Gita M. Smith lives in Central Alabama on a 12-acre patch and is a Lee County Master Gardener.

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10 Commandments for Your Best Garden Ever
by Gita Smith    

(Photo by Bonnie Nance.  All other photos by Gita Smith.)

Gardening advice is plentiful nowadays, but some advice can be contradictory or untested. For example, one website advises planting when the moon is in a water sign, such as Pisces, Scorpio or Cancer, “because rain is more likely.”          

Call me crazy, but I would rather plant when the weather is dry and then use my hose to water the seed or transplants.

What should a gardener do when bombarded by dubious advice? The short answer is “stick with the facts.” Knowledge of basic soil chemistry and plant biology combined with good design principles, not the orbit of a distant rock, should determine your next move.


10 commandments

1. Spend as much money (or more) on your soil as you spend on your plants.

Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis) is highly prized, especially in the winter landscape where it produces extremely fragrant, spidery flowers in January. The yellow colored blooms brighten up the garden during winter and the fall foliage is golden yellow.

Improve the soil you plant in by adding organic material such as composted manure, composted ground bark, peat moss, grass clippings or chopped leaves. You can even add inorganic materials of rock origin such as perlite, a light rock from a volcanic source, or vermiculite, heat-expanded mica. If necessary, incorporate several loads of good quality soil into your garden before you plant the first seedling or bulb. 

Fall is the best time to work amendments into the soil for maximum spring benefits, but you can start a new midsummer flowerbed right now. It’s a fact: organic matter improves the ability of soil to hold nutrients, increases soil fertility, creates air spaces in tough clay, binds with sand and improves drainage. However, organic matter is not a balanced fertilizer. Incorporate an organic or inorganic fertilizer into your vegetable or flower garden soil, or topdress the area after planting.  Thoroughly mix any plant fertilizer with the soil to prevent burning the roots of young plants.

Is once enough? No, because soils lose available nutrients through erosion, leaching (washing out of nutrients by rains or sprinklers), and the action of bacteria during the long Southern growing season. So, even after you have created terrific beds for your plants, your work isn’t done.

Side dressing, according to recommendations on the fertilizer bag of the product you use, should be done at the intervals and amounts indicated. Applications of a water-soluble fertilizer can also be made during the growing season according to product label instructions.


2. Water deeply and infrequently.

Your plants are on a liquid diet. They can only take up nutrients that are dissolved, so it’s your job to keep the soil moist at the root level. If you always water lightly, only the top inch or two of soil will become wet, encouraging your plants to develop shallow roots so they can stay within that moisture zone. When the real heat and dry weather of late summer arrive, your plants won’t have the long, deep roots necessary to reach downward towards a moisture source.

Water deeply every few days instead of watering lightly each day. The exception to this rule? If you have set out brand new seedlings with tiny shallow roots, give them a drink every morning and afternoon of their first week in the ground.


3.  Plant for every season. 

For a late winter/early spring splash of snow white, consider planting spiraea (Spiraea spp.). The dense, arching habit of spiraea makes it useful for a group planting, as an informal hedge or as a specimen.

Don’t forget about the late fall, winter and early spring plants that keep color in the landscape all year. Do you only invite people to your garden in May and June because everything is in bloom right then? In one growing season you can develop a staggered, year-round color palette for your landscape. Take the time this month to plant late fall and winter-blooming perennials you’ve always wanted.

Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) will bloom from late December to March with subtle hues of purple-beige and pink. Several of the stonecrops (Sedum spp.) such as fall-flowering ‘Autumn Joy’ will fill in as your summer annuals die back in a few months. For gorgeous color all winter, plant giant red mustard, flowering kale and other cole crops in the genus Brassica that are both edible and vibrant.

Another trick to keeping year-round color and texture in your garden is to mix seasonal plant groups. For example, you may try snapdragons (early spring flowers) next to fall flowering sedums, next to plumbago (summer blooming), next to irises (spring) and so on.

Plant winter-blooming shrubs in October. Here’s a short list of good ones: For bright yellow flowers in January and February, plant forsythia and Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis). If you like hot coral-colored flowers, add some flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa).

The contrast of the fragrant red, white and pink flowering tobacco (Nicotiana) and intense blue, creeping Lobelia is visually appealing.

Colorful annuals in this flowerbed are mirrored by the climbing roses, creating a beautiful and inviting scene.               

4. Color above, color below: plant high and low.

Victorian-era gardeners placed mirrored gazing balls in their gardens. This gave them twice the pleasure. You too can have twice the color and pleasure, without the gazing ball, by planting flowering vines on trellises or supports that grow above the other plants in your border. Or, use containers set upon pedestals throughout the garden to draw the eye upward, then down again. 

Plant colors above that closely resemble colors below – perhaps a light pink Mandevilla vine flowing above hot pink dwarf zinnias, or a deep blue morning glory running a few feet above pale blue delphiniums.


5.  Make a berm.

A berm is just a narrow mound of earth that draws the eye upward and may also create privacy. Berms provide great opportunities to experiment with plants of varying heights. Best of all, if you have truly bad soil on your property, such as alkaline rock or heavy clay, building a berm may be the solution to your problems. Bring in good soil from a reliable supplier and have it mounded 4 feet high and 12 feet long. The added beauty of a berm is that you have the backside to landscape as well.

Creating a berm in locations with problem soil provides the perfect place to plant for privacy as well as a great opportunity to experiment with plants of varying height.

6. Go for texture.

The most interesting gardens have a variety of texture as well as color. Mix ruffled and smooth leaves, grasses and plump succulents for strong visual interest. The many varieties of coleus now on the market, planted among silvery Artemisia or dusty miller (Senecio cineraria), will most certainly add pleasing textures to what may have been “just your average summer garden.” Mix herbs, such as lavender (Lavandula spp.) and thyme (Thymus spp.) with your annuals for a change of texture and the addition of enticing aromas.


Varied textures add visual excitement.

Coleus, impatiens and other textured plants make a shade garden interesting.           


7. Feed the birds.

Birds add enjoyment to any size garden. These goldfinches are enjoying a simple thistle bag.

A bird feeder or two interspersed in the garden will bring much added joy to your landscape. A bag of thistle seed suspended from a simple hanger will draw goldfinches and purple finches by the crowd. Most thistle sold at birding supply stores has been sterilized, so it will not germinate in your garden and produce unwanted weeds.


8. Kill weeds in their tracks.

A pre-emergent herbicide is used to inhibit germination of weed seeds. Just remember that it will also inhibit desirable seeds, so be careful where you apply it. Post-emergent herbicides kill certain types of weeds (broadleaf, grasses or both) after they have germinated and are actively growing. Many different formulations are available. Ask your local nursery person to help you select the best one for your landscape project as well as tell you when the proper time is to apply it. Glyphosate (i.e. Roundup) is a post-emergent herbicide that kills by making contact with the leaves of plants, so be careful when you use it and only spray it where you want plants to die.

A heavy mulch throughout your garden may smother some weeds that have already emerged, but it will not stop weed seeds from germinating. If you get tough with weeds early, you will save yourself much backbreaking labor in late summer.


9. Got pests? Use IPM.

Integrated pest management, or IPM, is an approach regarding garden pests (insects, mites, weeds, etc.) in which the goal is to use pesticides as a last resort. In the past, your county extension agent would usually advise you about which pesticide to spray to clear up a problem. Today, agents in nearly every state are advising homeowners about IPM as a way to control pests while being kinder to the environment.

IPM incorporates biological controls (beneficial insects that eat undesirables), physical or mechanical controls (cleaning debris from your yard that harbor insect eggs and larvae, pulling weeds), repellents (plants that emit an odor that certain pest insects do not like), and so on. IPM utilizes information about pests’ life cycles to control them by trying to interrupt the mating cycle, the transition from larva to adult, germination of weed seed and more. Your county extension office will have more specific details about IPM for the pests that are bugging you.


10. Understand pH.

Soil pH is a measure of hydrogen ion concentration and indicates how acidic or alkaline a soil is. By performing a litmus test on the soil in your garden, or by sending it to a lab for a test, you’ll get a number value. The easiest way to find out your soil’s pH (and a lot of other useful information) is by sending a sample to your county extension service to be tested.

A value of 7.0 is considered neutral; values lower than 7.0 are considered acidic and those higher than 7.0 are considered alkaline. This is important to know because plants do have preferences. Asparagus grows best in slightly alkaline soil, while azaleas, camellias and blueberries love acidic soil.

In general, most plants are happy in soil that’s just slightly acidic (6.5 to 6.8). The pH in soil that is too alkaline may need to be lowered by using sulfur compounds. Very acidic soils can be amended with lime, which also increases the availability of phosphorus and potassium, and adds calcium and magnesium to the soil.


Eight Amendments
If you amend your soil to include the following eight elements, you’ll have healthy plants and good vegetable production.


1, 2 & 3.
Instead of the letters that accompany the three basic nutrients, Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium (N-P-K), that are expressed as numbers on a fertilizer bag, think NPP or “no problem plants.” Nitrogen promotes green leafy growth although too much can actually delay flower maturity; phosphorous encourages root growth and flowering; and potassium, or potash, is an all-around growth booster.


4 & 5.
Remember how I explained earlier that plants are on a liquid diet? Perhaps knowing that will help you to remember the next two amendments – calcium and iron. On the periodic table of elements, they are listed as CA and Fe (Just think: CAFE).


6, 7 & 8.
Three more trace elements – magnesium, boron and manganese – contribute to plant health. (Think MBM or My Butter Melts.) They support strong cells and roots.

Add these eight amendments to your soil by reading the labels on fertilizer bags and by choosing one that contains trace minerals. If it helps you remember, try, “There are no problem plants at the cafe where my butter melts.”




(From State-by-State Gardening June 2005.)


Posted: 06/01/11   RSS | Print


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