How Does Your Summer Garden Grow?

The top 10 tips, tools and techniques to keep your plot picture-perfect this summer.

I’ve been gardening for 40 years, accumulating good habits and great tips on how to garden successfully. The best habit, however, is to go out and sniff the air, listen for the insects and be at peace with yourself and nature. And, while you’re doing this, here are 10 things to keep in mind.

1. Soil: it’s not dirt, it’s a living breathing material that we’re utterly dependent on. Treat it with respect. Never leave it exposed to the blazing sun, blanket it with compost and mulch; don’t let direct hits from a watering hose pound it into sand. Add organic matter at least twice a year.

2. The magic bullet of gardening is compost – food for your soil. Compost all green scraps from your kitchen even if you just dump them into a hole and cover up with soil. Otherwise, buy it or get it free from the city and spread it around in spring without worrying about covering bulbs and perennials. They will find their way through.

3. Once the soil has warmed up and you can see where everything is growing, add a well-composted bark mulch. Not dyed (truly a hideous practice); make it look as nature intended. Don’t pile it up around tree trunks and keep a bit of space around other plants. Mulch discourages weeds and keeps the soil cool. Put it around vulnerable plants in autumn.

4. My hort-buddy Juliet put me on to this one: plant summer bulbs such as gladiolas, acidanthera, freesias in containers topped with a light layer of animal hair (cat or dog is good). It keeps out squirrels, caterpillars and slugs but isn’t foolproof with rabbits in her garden (none so far in mine). It works.

5. Keep Felco 2 secateurs close. They can handle most of the nipping needed on any given day. My rule is that if it needs something bigger, hire a professional. I watched my tree guy, Derek Welsh, take a bit off here and another off there as he walked and talked his way through the garden. It’s second nature to me now; therefore, no plant gets overwhelming.

6. Have a pair of old leather gloves on hand. When evergreens look like they are browning off, gently run your gloved hands over the dead-looking bits. This will leave room for new growth without inflicting any damage. And don’t be afraid to snip out the worst of the brown – you might revive the plant.

7. Snap to it: in the spring, grab the brown stems of low grasses, and simply give a little twist of the wrist to snap them off. But make sure you can see the teensy tips just pushing up from the ground. Otherwise, leave them alone until you can do this easily.

8. Control space: espalier fruit trees against a fence or wall; pleach trees, such as beeches (Fagus spp), to make a handsome tailored edge to your garden for privacy.

9. The giant urban tree is every gardener’s nightmare. Here’s what I did with my front yard’s silver maple: I had a raised bed built around it, and then backfilled with good soil. I then quickly planted perennials and small shrubs in between the big roots, then topped it with masses of compost and mulch. It’s watered slowly and deeply twice a week so that everything, especially the tree, gets a drink, and roots dive downward, not upward. The maple has survived a lot longer than anyone could imagine, and the plants thrive.

10. Epsom salts helps get rid of fungal diseases, and it’s cheap. Add a cup of it to the soil when you are about to plant a tree. Ditto with shrubs and perennials from 15 ml down to 5 ml for your annuals. This contributes minerals that help absorb phosphorus and nitrogen. Save a big cup to add to a long, hot, soaky bath at the end of your gardening day. Bliss.

Landscape Language
Espalier: prune so that limbs lie in a horizontal manner against the fence
Pleach: prune out the lower limbs and remove limbs growing outward toward the front