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Tips to Help Your Garden Grow

And save you time and money

En español | It's the time of year when gardeners begin to fidget. The perennial beds are bedraggled. The shrubs need pruning. Before you get your hands dirty, these tips from experts will help you save time and money — and make your garden easier to tend as the weather heats up.

See Also: Creative Repurposing Projects for the Yard and Garden

Clean up

Your house isn't the only thing that needs spring cleaning. Instead of a mop and bucket, take a rake and pruning shears outdoors. Pick up debris. Rake dead leaves from flower beds, and remove them from trees and shrubs. Use a long-reach grabber for hard-to-get-to spots. (Look for one in a hospital supply store; not the local nursery.)

If you didn't cut back your perennials in the fall, do so now. But unlike autumn, when clippings can act as a layer of compost, spring's mantra is chop, but don't drop. "Take away all cuttings," says Shelburne, Vt.-based garden coach Charlie Nardozzi. "You don't want new growth contaminated by any pests or disease that may have over-wintered in the garden."

How to Get Your Garden Ready for Spring (H&G)

Get a jump on weeding early to save time and energy in the summer. — Hans Bjurling/Johnér Images/Corbis

Adds Melinda Myers, author, horticulturist and host of the TV show Great Lakes Gardener in Milwaukee: "As you move around, drag one of those plastic saucer sleds behind you to collect clippings and cuttings. Then it's easy to drag to your brush pile or to the street, if you have pick-up."

Weed 'em and reap

Weeding is every gardener's dread, but getting a jump on the chore as weeds come up will save time and energy in the summer. Myers suggests taking your morning coffee into the garden and pulling weeds for 5 to 10 minutes. "Weeds are easy to see in the spring, and it's not so daunting a task if you do a little at a time," she says.

Plan first; shop later

Before you open your wallet, stroll around your yard, notebook in hand, to see which areas are sunny or shady. This walkabout will keep you from buying plants or seeds that won't grow under your garden's conditions — no matter your fantasy. "There is no sense in spending money on plants that need full sun for most of the day if the trees around your property cast shade on the garden," says Myers.

Next: Pruning and planting. >>

As your spring bulbs bloom, mark their location on a sketch or plan of the garden, so you don't plant annuals or new perennials on top of them. While you're scouting, look for areas you can redesign for low maintenance. Consider planting shrubs, ground covers or ornamental grasses to cut down on lawns and flower borders.

"It's very easy to mix and match plants — perennials, small shrubs and fast-spreading annuals for a full effect that not only shades out many weeds, but also makes everything look cottagelike," says Felder Rushing, author of the forthcoming Slow Gardening: A No-Stress Philosophy for All Senses and Seasons.

Sharpen and prune

Some plants — ornamental grasses, roses, spring flowering shrubs such as forsythia and lilacs — need pruning in the spring. Cut out all dead, diseased and damaged limbs, says Cayleb Long, curator of the annual and perennial borders at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. But don't overdo. "You don't have to prune everything into tight. meatballs or gumdrop shapes," says Rushing. "Allow some shrubs to grow out into their natural shape." 

Before you wield the clippers, sharpen your tools: You won't have to make multiple cuts on a branch, and you'll get fewer blisters and backaches, says Nardozzi. The most basic sharpening tool is an 8-inch-long flat file available at any hardware store for about $8 to $10. Look for one with a handle to make using the file easier, and consider wearing goggles and gloves to avoid flying bits of metal. And don't forget lawnmower maintenance. "The best thing you can do for your lawn is to get the blades of your lawnmower serviced," says Myers. "Mowing will be easier, the lawn will look nicer and you'll use less gas."

A planting we will go

Plant perennials now so they'll be established by summer, and need less watering. If you want to skip the step of starting your annual and vegetable seeds indoors — and the accompanying financial outlay for peat pots, trays and lights — you can sow them directly into the ground at about the same time you would transplant the seedlings that matured in your basement. Wait until after there's no danger of night frost that can wreak havoc on the seeds even if the days are warm, which can be any time between mid-February and mid-June, depending on where you live. Sow in staggered rows and space the seeds as the packet suggests, so the plants can grow into a denser cover, keeping weeds down. Before you plant, check weather forecasts for the coming week to avoid a surprise frost. Nor are windy days ideal for planting: The seeds may scatter. 

"Put supports for floppy perennials like peonies and delphiniums in now," says Nardozzi. It's easier than trying to force them into cages when full-grown. Use the smaller, thinner branches you pruned as stakes.

Most experts also advise putting a 1- to 2-inch layer of mulch around trees and shrubs and on flower beds to cut down on weeds. And feeding plants in the spring with a slow-release fertilizer makes them less susceptible to pests and diseases later, when you want to sit and enjoy the fruits (and flowers) of your labors.

How to save money on your spring garden

  • Don't be seduced by 1- or 2-gallon pots, says Michael Glassman, a Sacramento, Calif.-based landscape designer, author and lecturer. "Buy 4-inch to 6-inch pots," he says. "The plants will catch up with the bigger sizes." This is especially true for ornamental grasses. "If you buy small plants in the spring, by the end of summer they will have matured into the large plants that sold for two or three times as much," he says.
  • Buy annuals by the flat. It's less costly than if you buy individual cell packs — and even cheaper if you buy seeds and sow directly into the ground. Some annuals are self-seeding (California poppy, bachelor's button, for example), meaning they drop seeds and you won't have to buy new plants every year.
  • "Schedule an early spring seed and plant swap with friends or neighbors," says Long. "It's a good way to save some money and make new gardening friends."

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