Colin's Gardening Tips


During the eight years I've been developing my garden, I've bumped into a bunch of tricks and techniques (mostly through trial and error) which I haven't seen written up in very many books or magazines. Hopefully by listing them here, I'll be able to help you avoid the "error" part of your own trial and error. Know a good tip or gardening trick? Email me.

In no particular order (yet):

Tip #1: Laying a Flagstone Path.
Though I've read many landscaping books which warn of the dangers of not preparing a sand and gravel bed for stone pathways, I've found that you can lay an informal path of natural flagstone simply by placing the stones right on top of your lawn in early spring. The stones should be between 3/4" and 1 1/2". The path looks raised for about a month, but soon settles down as grass grows around it. Keep the path level by trimming the grass between the rocks. The main trick here is don't dig the path in, otherwise it sinks below the level of the lawn, and is difficult to walk on.

Tip #2: Planting Annuals Quickly
I used to half dread bringing home flats of annuals to plant, for the sheer time they took to get in the ground. Here's how I sped things up: work the soil in the bed you're planting until it's nice and loose (enough to scoop up easily with your hand). Rake the bed to make it even, then douse the area with water. You'll need lots and lots of water; I make my beds into mud somewhere near the consistency of oatmeal (but not as wet as soup). Now simply push each plant down into the mud/soil. If it won't sink down easily, you need more water. This technique also gives the new plants a thorough drink for the first week of life in their new home. (The "mud" should look like soil again in a few hours.)

Tip #3: Help Your Tall Perennials Spread
Seeds on taller perennials (delphiniums, lupins) have a long way to go to get to the soil. If you want a new crop in a different area, try cutting off the stalks a few weeks after the blooms have died and placing them on the ground. You will often get a few seedlings coming up as fall comes, and a few more the next spring. The following summer you should get flowers.

Tip #4: Getting Dandelions (and other Weeds) by the Root

While dandelion pickers do a decent job of severing dandelion roots, I have found that a short paint scraper/trowel (2-3") works better because it cuts down into the soil easier, and covers a wider area, so there's less hit and miss. They're generally also designed to be a little easier to wield. Hold the leaves of the plant you're removing up, and push the scraper edge into the soil at a 45% angle. The plant should pull out easily once you feel the root has been cut.

Paint Scraper

Tip #5: Professional-looking Lawn from Mowing Twice
If you like the manicured look for your lawn, try mowing it twice every time you mow it. The first time, mow it on a diagonal (not parallel to the perimeters). The second time, mow it on the opposite diagonal, making an "X" pattern. I have found that the second mowing a) evens the sections which get missed the first time, b) takes only about half the time of the first mowing, c) makes a nice criss-cross effect, and d) mulches the grass cuttings so you don't have to rake.

Tip #6: Save Wilting Sunflowers
Two years ago I had a patch of sunflowers suddenly wilt when they were about 3 feet high. I found that the culprit was a single small insect in each plant called a "square borer" (it looks like a small white larva). I managed to save my sunflowers by making incisions straight through the stems, and following the trial the borer left up the stem. At the end of the trail, I found and removed the insect, and the sunflowers returned to life.

Tip #7: Prevent Cutworms from Killing Squash and Pumpkin Seedlings
If you have a fleshy seedling suddenly chopped down, chances are you have cutworms. These pests slice very young plants down at the base, as though a miniature lumberjack had felled them. Other signs are even bites out of the first two or three leaves. Cutworms, however, can't bite through more adult plants, so you can save your crop by helping it through its infancy. I take the tops and bottoms off of large soup cans and place them around each seed or two I plant, sinking the can a half inch or so into the ground. This makes a sheer wall several inches high around each plant which the cutworms can't penetrate. As the plants mature, the cans may be removed. Tinfoil shaped cylinders work also. A more chemical solution is to treat the soil with diazinon one week before planting.

Tip #8: Increase Acid Content in Soil with Peat Moss and Pine Needles
Some plants, most notably azaleas and rhododendrons, require acidic soil to grow. Both peat moss and pine needles can be added to your soil at any time to increase acid content. You can check to see if your soil is already acidic by looking for natural moss.

Tip #9: Plants that Grow Under Black Walnut Trees
This tip, courtesy Angela Henderson, lists plants which are immune to the Juglone toxin in the root system of Black Walnut trees (which killed nearly everything else I every tried planting under my black walnut tree):

anemone, jack-in-the-pulpit, lady fern, cyclamen, epimedium, dog's-tooth-violet, gentian, green hellebore, alumroot, hosta, iris, lilies, ostrich fern , forget-me-not, narcissus, lily turf, blue grasses, may-apple, Solomon's seal, Christmas fern, primroses, pilewort, nightshade, meadow-rue, toad lily, white clover, trillium, periwinkle, hickories, burning bush, forsythia, red cedar, honeysuckles, virginia creeper, mockorange, oaks, poison ivy, black raspberry, lilacs, viburnums, grape

Tip #10: Vegetables for Beauty
Vegetables are often overlooked by flower gardeners as a source of all-season colour and interesting displays (foliage, flower, and fruit). I plant pumpkins each year for their magnificent yellow blooms and the excitement of watching the large green fruit turn orange in the fall. They're one of the last sources of vibrant colour, and fun on halloween. Here's what pumpkin flowers look like in my garden.

Tip #11: Don't Be Afraid of Stone, Bricks, and Mortar
Feel like making a garden wall?
Great: Buy some stones and pile them up. If they move over the winter, rearrange them. go to a hardware store and buy yourself some mortar. Tell them what you want it for and they'll give you the right stuff. Now ask a garden store where to get natural stone or bricks. Once you've got those two things, a wheelbarrow, and plenty of water, the rest is actually pretty easy. Mix some water into the mortar in the wheelbarrow (until it's like very thick oatmeal-if you pick it up, it shouldn't run through your fingers very easily). Put down a brick or stone, slap some mortar on, and put a brick or stone on top of that (I use a paint scraper to scoop mortar). Some will sqeeze out the side, but you just wipe it off and put a little less next time. That's it. People have been doing it for thousands of years, and there's no reason you shouldn't give it a try, so long as you keep your wall pretty low (2-3 feet). Go down each horizontal row 5 or 10 bricks at a time, and you should be able to start back at the beginning again if you want to (remember each row should be staggered so the seams don't line up vertically; just look at a house). What about a foundation?? Ok, fair question. I actually do make foundations for brick walls, but not always for stone ones. Again, though, all I do is dig a 1/2 foot square trench and fill it with concrete. Next day I put mortar and bricks on it. My point is that I haven't had anyone "teach" me how to make brick walls, I just tried it and it worked better and better the more I did. I'm probably doing it VERY wrong, but it's a garden, and things can be a little off centre, or leaning, or cracking a little, and if all else fails you can tear it down and try again!

Tip #12: Make Garden Walls Without Mortar
If you are making a short wall, one to two feet high, out of natural stone or formed contrete, there's no real reason to use mortar. In fact, mortar will likely crack anyway. You can actually buy a type of natural stone for building mortarless walls called "drywall". In any case, just pile up the rocks, stones, or concrete blocks and backfill with dirt. If the wall shifts over a few winters, just take down the shifted sections, and repile. The wall will settle in eventually, and won't crack because the gaps allow it to shift. Plant little things like Hens-and-Chicks in the cracks for extra stability. Also, wait until the late spring before you start reassembling shifted areas; often the frost takes a long time to settle, and the wall will return to normal.