Tag: tips

October Garden To Do List

At the beginning of October my mid-south, zone 8A garden is still full of blooms but by Halloween, it begins its steady decline toward dormancy.  So I start the month in harvest mode and transition into doing a serious fall cleanup by the 15th or so.  The to-do list is getting shorter, but the tasks seem to require a little more elbow grease.  That’s okay because there is nothing quite like the satisfaction of seeing a garden tidied up for its winter nap.

Here are a few tips to help you get your own garden ready for bed.

  • Cut back perennial foliage after a killing freeze. For a wildlife-friendly garden, cut back plants that have had disease problems during the growing season but leave stems and seed heads that will provide food and shelter for birds.
  • Mark areas where hardy volunteers have dropped their seeds so that next spring you can be on the lookout for the seedlings.
  • When using dried flowers with fuzzy seed heads, spray them with hairspray to keep them from shattering.
  • Rake up and remove any leaves on your lawn. It is important to remove dead leaves because over time they will form a dense mat that smothers your grass.
  • Clean and oil garden tools before storing for winter.
  • Protect your water features from fall leaves with netting. Stretch the netting over the water surface and secure the edges. Remove the leaves that land on the netting on a regular basis.
  • Before you put away your mower, drain gasoline and take it to the shop for any repairs needed.  It’s also a good time to have the blade sharpened and balanced.
  • Use hardware cloth to wrap around the base of small fruit trees and roses. This will protect them from rodents.
  • Transplant deciduous trees and shrubs after the leaves have fallen.
  • Pot up amaryllis bulbs now for indoor blooms during the holidays.
  • Hill soil to a height of 8 to 10 inches around roses for winter protection. Mulch after the ground freezes.
  • Save packets of half-used seeds in airtight containers in a cool dry place.
  • In my zone 7 garden and other mild winter climates, it is best to sow larkspur in mid-fall because the seeds need cool soil temperatures to germinate (50 to 60 degrees F).
  • Plant spring flowering bulbs such as tulips, daffodils and globe alliums.

Good to Know

I garden in zone 8A. Spring usually starts in March and fall extends through November.  The summers are long and hot.  I write these tips with the idea that they are applicable to all zones during a general period of time. However, given microclimates and weather extremes timing can vary.  Observe the conditions in your garden and apply them accordingly.

Garden To Do List March

We’ll soon know if March is going to come in like a lamb and go out like a lion or the reverse.  Time will tell. What I do know is that even though the weather can still be wintry, it’s time to start working in the garden.

  • In mild weather regions plant cool season annuals for early spring color such as pansies, violas, snapdragons, nemesia, sweet peas and alyssum.
  • It is important that your greenhouse is properly ventilated during early spring when fluctuating temperatures are common. Open the windows on mild days and close them before nightfall. My Riga greenhouse has automatic ventilators. This saves me from making 2 trips to the greenhouse every day.
  • Plant potatoes as soon as the grass begins to green up.
  • If you live north of the Mason Dixon line plant grapes as soon as the soil is workable. Southern gardeners should plant grapes in fall so they will have plenty of time to get established before summer heat sets in.
  • As temperatures begin to warm and plants emerge from dormancy, slowly remove protective mulches. Beware of removing mulches too soon since hard freezes are still possible.
  • Transplant roses, shrubs and ornamental trees before the leaf buds open.
  • Walking on wet soil will cause it to compact. So after the spring thaw wait until the ground dries to start working in your flower and vegetable beds. To test the moisture level squeeze a clump of dirt in your hand, if it breaks apart when you open you hand, it is dry enough to work.
  • Apply slow release fertilizer to shrubs and perennials.
  • Plant parsley in your herb garden.
  • Get your lawn mower ready for the growing season. Replace the spark plugs, clean the air filter, remove grass and debris clogging the fins of the engine cover, and take it in to a small engine repair shop to have the blade sharpened and balanced.
  • Feed peonies with a low nitrogen fertilizer when they are about 2 – 3 inches tall.
  • Most perennials bloom for a 2 to 4 week period. When adding new perennials to your garden go for those that have great foliage as well as blooms or extend the flowering time by choosing a mix of early, mid and late blooming varieties.
  • To repair bare spots in lawns combine 5 shovels of sand, 1 shovel of sterilized topsoil, 1 shovel of grass seed and 1 cup of slow release fertilizer. Cover bare spots with this mixture, tamp down and water.
  • Harvest horseradish while still dormant, but when the plant begins to show green around the crown. Wear gloves because the roots can cause skin irritation. After digging the roots you can replant any unused portions such as side shoots or the crown for more horseradish later!
  • Transplant and divide snowdrops (galanthus) and snowflakes (leucojum) after the flowers fade, but the foliage is still green.
  • Clean water features and fountains. Make sure pumps and lights are working properly. Remove leaf guards.
  • Hot house azaleas are popular gifts this time of year. To grow as a houseplant give your azalea consistent moisture and place it in indirect light away from sources of heat such as a fireplace or air vent. Sheet moss placed on top of the soil adds a finishing touch to the container and helps retain moisture. Feed with a liquid fertilizer, diluted to half strength every time you water. If you feel the need to prune your azalea, do this immediately after the flowers fade and before it sets buds for next year.
  • Check your compost pile. Turn it every two weeks and keep it moist, but not wet.
  • Order bulbs such as crocosmia, eucomis, gloriosa, kniphofia and lycoris for interesting summer blooms. Read more about summer bulbs.
  • Set up an outdoor thermometer and a rain gauge. Keep a journal of the weather and when plants start to bloom.

Early Spring Gardening Activities

I know that spring has finally arrived when my first conscious thought in the morning concerns the list of things that I want to do in the garden. I can’t bear the thought of missing a single moment as my plants emerge from their winter slumber. Over the next few months I will be a madman wielding shears, loppers, pruners and a shovel. I take solace in the fact that I am sure I’m not the only gardener afflicted with this condition. Consider it this way, if our gardens are our kingdoms then Emily Dickinson got it right when she wrote – A little madness in the spring, is wholesome even for the King!

Here are a few things that are on my to-do list.

Inventory the Garden Shed

On rainy or cold days I head out to the garden shed to make sure I have everything I need to work in the garden. I’m not much of a planner, but I’ve learned that I can really save time and frustration by taking stock of my tools and equipment. Is the lawn mower ready to roll? Do I have plenty of twine and stakes? What do I need to re-stock? From there I head out to the garden center so I’ll be all set to work in the garden on the first sunny day.

Clean the Garden

Now is the time to clear out winter’s debris and give the garden a boost before spring gets into full swing. My first order of business is a little pruning to remove broken, damaged and dead limbs from shrubs and trees. I also like to shape up broadleaf evergreens such as hollies and boxwoods before new growth comes out. There are a few shrubs that I don’t want to cut on such as roses that only bloom once and spring flowering shrubs like azaleas. I’ll wait to trim these until after they flower.

P. Allen Smith shearing a holly hedge.

I need to cut back perennial and ornamental grass foliage left up over winter for the birds. A handy trick for cutting back grasses is to wrap the blades together with masking tape just above the cutting height then cut with hedge shears. This makes for easy disposal and eliminates raking.

Plant clippings and leaves will go into the compost pile and I put diseased plant material or branches in the trash.

Once the remnants of last year’s garden are cleared away it’s time to start working on the soil. I start by top dressing the beds with compost and apply organic fertilizer. I like to give my roses an extra boost with alfalfa pellets (rabbit food) that I buy at the farmer’s co-op. About a cup of pellets worked into the soil around the rose will provide nutrients to get the bush growing strong.

My last task in the garden is applying a 3-inch layer of mulch in the beds; then it’s on to the lawn.

Leave the Lawn Be

It may seem surprising, but spring isn’t’ the best time to feed your lawn. The nitrogen in lawn fertilizers will encourage top growth at the expense of root development. Deep roots make the plants less susceptible to summer heat, drought, diseases and pests. If I feel like the lawn could use an extra boost I wait until the soil temperature warms up, say mid-May, and use a slow release, organic product that feeds the soil instead of the grass. All I really do in early spring is mow and apply an organic pre-emergent. Since I don’t have to do much to prepare the lawn I have more time to sow seeds!

Start Seeds

Every January I go bananas buying seeds so one of my biggest spring tasks is sowing the varieties that need to be started indoors. While I like the orderliness of seed trays I’ve learned that I can use any shallow, plastic pot with drainage holes. I use plastic because this material retains moisture better than terra cotta. The key is to sterilize the containers by soaking them in a mix of 10% bleach and 90% water for 20 minutes.

For a greater rate of success I use a soil-less seed starting mix and keep the seeds warm (65 – 75 degrees) by placing them on a seed heating pad or in a temperate location.


To help maintain consistent soil moisture I like to spritz the surface with water from a spray bottle and cover the pots with plastic wrap. Once seeds germinate, I’ll remove the plastic and place the seedlings where they have good air circulation to prevent fungal infection.

Every day I’ll turn the seedlings to keep stems strong. Once the leaves develop, a weekly application of a half-strength liquid fertilizer will get the plants ready for the garden. Then all I have to do is wait for the last frost date to move them outdoors.

Protect Against a Late Freeze

In Arkansas we always have a blackberry winter, which is a spell of unseasonably cold weather. I keep frost blankets on hand to cover tender annuals, vegetables and early bloomers. You can also use plastic, sheets, buckets or even newspapers. I’ll remove the protection early the next day before the sun gets high because it will get hot under there.

Plastic and hog wire wold frame in the spring vegetable garden.

If the tulips and other spring-flowering bulbs have already started blooming I cut big bouquets to enjoy indoors because a freeze may burn the flowers. However, if the blooms aren’t open I don’t need to do anything because bulbs are tough and can usually take what Mother Nature dishes out.

For emerging perennials, an extra layer of mulch mounded around the base will provide them with some protection.

Garden To Do List February

Don’t wait for the groundhog to tell you spring is on the way, it’s time to get out into the garden!  Many of the tasks this month will give you a running start when temperatures warm and the plants begin to emerge.

  • If you love blueberry muffins, plant bushes now.
  • Prune early spring flowering shrubs such as forsythia, quince, winter honeysuckle and winter jasmine immediately after the flowers fade.
  • After your amaryllis finishes blooming, cut off the stalk, but leave the foliage. The leaves help reinvigorate the bulb so you will have plenty of blooms next year. Treat it like an ordinary houseplant until next fall then cut back the foliage, put it in a dark place, and stop watering. About a month later bring it out, begin watering, put it in full sun and presto, a whole new generation of flowers.
  • Keep those Valentine cut flower arrangements fresh longer with a simple solution of equal parts lemon lime soda and water plus a dash of bleach. Also, before you put your flowers in your vase remove all of the lower leaves that sit below the water line.
  • Get out your pruners! Cut back hybrid tea and repeat blooming roses before the buds break. Wait to prune one time blooming roses until after they have bloomed. Crape myrtles, butterfly bush, group C and group B clematis should also be pruned in late winter/early spring.
  • Camilla japonica Peppermint

  • Sweeten acidic soil with wood ashes for plants that prefer a soil pH of 7 or above.
  • Fertilize established clumps of rhubarb as new growth begins to emerge in spring. Apply 1 cup of 10-10-10 fertilizer to each plant. Sprinkle it in a circle around the plant and work it into the top 2" of the soil. And the rumor is true!  You shouldn’t eat rhubarb that has frozen.
  • Save daffodil, hyacinth and crocus bulbs that have been forced into bloom indoors for planting in the garden. Keep the foliage healthy after the blooms fade, plant them outside when weather turns mild and let the foliage die back naturally. Toss out paperwhites and other bulbs that have been forced in water.
  • Test the germination rate of seeds you saved from last year. Place approximately 10 seeds of the same variety on a damp paper towel. Roll up the paper towel and put it in a plastic bag – do not seal the bag. Keep the bag in a warm area. Check the seeds daily and keep the paper towel moist. After 2 or 3 days count the number of seeds that have sprouted. This will give you a pretty good idea of how the seeds will do in the garden. If half the test group germinated, then it is likely that half of the rest of the seeds will grow.
  • If you haven’t done so already, remove dead fronds from your asparagus plants.
  • Get a jump start on spring. Check your seed packets to find out how long it takes the different varieties to sprout. Mark the last frost date for your area on the calendar and count back the number of weeks needed for sprouting. This is the date you should sow your seeds indoors.
  • While a gentle rinse helps clean the dust off of most houseplants, not so for African violets and other plants with soft fuzzy leaves. To spruce up these plants, use a soft brush, such as a paintbrush or baby’s hairbrush to gently stroke dirt off the tops and bottoms of the leaves.

Garden To Do List January

The weather outside may be wintry, but there is still plenty you can do to stay connected to the garden. Check out this list of garden related tasks and signature plants for the month of January.

  • Get out your catalogs and visit your favorite online garden stores because it’s time to start placing plant and seed orders for spring.
  • Don’t fret over emerging spring flowering bulbs such as tulips and daffodils. The foliage contains an “antifreeze” that will protect the plants from cold. If the plant blooms, cut the flowers to enjoy indoors before freezing temperatures return.
  • Pansies and violas will also hold up to freezing weather. Violas are especially cold tolerant surviving temperature drops down to 30 degrees F. If you are expecting 10 or more nights of below 30 degree F temperatures, cover your plants with newspaper, buckets or an old sheet until morning.
  • Recent research conducted by the Flower Bulb Research Program at Cornell University found that giving your paperwhites a cocktail will keep the stalks short and sturdy so they’ll stand straight without staking. Pot the bulbs in water and gravel as usual. Once the plants are about 2 inches tall, replace the water with a mixture of 1 part 40% distilled alcohol such as gin or vodka and 7 parts water or one part rubbing alcohol and 10 parts water. Continue to use this solution whenever you need to add more liquid to the container. If you don’t want to make daily cocktails for your bulbs you can also stake them using twigs and raffia ribbon.
  • As weather permits, cut back liriope ground cover and ornamental grasses before new growth begins. Liriope can be cut back with a line trimmer. Use sharp shears for ornamental grasses.
  • February is the official kick off of the spring flower show season. Make plans to attend a show in your area or travel to one of the big events such as the Philadelphia Flower Show or the Cincinnati Flower Show.

How to Shop for Plants

Whether you are new to gardening or a seasoned horticulturist a trip to the garden center in spring can be an overwhelming experience. Crowded with temptations and people, it’s hard to think straight much less make a prudent decision about what plants to buy. I used to come home with a carload of impulse purchases until I started following a few guidelines. Now I can get in and out of a garden center with exactly what I need, which saves me time, money and frustration.

Determining ahead of time on where you want to plant, with the design and color theme in mind can save you a lot of time and headaches. I encourage gardeners to have photos of the space they’re planting. Also bring color swatches or paint chips. And it’s always a good idea to know the measurements of your space.

P. Allen Smith shopping for plants at a garden center.

How to Read a Plant Tag

If the garden center were a classroom and you were assigned to pick out a plant that will work best for your garden a plant tag is your ultimate cheat sheet. As simple as it may seem, the plant tag contains all the vital information you need to know about that plant. It contains the basics, like the common and botanical name, so you know exactly what you are buying, but it also gives information on the plant’s needs. Does this plant do well in sun or shade? How far do I need to space this plant apart? How hardy is the plant in my zone? Utilizing the information from plant tags can really help you narrow down your selections.

Look for Buds Not Blooms

Once you’ve narrowed it down resist going for the plant boasting the most color. It’s tempting, but trust me; you want a plant with more buds than blooms. Plants that are just starting to bloom will establish roots easier. Plus, you’ll have more flower power later on.

Supertunia Royal Velvet Petunias, GoldDust Mecardonia, Coleus and Purples Fountain Grass

Time your Garden Center Trip During Off Hours

For a more relaxing trip to the garden center go during the off hours. I find that coming on a weekday is often the best time shop. There are less people, garden center staff is more available to answer your questions, and your selection of plants is usually greater. Plus, there is nothing like waking up on a Saturday morning knowing you have everything you need to start your garden project without having to leave the house.

Feeling like a pro yet? Well, practice makes perfect! Get out there and take your garden center by storm.

Get Your Garden Ready for Winter

Plant, stow and protect are three activities that will ensure your garden wakes up as fresh as a daisy next spring.

Fall Planting

Plant perennials, shrubs and trees in autumn to give them a head start next spring. The cool temperatures, warm soil and frequent rains facilitate root growth. Be sure to plant three weeks before the first hard freeze in your area. If the plants are balled and burlaped, give them six weeks to settle in before the first hard freeze. Three weeks is enough time for container grown plants to get established.

Plant peonies, coneflowers, hosta, Asiatic lilies and catmint in fall

Plant daffodils, tulips and other spring flowering bulbs. I know I sound like a broken record on this topic, but one of the greatest joys of gardening is seeing bulb foliage peeking up from the ground in early spring.


Put your tools away for winter. I push the blades of my hand tools into a bucket filled with sand and mineral oil.

Empty and store all your containers. If a potted container will remain outdoors for winter, remove the saucer so it won’t sit in water.

Drain garden hoses and store for winter.

Flexzilla garden hoses will not freeze in winter.

Protect Plants in Winter

Apply mulch after the ground freezes. Mulch adds a layer of insulation for plant roots and keeps the soil temperature even, which prevents heaving.

Frost blankets and concrete reinforcing wire make a simple cold frame.

A hoop of concrete reinforcing wire covered with a frost blanket is an easy way to make a cold frame. Make the top of the arch about 24 inches above your plants and be sure the frost blanket falls over the open ends of the wire hoop.

Invest in a few frost blankets. Frost blankets are a convenient way to protect plants from early frosts. They are especially useful for extending the growing season for cool weather vegetables such as lettuce.

A corral of haybales will protect plants in pots during winter.

You can protect plants in pots with something as simple as a hay bale corral.