In a perfect world we would walk out into our spring gardens and be surrounded by beautiful flowering shrubs and trees, with a lush, green lawn, and the promise of another perfect gardening season. Too often, though, the reality falls short of our vision, and we instead find a tired collection of unhappy plants, with a few sporadic blooms – hardly what we had in mind. But there is hope. With a few simple steps you can have your garden looking great and heading for the best season ever – so let’s get to it.
Prune for Maximum Bloom
The first priority is to work with the plants you already have and improve their prospects. It may be that you have shrubs in need of pruning, and that is the first place to start. As a ‘rule of thumb’, we can divide our shrubs into two groups. Those that flower early, from buds on stems grown in the previous year, and those that flower later, on stems that grow new in spring. The plants that are already in bloom in your garden, or showing buds, will be in that early-flowering group, so leave them aside and start with the others. If you have hydrangea, crape myrtle, and other shrubs that flower from mid-summer onwards, then spring is the time to prune them. Begin by removing some of the oldest stems completely, to open up the structure, which if you haven’t been pruning regularly will be crowded. Then shorten the growth from the previous year – it will be thinner, with smoother bark. For the biggest blooms, cut back to just a few inches from the wood of the previous year. For more blooms, but smaller ones, cut back about half-way down.
As soon as your spring-flowering shrubs have finished blooming, prune them. Remove the stems that flowered completely, so that they are replaced by new ones for the next year. Some spring plants, like flowering dogwood and flowering cherry, just need a few inches taken off the new shoots, while other benefit from a hard pruning. Shrubs grown for winter twigs, like dogwood, and even those grown for foliage color, will all benefit from hard pruning every few years, and produce longer stems, bigger leaves and brighter twigs.
Mulch and Mulch Again
Many gardeners use mulch, but often it is bark chips, shredded bark or gravels. These might look nice, and they do conserve moisture, but they do nothing for your soil, or your plants. A much better approach is to use something rich and nutritious, like garden compost or rotted manures. These are often suggested when planting, but they make the perfect mulch too, and they feed your soil slowly, enriching it over the years and making chemical fertilizers unnecessary. Spring is a good time to mulch, ideally early, before growth begins. Fall is also a good time, and it can be easier to do when the leaves are down. Spread a layer 2 to 4 inches thick, keeping it off the stems and the foliage of evergreens. Depending on what you use and where you are, it will last up to 4 years. Simply add a new layer over the top when it seems to have mostly disappeared. You will be amazed at the effect on your garden.
Treat Yourself to Something New
With pruning and rich mulches your plants will soon respond and look better than they ever have. Now you can see where the gaps are, and what you need to add for maximum impact. Whether your garden is new or old, there is always room for a new plant. Be critical of what you have, and that old shrub that never does much of anything should go and be replaced by something better. Plant breeders are always bringing us new delights and new variations on old favorites, and like a new outfit, some new plants will really give your garden a lift. Look at what you lack – is your garden all green? Then add one of the many newer plants with colorful foliage. Purples and reds are always popular, but lime-greens are powerful ‘garden lifts’ too, and really bring your planting to life. Unusual foliage colors like pinks and corals are available too, and make great specimens.
Think of the Seasons
There is a strong tendency to buy plants that are in bloom – so in the spring rush your garden can easily end up with nothing but spring flowers. Instead, before choosing new plants, assess what you have in terms of seasons – the goal should be a garden that always has something in bloom. Designers often use a method that looks at the garden as a grid. Imagine your beds in, say, 6-foot squares. Now, in each square there should be something for each season of the year. It could be the same plant, with spring flowers, summer colored foliage, and fall berries, or several plants growing side by side. Think in layers as well, so you have something overhead with, say spring blooms and fall foliage, and then underneath something that is bright and colorful in summer. For example, a flowering dogwood with a colorful Nandina (sacred bamboo) growing beneath it. Depending on the size of your garden, the size of that square can be increased or decreased – but this approach gives you a terrific spread of color around the garden, in all seasons.
Evergreens give Structure and Stability
In the rush to add flowers, don’t forget some evergreens too. Apart from adding interesting shapes – like columns or balls – they can add interesting foliage color too. Blue is always a good garden color, and really only available in evergreens. The true value of evergreens is really only seen in winter, when they really keep your garden looking good. With hedges and clusters they provide the skeleton of your garden, which otherwise can easily end up as a collection of twigs.
Don’t Forget Planters
Many gardens have lots of paved surfaces – driveways, broad paths and patios. Planter boxes really bring these blank areas to life, and shrubs instead of annual flowers means very little maintenance. Planters are especially good as homes for plants that won’t grow well in your garden soil – acid-loving plants like azaleas and camellias for example. While they might struggle in your soil, in a planter you can give them exactly the soil they need, and they will thrive. Perfect blue hydrangeas, winter camellias, and colorful azaleas can be grown, and they can add a whole new dimension to your garden. Go for big planters, as they are much less work, and need less constant attention to watering, than small pots do.