Since we had a baby and have been flat out working on getting the renovations in The Crap Shack finished, one thing has definitely suffered – our garden.
I actually really enjoy working in the garden... although you might not think it if you were to pop over our place right now! Although I am not an expert, I used to interview a lot of landscapers and professional gardeners when I was writing stories for the paper and let me tell you there is nothing like writing about gardening to get you inspired to get stuck into working on your own! But when you have so many other things you have to get done, it is easy for something you enjoy to turn into yet another chore that you put on the backburner.
So in our garden the weeds started amassing, the hedges and vines grew wild and overgrown and the grass started to creep into the garden beds. Mr Nerd and I both kind of turned a blind eye to our garden recently until the other day. Mr Nerd was cutting a piece of wood to use as a window ledge in our kitchen, put in on our outdoor ‘coffee table’ (a huge slab of stone propped on some limestone blocks) and the stone cracked from a regular lack of sealant… oops.
How you design your garden, the soil and climate of where you live, which plants you choose and the amount and type of hardscaping will all determine how much maintenance it needs. Typically speaking though, there are a few absolute basics that most gardens regardless of design and climate will need.
With Little Nerd now taking longer daytime naps (bliss! I hope his daytime catnapping stage is over) we’ve had the luxury of time to get stuck back into our garden. So today I’m sharing ten easy tips for a prettier garden.
Invest in pruning equipment that will make the job fun.
When I was a teenager (and full of all the usual causes of teenage angst – failed maths test, eyebrows that didn’t match, unrequited love, flares that weren’t big enough, Sun-In attempts gone wrong etc) I used to take to the garden with shears whenever I was feeling particularly angst-y and hack away at things. One afternoon after two “E”s on Intro to Calculus tests I came home and took out my rage on two trees and cut down a 40-year-old rhododendron bush. I felt wonderful after – hedge trimming is very cathartic – but my dad came home from work and was so upset by the big brown, bare spot in his beautiful garden he sat quietly in his dark lounge for three days afterward, totally depressed. (They got me a maths tutor shortly afterward).
Most trees and bushes need pruning to encourage new growth and this is particularly the case for hedges and vines which need to be cut back regularly. This encourages denser foliage which provides a better screen for privacy, noise and shade. The plants you are growing will determine their rate of growth and how often you need to do this. Some varieties can and need to be heavily cut back to avoid ‘leggy’ growth which looks unsightly and forms large gaps in your hedge. You can seriously slash the amount of time it takes you to prune by investing in a hedge trimmer from specialists like Ryobi. We used our hedge trimmer to prune the trumpet vine hedge that was choking our lovely old dragon tree and the trimmer made a hard job a LOT easier!
Not only will you end up with a better-looking hedge if you use a good hedge trimmer, it will grow faster and rather than dreading pruning, you’ll probably end up finding it quite cathartic and enjoying it (a la myself in Year 10, post-calculus test). You can also use all the trimmings for your compost and when it’s ready, pop it around the roots of your hedge for healthier, faster growing plants.
A strong weeding attack.
Weeds - the eternal enemy of gardeners across the world. As weeds are spread by birds and the wind, they will always make their way back to your garden despite your best efforts to kill them. Best to embrace them as a part of gardening life and get on with it (remember I mentioned in this story that you can even eat dandelions, if you are so inclined). Mulching will help minimise weed infestation, as can good groundcovers (try sweet potato for an edible one – it’s pretty as well. All you have to do is plant a few sweet potatoes).
The crappy thing about weeding is that you really do have to stay on top of it – but the more you weed, the less you will have to the next time around and so on. You can choose to go all natural and either remove weeds by hand or use a pyrethrum-based insecticide. Alternatively you can go for the most common insecticide which is glyphosate.
Get a garden hose that won’t kink.
Yes, there really is such a thing! Ever felt your rage levels rise as you wrestle with a garden hose, trying to straighten it out? I used to have to buy a new hose at least two or three times a year because ours would get all kinked up and unusable (on certain occasions getting so filled up from the water pressure that would build up, the hose would snap off from the tap and I would get sprayed unceremoniously in the eyes). Finally we got a Nylex Never Kink hose and although I was skeptical, I am not kidding, they really do not kink. They have a special mesh design that prevents twisting and although they cost a bit more than your usual cheap hose, they come with a 20 year warranty. Much better than buying three a year.
Fertiliser is food for plants. If you’re new to gardening, make sure you do your research first as different plants have different needs both in terms of nutrients and how often they should be fertilised. Seaweed preparations are safe for all plants and act as a root tonic which allows plants to better absorb nutrients. They will also help to build the resilience of your plants to extreme weather conditions. Because of this, apply these kind of preparations about once a month. One of the lushest gardens I ever visited for work was one where the guy actually collected seaweed from the shore and forked it into his soil. His plants were ridiculously healthy and lush and he was very, very smug.
Kill bindii. Kill them all.
Poor Nala has had many a pleasant springtime walk spoilt by “prickle paws” – bindii, those small, fern-like flat weeds with those horrible painful prickles. Ivy League Gardens director Janine Mendelow says bindii should be manually removed before forming seeds, as it can be tedious to remove if it has spread too far, in which case a weed killer could be the best way to go. “Use registered weed killers as per instructions on containers,” she says. “Caution should be exercised as some of the broad weed killers are not suitable for use on buffalo lawns.” She warns that it may not be a good idea to use fertilisers at the same time as using weed killers, so apply separately. “A mixture of two tablespoons of iron sulphate to 4.5 litres of water sprinkled over the weeds is said to be effective, but make sure it is washed off paths and paving areas,” Ms Mendelow. Keep lawns lush and thick with no bare patches for weeds to take hold and improve soil balance with manures to prevent bindii from striking in the first place.
Mulch for weed control and to save water.
Mulch provides a number of useful benefits. It helps with weed suppression and control, maintains moisture during summer to reduce water consumption and plant stress, and provides valuable organic matter and microbes to the soil which produces healthier, more robust plants.
Plant low-care things.
Are you a bit of a lazy gardener like myself? Find things that are suited to your soil and you will not make the mistake of spending a whole lot of money and soil enrichers trying to grow things that aren’t suited for your area. When we moved into our place I made the mistake of optimistically planting a whole lot of things that only just subsisted or completely died. Afterward I spent a lot of time walking around the neighbourhood staring creepily into other people’s gardens to see what plants flourished in our suburb’s crap, sandy soil and what didn’t. Even though it meant admitting defeat that some of my favourite pretty plants wouldn’t do well in our area (like silver birches, which remind me of my mum’s native Germany) I ended up coming up with a long list of things like robinia trees, fig trees, citrus, lavender, mulberry, African boxwood and agapanthus and we ended up planting loads of these things.
Fix dry, non-absorbent soil.
Ever illustriously watered a plant to notice that the water just sits on top of the soil or drizzles away? You’ve been cursed with non-absorbent soil. Gardens from Eden managing director Colin Barlow says you need to apply a wetting agent such as Eziwet, Grosorb or Wettasoil every October and February to ensure that you don’t waste any water. “Also incorporate organic soil conditioners into the soil and mulch 10 to 15cm deep with organic mulch each spring,” he says. Other ways to improve non-absorbent soil include spiking and aerating compacted lawn areas, top dressing turf with an organic soil conditioner and verti-mowing lawns to remove excess thatch in spring.
When in doubt…
My favourite gardening tip of all – disguise the not-so-perfect bits. Add lanterns. Or bunting. Or fairy lights. Or quaint old chairs and cushions, and a fire pit or fire bowl, or pots filled with flowers. The aim is simple… bring out your inner hippie and distract the eye from the brown, bare patches and unkempt bits with pretty things! Gardens are meant to be enjoyed, after all – as our friends will attest, we’ve definitely never let a bit (or a lot!) of garden mess stop us from entertaining!
Do you have a good tip for a better garden... or a sneaky cover-up idea? Please share it! Maya x