Cleaning up our garden is not just for cosmetics, it's also good pest control and good husbandry. The detritus that forms in the garden during the fast growth of spring also harbors insects and snails and diseases that will cause problems in the summer. Now is the time to clean all this up and to get the garden not only healthy but looking good as well.
This is also a good time to put in some crop rotation. Either out with the old and in with the new, or adding another layer of the same plant — for example, corn — so that the crop comes to harvest over a longer period of time. This also is done with flowers. By adding new, young pansies and violas where the older ones have gotten leggy or their roots have rotted, for example, the flower show is refreshed.
Weeding is a constant exercise in good observation and persistence. If weed roots are getting the moisture and nutrients that your flowers or vegetables deserve, then your table will be less abundant with food and color. This season's tips focus on what to do and how to make that work easier:
1. Take your first cup of coffee or tea for a stroll in the morning. I can't tell you how many times I've seen really good gardeners in their gardens in slippers and robes with a cup of coffee just looking at their flower beds. You know they're going to be back soon, fully dressed and ready to pull weeds.
2. There's something about a trip to the nursery that's inspirational and uplifting to the garden. It doesn't necessarily cost a lot of money. One or two six-packs of flowers, a bag of soil or compost and a whole new project is started.
3. Not all nurseries are equal. Some specialize in seasonal plants while others have a much larger selection. I like to visit six or seven nurseries every year just to see what's coming, to see what's old and to see what's new. It makes for good road trips.
4. An important cleanup project in any garden is to prune away foliage from the ground. It doesn't have to be a lot but it cuts off some of the access to the plant for insects and snails and helps the plants to dry out from too much moisture. Be sure to remove any dying or diseased leaves and either put them on the compost or remove them from the property.
5. We can avoid almost all use of pesticides or pest control simply by observing our plants. Of course once you've observed them, if you've seen anything that looks like it's eating the leaves, pick them off. One good example is tomato hornworms. A big moth that looks like a stealth bomber and is about 3 inches long, it flies into the vegetable garden, usually at night. It lays many very small eggs. The eggs are very difficult to see. And the newly hatched caterpillars are very difficult to see because they're exactly the same color as the tomato leaves. But if you look for chewed leaf edges, eventually you will see the caterpillar. If you remove it, you've just saved many square inches of leaf damage.
6. Harvesting stimulates new growth. By cutting roses for your table, the rose bush will have a second and third flush of flowers. I pick strawberries as soon as they're ripe. Within a week, new flowers and soon, new fruit, are forming.
7. Herbs are constantly giving new foliage and thus, there are plenty of herbs for the kitchen. There's nothing better than fresh herbs to liven up our food. Don't cut more than 30% of any one plant or it may go into shock.
8. When the garden is all cleaned up it's a good idea to mulch. Mulch goes on the surface around the plant to keep the moisture in and the insects out. A good mulch can be anything organic. Plant trimmings, wood chips (not pine or eucalyptus) or straw. Remember: compost goes in the soil and mulch goes on the surface. In this case I'm talking about mulch. It's not composted.
9. Fertilizer is the food for plants. I like fish fertilizer. It comes in a gallon jug and it's very smelly. All the cats in the neighborhood will love you. Follow the instructions on the bottle. Once it is watered in, the smell is significantly reduced.
10. Check your irrigation system and make sure that it's working properly. If you water by hand, good for you. It's the best way to give your plants exactly what they need, no more no less. It's also very good therapy and free.
Jack Mckinnon is a garden coach and can be reached at 650-455-0687.