The Path to a Better Garden…

Spending time outside in the sunshine and working in my yard is one of my favorite theraputic past times. Over the years, mainly by trial and error (mostly error!) I’ve learned a few things as I’ve tried to turn my yard into a cover shoot for Better Homes & Gardens magazine (never going to happen, ever, never). Actually that has never been my goal. I am proud of the hard work I’ve put in and while the results aren’t always what I’d hoped, I am content (for now). And so, I thought I’d share some helpful tips so maybe you can avoid some of my stumbles or at least get a little chuckle over my missteps…

1. When you get the urge to plant flowers in the spring, wait!
Every spring the sun starts shining and it’s finally warm enough to go outside without a jacket. It’s May and snow and frost seem to be a distanct memory. I get the fever to plant my flowers and tomato plants. It never fails, a week later the temperatures take a huge dip. Trying to cover my newly planted flowers and vegetables with a drop cloth and some bricks in the dark (because I never remember to do these things in the light!) Was not much fun! The next morning, the tarps were blowing in the wind and the plants were “sort of” covered (not really). The following night of low temps, I didn’t even bother. This year I think most of my plants made it through. Time will tell. This is a reminder to myself for next spring, to wait one more week! Probably won’t happen though!

2. Disconnecting your hose in the fall is actually important!
When my dad reminded me to disconnect my hose last fall, I put it on my mental “to do” list, but never actually got around to doing that task. I figured if the hose got ruined, I’d just buy a new one this spring. Turns out, it’s not the hose you need to worry about. It’s actually the pipes leading to the hose that are the issue. Go figure! The water from the hose backs up into those pipes and those pipes break when winter freezes them. This leads to a flood in your basement, when you turn the hose on the first time when you are planting those flowers too early!

3. Self-propeled mowers are only helpful if….
You know how to use them correctly! You have to push the handle-thing foward to make the mower move forward by itself. Doing so, you can then walk behind the mower without exerting too much energy. Pushing the mower without this power assistance exerts much energy!

4. The grass needs to be dry when you mow it.
Mowing the yard in early morning shade before the sun starts heating things up seemed like a brilliant idea to me. If it weren’t for dew, it would have been perfect! Unfortunately, there is a reason for not mowing wet grass, besides wet shoes. Wet grass clumps together and sticks to the blades of the mower. When enough wet grass adheres to those blades, the mower stalls and quits running. You will then spend the rest of your morning with the lawn mower on its side, removing said clumps of grass. As an aside, waiting until the next day to remove stuck grass is a bad idea too. A better idea is to wait until early evening to mow.

5. Lowering the wheels on your mower to the lowest setting leads to brown grass.
Depending on your objective, this may or may not be good tip for you. Mowing is not one of my favorite lawn and garden tasks. I have a hate-hate relationship with the mower. So my logic followed that if I put the wheels on the lowest setting possible, it would cut my grass extra-short. If the grass is extra-short, it followed that I wouldn’t need to mow as often. My logic wasn’t completely faulty as it did indeed lessen the the number of times I stood in the driveway cursing and pulling that stupid cord to get the mower started. However, it wasn’t because the grass took longer to grow in between mowing, but rather because it was brown and had stopped growing all together. Lesson learned – leave the wheels where your dad set them.

6. Leaf blowers are over-rated.
I imagined myself blowing my leaves into to neat piles that I could then vaccum up and easily bag to take to our city’s compost pile. (Our city does come around and suck up leaves every fall from the curbs. However, I rarely meet that fall deadline. I tend to wait until all of the leaves fall so that I only have to rake once. Typically by then the warm fall weather has been replaced by brutal wind, rain and snow. So the annual leaf raking chore tends to be in spring in my world. But, I digress….) Back to the leaf blower… My imagination and reality were vastly different. In reality, I had leaves blowing every which way, in my hair and stuck to my sweaty skin – no neat piles. I bought an electric blower to avoid having to use a string to start it, but that meant a l-o-n-g extension cord that kept coming unplugged. Reversing the blower to suck up the leaves and grind them up was tedious. Leaves (possibly because they were wet) kept getting clogged inside spout-thingy that sucked the leaves up. In the morning, I had an extremely sore shoulder and a back yard full of leaves. Rakes are better for this task.

7. Expect bugs, varmints and droughts
I’ve learned to adjust my expectations when it comes to gardening. If I end up with one or two tomatoes at the end of the season – hurray! Anthing more is a bounty. There will be good years and bad years. A squirrel will take one one bite out of every tomato and leave the remains to rot. A rabbit will eat your tulips before they bloom. Some unknown animal will dig up all your marigolds. You will go on vacation the hottest, dryest week of the year and return to shriveled, wilted, dead petunias. You will wake up one morning to find your plants covered with Japanese beetles. A toad village will take up residence in the pit where your dryer vents. Cicacda killer wasps will move in under the bushes. I’ve learned to let these set backs go (of course I will still rant to my friends about them). There’s always next year.

8. Triple the hardness-level and time commitment to any major project you tackle.
When I first moved in to my house, there was a row of over-grown, ugly (imho) bushes growing along the front-porch railing. I envisioned beautiful flowers growing here. The bushes needed to go. I started by clipping and pruning them back. My arms were scratched and thorns lodged in my finger tips (this is when I learned that gloves are important.) It took over a week of hacking and digging to get the first bush out. In the end, my ex-husband took pity on me and pulled the other three out with his truck in less than 10 minutes. Sigh. But at least they were gone. I also had a brick path in my back yard. Unforunately, weeds sprouted between them. In pulling those weeds, the bricks came lose. This led to weeks of pulling up those bricks, stacking them and trying to knock old cement off them. I purused Pinterest looking at beautiful brick patios and imagined my beautiful new path. That was three summers ago. Making those photos a reality was MUCH more complicated than I anticipated (it always is!) The bricks are still stacked along the side of house and I extended my flower bed and mulched over where the patio was meant to be. This summer’s project is scraping the peeling paint off the back yard fence and repainting it. How hard can that be?

All of this this all leads me to the most important tip of all.

9. Some things are best left for the professionals…
Or at least your teenage children. Last summer I hired someone to pull out the bushes that were home to the cicada killer wasps. This summer I passed the mowing and raking torches on to my teenagers (well, mostly anyway). I’m getting better at recognizing my limitations before they turn in to diasters (well, most of the time) (maybe some of the time is more accurate) (OK, I confess it’s rare. But, if I didn’t make mistakes how would I learn? And what would I write about, to make someone else smile.)

Thanks for reading!