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Grooming Your Flower Garden

Some maintenance tasks require devotion to a regular routine during the blooming season to keep your flowers looking good. Other chores — such as getting the flower bed ready for winter — are seasonal. If you've ever had the burden of caring for a lawn, you'll be pleasantly surprised to find that flowers require much less attention than grass. Flower-garden maintenance can almost always wait until you have time for it.

Collecting the tools you need

Following is a list of the basic tools you need to work in your garden:

  • Buckets: Buy several.
  • Hand trowel: A hand trowel looks like a very small shovel. It's the tool you use the most in gardening, so buy a good one. A high-quality hand trowel costs as much as a shovel, but don't skimp. You use it to transplant small flowers and bulbs, to enlarge holes you've dug with a shovel, and to weed. You may want to buy two sizes — one with a wide blade for digging and one with a narrow blade for weeding. If you only buy one, get the wider size.
  • Pruning shears: Try out shears before you buy them to get a comfortable fit. When you hold the handles open in your hand, they shouldn't extend past the reach of your fingertips. Good pruning shears are very expensive, but they stay sharp longer than a cheap pair and have parts that are replaceable if they wear out.
  • Scissors: A pair of lightweight, aluminum household scissors are really slick for cutting foliage and lightweight stems (much larger handfuls than you can manage with pruning shears) and for all-around snipping.
  • Shovel or spade: You need a shovel or spade for digging holes and for mixing amendments into the soil.
  • Stiff-tined rake: A stiff-tined rake is helpful for smoothing out the surface of the soil and for spreading mulch. Use it with the tines up for spreading fine materials, tines down for coarse materials.
  • Wheelbarrow or garden cart: A wheelbarrow or garden cart is a real time- and back-saver. Buy one that you can handle easily.

Buying the right tools

Always buy the best quality tools that you can afford; they last a lifetime if you take care of them. (Always quit gardening for the day while you still have enough energy and daylight to clean your tools and put them away.) Cheap tools break too readily to be a true bargain. Don't order tools through the mail without first trying them out. One size doesn't fit all. You actually need to heft a tool to see whether you can use it comfortably. A bad fit guarantees backaches and blisters. After you know which tools suit your grip, go ahead and order them from a catalog, especially if you can save some money by doing so.

Small tools have a way of getting lost in the nooks and crannies of a flower bed. To make your tools easy to locate, paint a band of bright color or wrap a strip of colored tape on the part of the handle that you don't hold. Some tools have a hole at one end so that you can hang them on a nail; tie a piece of brightly colored yarn through the hole to make your tool stand out against the garden's neutral backdrop. In this case, garish is good.

Renting the really big puppies

Large, gasoline-powered machines are a real help with large projects, but they're expensive to buy and take up a great deal of storage space. Renting or borrowing these machines when you need them is more practical. Usually, these machines are rented out by the hour or the day. Unless you have a hitch on your vehicle and a small trailer, expect to pay a delivery charge as well. Rental costs vary but are usually about the same as a moderately priced dinner. The two most useful large machines are power tillers and chipper-shredders.

Developing a maintenance routine

A 100- to 200-square-foot (9- to 18-square-meter) flower garden shouldn't take more than a few minutes a week of tending, with a couple of hours of major cleanup several times a year. This section covers some of the housekeeping aspects of gardening.

Deadheading

Flowers in a vase eventually start to wither and die, and so do flowers in the garden as they age. Removing these crumpled corpses (called deadheading) serves several purposes:

  • Deadheading improves the look of the garden.
  • Most dead flowers form seeds. Some plants replace flowers with really attractive seedheads. But others scatter their seeds all over the garden, much like a dandelion does. You often wind up with dozens of baby flowers that you have to pull out to avoid ending up with a hundred daisies in one square foot of garden soil. Cutting off flowers before they form seeds prevents this maintenance headache.
  • Many perennials stop blooming after they form seeds. Removing the fading flowers before they can complete the process encourages the plant to continue blooming.

To deadhead, simply cut the dead flower off — using scissors for lightweight stems or pruning shears for heavy and thick ones. Cut the stem below the flower at the first leaves or flower bud you come to.

Disbudding

If you like your flowers really big, you may want to indulge in the practice of disbudding. Before the buds start to open, remove all but one or two flower buds on each stem. The plant then directs all its energy to the remaining buds, resulting in large flowers. Gardeners commonly disbud dahlias, chrysanthemums, peonies, and carnations.

Nipping and tucking with scissors and shears

Here are more things you can do with your pruning shears and scissors:

  • Pinch: To keep perennials denser and shorter, you may want to pinch or shear them a couple of times early in the season. This process is called pinching because you can actually pinch off the top of each stem between your thumb and forefinger — but using scissors or pruning shears is quicker and easier.
    Snip: Snip (or pinch) off the top few inches (8 cm or so) of the plant when it grows to a foot tall (30 cm) in spring and again in the middle of summer. Every stem you cut grows several new stems. The result is stocky sprays of more, but smaller, flowers. Chrysanthemums and asters are two perennials that are routinely pinched. Otherwise, they tend to get floppy.
  • Shear: For a quicker alternative to pinching, use scissors or pruning shears to cut the top 6 inches (15 cm) off your plants a couple of times before midsummer.
  • Cut back hard: When the directions for a plant tell you to cut it back hard, that means reduce the height of the plant by approximately one-third to one-half, using either scissors or pruning shears. Sometimes, hard pruning is recommended solely to improve the plant's appearance, but it may also be necessary to renew a plant's vigor.
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