50 Golden Rules of Gardening
Wit, Wisdom, and Words of Warning
For the better part of a half-century, Grumpy has been selflessly and accurately answering all of your garden questions, no matter how complex or elementary. The reason I do this, dear reader, is to convince you that by building on little successes, you'll see that gardening is the most gratifying of all human endeavors.
Thus, I am exceedingly perturbed when people say, "Gardening is too hard. There is so much to learn. I just know if I plant something, I'll kill it."
Of course you will! Everyone who has ever gardened since Adam and Eve has killed a plant. That's how we figure out what works and what doesn't.
So in this spirit of learning by doing, Grumpy hereby presents his "50 Golden Rules of Gardening."
1. Don't ever let anyone "top" your shade trees.
If someone offers this service, smear him with chicken grease and give him five minutes alone with your pet gator. Topping—cutting off the tops—ruins trees forever and serves only to pad the perp’s wallet. Tree toppers prey on the elderly, so don’t let your parents get taken, either.
2. Never grow watermelons on a fifth-floor balcony, for obvious reasons.
3. The best time to prune spring-flowering trees and shrubs is right after they bloom.
If you wait until summer or fall, you’ll cut off a lot of the flowerbuds for next year. Examples: forsythia, azalea, quince, spiraea, lilac, and Japanese magnolias.
4. NASA has just confirmed there is life on Pluto. Unfortunately, it's privet. Avoid Invasive Plants.
5. Don’t add just one okra plant to your garden.
Southerners cannot get enough of okra. Plant four plants for every family member. Add one for each pet. Add two for every relative whose first name is actually two names.
6. Prevent crepe murder at all costs.
You should prune your crepe myrtle like you prune your dogwood—in other words, just about never. The older it gets, the less pruning it will need.
7. You can also prevent crepe murder by choosing selections that need little or no pruning.
Grumpy heartily recommends ‘Acoma’ (white, 6 to 10 feet), ‘Catawba’ (deep purple, 12 to 15 feet), ‘Near East’ (light pink, 10 to 15 feet), ‘Pink Velour’ (neon pink, 10 to 12 feet), ‘Siren Red’ (dark red, 8 to 10 feet), ‘Velma’s Royal Delight' (bright purple, 4 to 6 feet), and ‘Zuni’ (medium laven- der, 6 to 10 feet).
8. Just don’t put them anywhere near your pool.
Unless, that is, you enjoy fishing crepe myrtle flowers from the water every 45 seconds. Other messy trees to avoid include river birch, mulberry, hackberry, sweet gum, chinaberry, mimosa, and camphor tree. Good trees for the perimeter of a pool include palm, live oak, banana, juniper, holly, and Japanese maple.
9. Many plants wilt in hot sun, even if the soil is moist.
So how do you know when to water? Examine your plants first thing in the morning when it’s cooler. If they’re wilted, water.
10. The most common reason plants fail to bloom is not enough sun.
The second most common reason is parking your RV on them. Park on the blacktop.
11. Never take a chain saw with you into a tree unless you've made out a will.
12. Never plant a Bradford pear!
Its flowers smell like tuna, it explodes in the wind, and its thorny seedlings come up just about everywhere. Instead, plant easy, well-behaved flowering trees like chaste tree, Chinese fringe, Carolina silver bell, serviceberry, crabapple, flowering cherry, and star and saucer magnolias.
13. Remember the best way to get even with someone who has slighted you.
Give them a flat of rampaging mint to plant in their garden. Soon it will be sprouting in their foyer and taking over the goldfish bowl. Before you do this, though, make sure your houses are separated by at minimum an interstate and preferably an ocean.
14. Don’t get upset when plants die.
It's not failure–it's an opportunity. Think of it as the Big Guy looking down on your garden and saying, "Oh, you're going to grow that again? Here, let me kill it so you can try something new and more interesting."
15. Power company pruning crews are not artists.
If they say they’re going to prune your trees, assume they will do so in the ugliest way possible—though they generally wreak less destruction if you’re there as a witness.
16. Butterflies are music on the wing.
Among the best plants for attracting them to your garden are butterfly bush, butterfly weed, zinnia, lantana, bee balm, marigold, salvia, Joe-Pye weed, purple coneflower, pentas, blazing star, firebush, Mexican sunflower, and glossy abelia. Don’t forget host plants for butterfly larvae to eat, such as dill, fennel, parsley, and passion vine.
17. The vast majority of garden plants like sun and well-drained soil.
Tattoo this onto your forearm so that you’ll remember. Always.
18. Shade, like dying plants, is not so much a problem as an opportunity.
For color in shade, try these perennials: hosta, heuchera, Lenten rose, hardy begonia, variegated Solomon’s seal, Japanese anemone, toad lily, lungwort, and ferns.
19. Know the surest way to kill a plant.
Make it the focal point of your garden. It will die immediately.
20. It's easy to keep dogs from digging up your flowers. Get rid of one or the other.
21. The secret to keeping your lawn green all summer is not cutting it lower than 2 inches.
Lawns mowed tall are less stressed by heat and drought, build more extensive root systems, and need less water and fertilizer.
22. Choose the perfect tree for a small space.
People often ask me for a recommendation. My first thought is Japanese maple; it’s my second thought too.
23. Fruiting veggies such as tomatoes, peppers, melons, and squash need full sun.
For partial sun or light shade, choose leafy greens, such as lettuce, mustard, and spinach.
24. You know you’re a gardener if you consider a truckload of manure an acceptable Mother’s Day gift.
It’s also great for birthdays and anniversaries.
25. No kind of grass will grow in full shade—not even the illegal kind.
So either mulch the area or plant a shade-loving ground cover, like Japanese pachysandra, mondo grass, evergreen ferns, or moss.
26. Find out how big a tree or shrub will grow before you put it in the ground.
Assume that if the plant tag says it grows 6 feet tall, it will grow twice that big in your yard. Many homes in the suburbs have been lost forever to shrubs planted from 1-gallon pots that grew as big as Stone Mountain.
27. There’s an easy way to prevent insect and disease problems.
Start with plants that are naturally pest resistant. If you're growing tomatoes, look for letters VFTNA after the selection name. This tells you your plants resist the most common tomato diseases. To locate other resistant plants, consult The New Southern Living Garden Book, edited by yours truly.
28. Forecasting the day of your last Spring frost is easy. It always comes right after your set out your impatiens.
29. It's a mistake to copy what your neighbor is doing in his garden.
He likely has no idea. In fact, he’s probably waiting for you to make the first move. If that’s the case, have some fun with him by tying a cow to your birdbath.
30. Avoid wetting the foliage when you water.
Wet foliage encourages disease. Exceptions are plants that like damp conditions, such as ferns and moss. And don’t use lawn sprinklers to water your garden beds. The right amount of water for grass is seldom the same as that for flowers, trees, and shrubs. Water these with a hose.
31. Do not put up “Deer Crossing” or “Chipmunk Crossing” signs, because deer and chipmunks cannot read.
Wet foliage encourages disease. Exceptions are plants that like damp conditions, such as ferns and moss. And don't use lawn sprinklers to water your garden beds. The right amount of water for grass is seldom the same as that for flowers, trees, and shrubs. Water these with a hose.
32. Never pile dirt over the exposed roots of a mature tree, especially an oak.
The roots will be smothered, and the tree will croak. If you want to cover roots to level the ground, use something light that lets the air through, such as pine straw or bark mulch.
33. Beware of big trees that are hollow inside or have mushrooms growing on them.
They’ll probably fall down on something precious, like your Big Green Egg or your house. Take preemptive action now.
34. There are easy flowers for people who have never gardened before.
Start with the ones you can grow by simply scattering their seeds on bare soil and watering. Sow columbines, zinnias, mariigolds, cosmos, sunflowers, and bachelor's buttons in spring for summer blooms. Sow poppies, sweet Williams, money plants, and larkspurs in fall for spring blooms.
35. Resolve that the only mimosa you will enjoy in your garden is the one you can drink.
Yes, I know you just loved climbing the mimosa trees in Grandma's yard. The sweet flowers were so pretty. But did you have to pull up thousands of its seedlings or gaze at a tree that was so ugly in winter it belonged on Mount Doom? No.
36. The purpose of a kinked garden hose is to make you stop, take a look at the world around you, and waste precious time.
37. Ask your lawn service what product they’re applying.
This way, you can Google the product’s name so you know what the potential hazards are.
38. Don’t rake up the fallen tree leaves on your lawn.
Run them over with a mulching mower. The ground-up particles will filter down to the soil, enrich it, and attract earthworms. Or bag the chopped leaves and use them to mulch your planting beds. They look great and stay put.
39. Simon and Garfunkel sang about parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme for a reason.
It's because they're very easy herbs to grow. They also could have mentioned basil, chives, oregano, and dill, but that probably would have messed up the song.
40. Find a new way to enjoy hydrangeas all winter long.
Spray-paint the old, brown flowers blue or pink. But not orange. That's tacky.
41. Answer smartly when a person asks what you think of their ugly yard.
Try “That’s really something!” or “I’ve never seen that before!” or “Who would have thought of that?” Never say, “Bless your heart.” If you do, they’ll know you think it’s ugly.
42. Just because a plant is native, that doesn’t make it better.
Some of the weediest plants around, such as Virginia creeper, hackberry, silver maple, trumpet creeper, and river oats, are natives that will take over. Choose the right plant for the spot, no matter its origin.
43. Hiding a nice house behind a hedge of shrubs is like putting plaid flannel pajamas on Taylor Swift. If a house is pretty, show it off.
44. To keep birds from pecking holes in your ripe tomatoes, hang red Christmas balls on the vines. This drives them nuts!
45. When planting a tree or shrub, dig the hole no deeper than the root-ball.
The key is to make it three times as wide. Use the excavated soil to fill in around the roots. Then water thoroughly, mulch over the top, and enjoy an adult beverage.
46. Don’t burn off a dormant lawn in winter.
It will look like an asteroid struck your yard. Not to mention, the last time I set fire to my dormant lawn, I nearly burned down my garage.
47. Old and dry potting soil will not absorb water.
Fix this by slowly pouring water containing a drop or two of liquid detergent into it and stirring with a stick or spoon. It will absorb water from then on.
48. Never allow your cat to drive your lawn tractor.
He’s too short to see over the steering wheel and usually runs over the flowers.
49. Neem-oil is a safe, natural control for many insects, mites, and diseases.
You can get it at most garden centers. NATRIA Disease Control is a safe biofungicide that smells a little funky but does a great job on black spot, mildew, and other leaf diseases.
50. Pity the fools who don’t read my blog each week.
By missing out on my posts at southernliving.com, they’re like people who pass up a breakfast beer. The full richness of life eludes them.