Twelve Rules for Gardeners

I was recently asked to give a talk that put forth a list of “Commandments” for gardeners.  Not wanting to sound pretentious, I decided that 12 “rules” sounded better than 10 commandments. Here they are:

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1.     Do not use chemicals in the garden. Not insecticides, not weed killers, not chemical fertilizers. Why? Because it’s not only better for the environment, it’s better for your plants. And you, especially if you plan to eat your veggies.

Mother Nature has been growing green plants for a long time – and she never fertilized with tree stakes or used Roundup to kill weeds or Sevin to kill bugs. And she did just fine. Sure, the Japanese beetles can be pesky. But do you really want your kids and dogs playing on a lawn with pesticide residue on it? I don’t. Plants do fine with organic techniques. Pick off those dang beetles and drown them in soapy water.

My dog Daphne enjoys a chemical-free lawn

2.     Don’t let your weeds make seeds. Seeds can last years, waiting patiently for you decide to go to the beach for a week in August. Then they will germinate and grow like crazy. Making you go crazy when you come back and see the gardens full of weeds.

What to do? Learn to love weeding. It’s an excuse to be outdoors in the garden and to ignore other deadlines. Say to your loved ones, “Gotta go weed! Weeds are blooming! Sorry, can’t help with that!” And mean it. Weed every day for at least a few minutes. Make it a ritual like brushing your teeth or making the bed.

3.     Treat your soil as you would a puppy: give it good nutrients but not too much of anything. Don’t give it big doses of fertilizer. Some compost and a little slow-release organic fertilizer will help, but too much fertilizer will encourage fast, weak growth that is attractive to insect pests and fungal diseases.

4.     Create biodiversity in the landscape. Put some flowers in with your veggies and veggies in with the flowers. Artichokes or purple kale will look great in your flower bed. Marigolds in the vegetable garden are thought by some to repel certain pests. An acre of cabbage will attract loopers that might not find one or two plants.

Artichokes are decorative as well as tasty!

Not only that, flowers in the vegetable garden feed pollinators needed by your cukes. And insects like ladybugs, which eat aphids, also depend on pollen when insect prey is not available.

5.     Create hardscape so that you have beauty even in winter. When I bought my house in 1970 I started by vegetable gardening. Later I planted perennials. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered the joys of shrubs and trees.

This weeping larch adds to my winter landscape

Woody plants take a lot more time to grow and become mature than perennials. So start with them. In 15 or 20 years most trees start to look great, even maples and oaks.

Add stone walls or a bentwood or cedar archway, or even a barn if you can. All look great in winter – and can support blooming vines.

My garden arbor in winter adds some "bones" to the garden

6.     Learn to store, dehydrate and freeze garden produce so you can eat something from the garden throughout the year, not just in summer. This is one of my great joys in life. Even a clove of garlic added to a salad or a winter squash put in a soup in January brings me pleasure. I spend a lot of time in late summer into the fall preparing food for storage, but it is worth every minute I spend, and more.

7.     Prune your trees so they are beautiful. Most people look forward to pruning as much as they enjoy getting a root canal. Think of pruning as creating living sculpture. But the nice thing is, if you inadvertently lop off a branch that you regret removing, others will fill in the space.

Yes, there are rules about pruning. But if you know enough not to leave ugly stubs, and cut just outside the “branch collar”, that swollen area where branches meet the trunk, you will be fine. Clear out clutter.

This stub is rotting back to the branch collar, where the cut should have been made

8.     Keep a compost pile, but don’t be afraid to buy compost, too. Don’t worry if your kitchen scraps don’t turn into “black gold” overnight. Buy compost as needed – we never have too much.

9.     Cut fresh flowers whenever some are in bloom and keep them on the table. Plant early bulbs and late fall flowers to extend the season. And then support your florist. Fresh flowers are a basic human right.

3 mums from the florist supplemented with winterberries and outdoor greenery

10.    Keep a few easy houseplants to keep your green thumb active, even in winter. Don’t be afraid to throw them out if they disappoint you – or you, them.

11. Learn from other gardeners. Visit other gardens. Take classes.

From a visit to Phil Pochoda's gardenn in Lyme, NH in June, 2016

12. Take a few moments every day to walk through the garden, pausing to look at the beauty, not just the weeds or the projects on your list.

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I'm the author of 4 gardening books.  Visit my personal website by clicking here.  










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