By Sean Conway

Planting and tending done over a decade and a half have transformed a neglected yard into a diverse and interesting garden

Planting and tending done over a decade and a half have transformed a neglected yard into a diverse and interesting garden

Over the years, the amount of space devoted to gardens on my property has grown. Like many gardeners, I began by working on the neglected landscape of our home shortly after we purchased it. Little by little, I transformed areas of lawn into shrub borders, perennial gardens and even turned the area under some existing trees into a woodland garden.

Today, the landscape looks nothing like the original. Those trees and shrubs that were first planted over a decade and a half ago have completely transformed the appearance of the property. We now have a lot of privacy as well as a landscape with such diverse plantings that there is something interesting to look at 365 days a year.

It takes some time to achieve the look you want -- and, of course, a bit of work, especially in the early years -- but if you enjoy gardening, then the process is as much fun as the end result.

Over the years I have gained some insights that have helped to lighten my gardening workload. They can be summed up as follows: Timing matters, and so does the order in which you do tasks. Some work done upfront, keeping proper timing and order in mind, will save you hours of labor later on and help you avoid wasted effort.

To get a feel for timing in your garden, pay attention to changes that happen every year in your landscape and work with them. For instance, I have a shade garden under some large holly trees. The holly trees drop their old leaves every year in late May to early June. I wait to clean up and mulch this area until the after trees have finished dropping their leaves. Following the trees' schedule rather than my own makes my job easier since I am cleaning up once instead of twice.

Performing tasks in the proper order makes your job much easier and much more efficient. For instance, you should clean up debris around plants before fertilizing; fertilize prior to mulching; and stake plants that need it before they start falling over.

I apply organic fertilizer in the early spring every year at the base of perennials and shrubs. I make sure to clean up all debris first to ensure the fertilizer ends up where it needs to be: in contact with the soil. Mulch applied after fertilizing keeps the fertilizer from washing away.

When it comes to staking plants such as perennials that fall over due to heavy bloom, I always try to get my stakes in the ground before the plants actually need staking. I then tie the plant to the stakes as they grow. This helps keep plants sturdy at the base -- often their weakest point -- and allows the plant to grow around the stake, helping to hide it from view.

For small floppy plants that are difficult to stake but that still separate when they get too large, I have had great success with a method employed by some of the large estate gardens in England. I save branches that are trimmed from my shrubs in late winter, bundle them together so they form low twiggy mounds. I place the leafless branches on the bare ground as perennials are just beginning to emerge from winter dormancy in the spring. As the perennials grow, they weave their way through the loose twigs, eventually covering all evidence of their support system. This method works especially well for older established plants that grow quite large and are difficult to stake.

Gardening is certainly a "labor of love," but with a few shortcuts, you can spend less time on the labor part, and more on the love part.


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Home & Garden - How to Lavish Less Labor and More Love on Your Garden