Peggy Hill is a garden consultant, and she maintains a blog about garden shenanigans at

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Less Work, More Fun
by Peggy Hill    

I haven’t fertilized my grass – or any plants in the border - in several years. It’s not a lush, deep green, but it’s still healthy. I save time by letting the clippings lay instead of bagging them; and since the grass grows much slower, I save time because I don’t have to mow as often.

Some gardening tasks are a lot of fun. I love picking out plants and creating beautiful container combinations, and I enjoy planting flats of pansies in early fall. Other tasks, like weeding, are tedious, but you have to do them. Then there’s another group of garden tasks many consider necessary, but I consider bad ideas. Crossing them off your to-do list will give you more time to focus on the enjoyable aspects of gardening. Here’s my list of the top three things you should NOT be doing in your garden. 

Do Not Overfertilize

Many people overfertilize. It’s really not their fault; they’re just following instructions; the fertilizer companies that print the instructions would love for you to use a lot of fertilizer.  The only way to know what kind of fertilizer you should use and how much you should use is to do a soil test (see graphic below). My first soil test revealed that, after years of fertilizing according to the instructions on the bag, I had increased the phosphorus in my soil to a very high level. Using more was actually bad for my plants, and excess phosphorus is a major source of pollution, so I was also harming the environment. A soil test tells you exactly how you should fertilize, and if you have any questions, the nice people at your local county extension office will be a lot of help.   

Soil test information is available at your local Cooperative Extension System office. You can find the office nearest you at If you don’t perform a soil test, the Smart Yards Manual has some general guidelines.

If you have a shrub that you occasionally prune, it is nonsensical to fertilize it, causing it to grow more quickly and then having to prune it even more! I usually don't fertilize anything, unless it's growing in a pot. I follow the advice of Tony Avent, owner of Plant Delights Nursery, and concentrate on good soil preparation, and adding organic matter.  As he says, “Plants in the ground never need fertilizer.”  

Do Not Use Insecticides

I don’t use insecticides, but garden critters like this praying mantis (left) and this frog (right) help keep things in line.

The best advice I ever heard about what to do when bugs attack your plants comes from garden guru Felder Rushing, “Take off your glasses, and take a few steps back; if you can’t see it, it ain’t a problem…” Besides, most plants can handle some insect damage. My hibiscus gets chewed on terribly every spring, and I never spray it, but it still blooms like crazy. The most important reason not to kill insects is that they are an important part of the circle of life. The system is designed so the plants feed the insects, and the insects feed the animals. It is a mystery to me why gardeners buy bird food and put out birdbaths, and then wage war against the very thing the birds rely on to nourish their young.  

Native plants properly placed can flourish with no care. This native azalea growing in the woods has never been sprayed with insecticides, it has never been watered, and the decaying leaves that litter the woodland floor are its only fertilizer.

Something eats my hibiscus every spring, but it still blooms like crazy


Do Not Clean Everything Up

Since you’re not going to be killing those insects any more, you will likely start seeing more birds and other wildlife, and you should provide a place for them to live. Last fall I was using the wheelbarrow to move logs. As I threw the last one on the fire, I noticed a small lizard that hadn’t been in the wheelbarrow when I started. I was sorry to have burned his home, but glad he made it out alive. Now I line some paths with logs and let dead trees stand, as long as they’re not going to hurt anything when they eventually fall. Nature needs a few natural spots to live. 

Dead trees are an important nesting site for birds. A downy woodpecker lives in this one.

In his book Bringing Nature Home author Douglas Tallamy states, “If you count all of the terrestrial bird species in North America that rely on insects and other arthropods (typically, the spiders that eat insects) to feed their young, you would find that figure to be about 96 percent (Dickinson 1999) – in other words, nearly all of them.” So you see they’re not pests that need to be obliterated with harmful chemicals, they’re bird food.

According to the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service:

Dead Trees & Wildlife

When cutting firewood, be on the lookout for telltale signs of animal life in trees before you cut. Wildlife need dead, hollow or fallen trees for food and family homes. Nearly all wildlife species benefit from "animal inns" for food, nesting or shelter. The forest neighborhood changes, yet the way animals, plants and people depend on each other remains the same. Even as a tree dies, it continues to help sustain life to animal families and eventually to new plants and trees, and the cycle begins again. Please don't cut trees with: paint marks, wildlife signs, broken tops, trunk holes or visible nests, and any other trees prohibited by permit. []

From State-by-State Gardening Septemper 2012. Photos courtesy of Peggy Hill.


Posted: 09/24/12   RSS | Print


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