections with your neighbors, improve your diet, encourage your children to embrace healthy habits, and positively impact hunger in your town — all from your very own yard!

All About Garden Art

Any gardener will tell you that the best gardens usually involve the placing of “garden bones.” Garden bones are more permanent structures that you build the rest of your garden around. This can be something as organic as evergreen trees or as stylized as metal garden art. Of course, garden art can function as more than just the framing structure for your garden. It can provide you with a place to sit or lounge as you enjoy your garden or simply enhance the stroll through your backyard.

Custom Garden Art

You may have a very specific idea of what you want. Garden styles are various and prescriptive, and by the time you add your own touch to the appearance of your garden, you may have trouble finding what you’re looking for. It may not occur to you, but contractors are out there who specialize in customized decorative pieces for your home. You can tell them the material you want and the design you want and they can make it for you. Depending on what you want, you may have to pay a premium price, but if you’re working within a budget, the contractor may have suggestions to produce something similar within your price range.

Use Recycled Items for Garden Art

Recycled items may not be the first thing that comes to your mind for garden art, and admittedly, it’s not for everyone. If you’re looking for a way to spruce up your garden on a truly limited budget, this may be the way to do it. Old newspapers or soda cans aren’t going to work, but any number of household items can be reused as garden art long after they’ve worn out their welcome indoors. Old furniture, especially unique coffee tables, storage cabinets, or baby cribs, can be garden gems. Plus, you’d be surprised how your old bathtub can be transformed into a beautiful piece of garden art. Even though newspaper doesn’t last and has no particular visual appeal, other household items such as old clothes, book covers, or other flat items of possible sentimental or aesthetic value can make for one amazing scarecrow.

Garden Art Alternatives

Garden art can be almost anything, even when it’s not called garden art. Garden furniture, most commonly benches but also tables and chairs, is great for livening up your garden with an artist’s touch. Trellises or other walkway coverings are an ideal way to create a secluded, romantic atmosphere to your garden. Birdbaths, bat houses, and other artificial wildlife habitats can be just as decorative as any other piece of art and are just as integral as the flowers you plant to create a wildlife garden.

Metal Garden Art

Metal may seem like a strange material to include in your garden, but it offers a flexibility and affordability that few other materials can. Be it a classic wrought iron bench or gate, or a more custom metal sculpture, you’re bound to find some piece of metal garden art that will greatly enhance the look of an outdoor space. Metal fabricators can create a wide variety of customized metal garden art, including animal sculptures and other complicated and decorative designs. For larger garden items, such as gazebos, a metal like aluminum may be the only way to make the project feasible, as it is a lot cheaper (and more durable) than wood.