Plant care and proper periodic maintenance practices are essential to keep your plants healthy and happy. In some ways, maintenance can be more important than planting. While many plants have similar needs, such as light, water, and nutrients, there are also many differing needs between different groups of plants. Ornamentals, fruits, vegetables, and grasses all need slightly different kinds of care.
This is a super broad topic upon which books can be written. We are not attempting to provide a complete discussion on all things plant maintenance-related, but instead, we would like to present you with a brief primer on the things that every home gardener should know.
Table of Contents
1. An Eye for Simplicity
Perhaps the best advice that I can give you when planning out a garden or a bunch of gardens in the case of a landscape plan is to plan for simplicity. Time and time again, I have seen immensely imaginative and complex landscape and garden plans go to hell in a short period of time due to a lack of commitment to maintenance. It is better to start small and grow as your enthusiasm grows than it is to go big and find yourself overwhelmed.
Unless you are a very avid gardener, keep it simple. The more complex and grandiose your plan is to start, the more maintenance it will be in the end. Don’t get me wrong; you can still have a creative and beautiful backyard; just plan it out to make it as maintenance-free as possible. Using easy-to-grow and maintain plants that are well suited to your area and planting them in areas of your yard that they will be happy in will all tie into the simplicity. Your thoughtfulness while planning the garden will pay off for years to come.
2. Soil Nourishment
The “Give and Take” rule is fully applicable in Gardening. When you continuously harvest the nutrients, oxygen, and water from the soil, you will need to give it back. Organic composts, including well-rotten farmyard manure, vermicompost, biofertilizers, wheat straw, etc., are long-lasting, slow-releasing, soil and environmentally friendly materials that restore the soil fertility and also enhance soil aeration and water holding capacity.
Don’t worry if you don’t have access to commercially available compost; adding any sort of organic matter back to the soil on a consistent basis will help.
Keep in mind that some organic matter will actually pull nutrients from the soil before these nutrients are returned, so it’s best to let the stuff sit, turn it a few times and let it begin to rot before putting it on the garden.
On the other hand, if done regularly, organic matter can be lightly added to the soil at all times of the year. This is how nature works, right? Dead plant material and animal waste falls to the ground, breaks down, and nourishes the soil. We can help nature along by adding our grass clippings, leaves, kitchen scraps, etc., to the soil.
3. Annual Pruning
For some plants, pruning can be an essential part of plant maintenance, and for others, it isn’t necessary at all. Pruning is the removal of plant parts such as branches, flowers, buds, or sometimes fruits. Different pruning practices will have different effects on different plants. Sometimes pruning is important for a gardener to get the best crop yield possible, and sometimes pruning betters the health and shape of the plant.
Keep in mind that some plants, especially when pruned severely, will respond by sending out many new shoots in an attempt to recover from the perceived “injury.” So sometimes, pruning can result in more than you started with. Crab trees are notorious for this. For the most part, pruning is not normal for a shrub or tree. If the plant is well-shaped and fits its space, it may never need to be pruned.
How you Prune – Your pruning technique is important. Always use sharp cutting tools sized for the cut. All cuts should be clean and free from cracking or splitting wood. Clean cuts are easier to heal. All cuts should be just after a branch or bud. Stubs left after the bud will just die back and open up the potential for rot or disease. Never cut the leader from a tree. Trees grow differently from shrubs, and when you cut off the leader (highest central stem), it will really mess up the growth of the tree as all of the surrounding branches will now grow to try to make up for the loss, and the tree is likely to be forever misshapen.
How you prune is often determined by the type of plant you are pruning. Low-growing, multi-stemmed shrubs such as dogwood will grow tall and lanky as they would in the wilderness, but if you want them to stay small and pretty, you will need to remove several of the biggest woody stems right down to the ground. A shrub that is sheared for shape year after year will end up
Timing your Pruning – The time of the year that you prune can significantly impact how the plant reacts. In general terms, it is typically better to prune a plant when it is dormant during the colder part of the year. Pruning a plant as or shortly after it begins pushing growth in the spring will almost certainly reduce its growth for the season.
Old Wood or New Wood? – Plants that set their buds in the fall and bloom on old wood in the spring, such as lilacs, ninebark, rhododendron, azaleas, forsythia, some hydrangeas, and some roses, need to be pruned shortly after their bloom ends. If these plants don’t have at least three months of good growing weather before their next season’s bloom, they will not be able to set buds and produce blooms, meaning that pruning old wood bloomers in the spring will result in no blooms for that season. These plants tend to have more of a solid shrub structure and really don’t need to be pruned much at all unless the shape is undesirable, in which case they can be pruned back to the shape that you want over several years.
Plants that bloom on new wood can be pruned in late fall or early spring as they will send out shoots and buds to bloom as soon as they become active in the spring. These would include plants like most spirea, the spreading hydrangeas, and all perennial flowers that die back in winter. Plants such as these do really well when they are cut back every spring, and the cutting back inspires new growth and ensures full blooms.
In general, if a plant blooms first thing in spring, it is blooming on old wood, and it is likely blooming on new wood if it blooms mid-summer or later.
Pruning of Fruit Bearers – Pomegranate, Grape, Guava, Mango, Citrus, and Strawberry are easy-to-grow fruit plants that home gardeners often prefer. Pomegranate, guava, and grapes need severe spring pruning; otherwise, they will not be fruit in the next season. While mango, citrus, litchi, pear, apple, etc., do not require annual pruning, you’ll just want to remove the dead, broken, or diseased branches. Prune the young trees to give them a proper framework that will help them fit into the space and sunlight availability in your garden.
Pruning of Perennial Vegetables – for the most part, other than perhaps pinching off some buds or removing some lower foliage, vegetables are not commonly pruned. In vegetables, weeds are the primary issue. Keeping the plants at standard row-to-row and plant-to-plant distance will be excellent to avoid fungal attacks and pests attacks and reap a healthy harvest. Garrison, N. (2005).
4. Wise Water Usage
“No Water, No Life.” Wise and efficient water usage is good for the plants and the environment. The best-case scenario is that all of the plants in your yard are native to the area, and they don’t need any watering. Planting only native species severely lessens the plant’s dependence on us for survival. Native plants have developed mechanisms to allow them to thrive in your area, so it’s usually only the non-natives that need our help.
If you have newly planted plants or non-natives, grow them in a place where the soil conditions are to their liking and water them deeply for the first few months after they are planted. Once the roots establish, the non-native plant may still need some attention, but hopefully, it will be minimal.
If watering is necessary, water the plants early in the morning, before the sun rises, take care that the plants absorb every drop you are pouring, and always mulch over roots to help them conserve every drop of water they get.
5. Weed Control in the Garden
The complete removal of weeds from the garden is almost impossible, so controlling them is often the best way. Weeds compete for nutrients, space, and light and suppress actual crop growth. Organic mulching, hoeing, crop rotation, use of the pure seed, and clean irrigation water are the easy-to-do methods for controlling weeds in your garden. Never resort to damaging chemical weed killers when a hoe and a hand are all that is needed.
In ornamental landscape beds, planting density and mulching below plants will hugely affect weed growth. Densely planted perennials and mulch will drastically slow down the weeds.
6. Let the Climbers Climb
“Do not Grow Horizontally, What You can Grow Vertically.” Vining plants are stalked to save space and can be a magnificent addition to your garden. Vines will grow on almost any structure, like decorative, colorful cages, stalks, trellises, trees, shrubs, pergolas, gazebos, houses, etc.
Depending on the type of vine, you may need to nurture its growth and encourage it to climb, or you might need to fight hard to control it. Vines such as ivy and wild grape can be overwhelming and destructive to whatever they grow on, while some veggie vines like cucumbers need support and nourishment and will simply die and wilt at the end of the season.
Viney plants seem to always do better when climbing rather than simply growing along the ground. Some horticulturists claim that the stalked tomatoes and cucurbits yield double what the un-stalked ones will. When left to grow horizontally, vines are more susceptible to pests and disease.
Here is a list of plants that like to climb.
- Vining Tomato
- Cucurbits (pumpkins, melons, squashes, and gourds)
- Pole beans and Scarlet Runner Beans
- Malabar Spinach
- Climbing Hydrangea
- Kiwi Vine
- Trumpet Vine
- Climbing Roses
7. Crop Rotation
Crop rotation is the sequential practice of growing different kinds of crops in the same area of land to keep a balance in nutrient restoration, weed control, improved soil fertility, and control of insect pests. For example, a crop utilizing excessive potassium from the soil that is a host of a specific insect pest, when planted repeatedly in the same area, would cause the severe deficiency of that particular nutrient in the soil, and the insect population would become uncontrollable. Ultimately, the gardener has to provide that nutrient artificially and pesticides to control the pest pollution.
By rotating our crops, the soil can be replenished, and the pests can be minimized. It is best to rotate by crop families, and it works best if you actually map out your rotations so that you can keep track of which crop goes where from year to year.
8. Companion Planting
This entails planting two crops together or planting more than two kinds of crops together, each providing benefit to each other, or maybe one providing benefit to the others. It could be simply varying plant heights so that the companion plants get the sun or shade that they need when they need it. It could be planting one crop that repels a garden pest that the companion plant is susceptible to.
This technique can be used with plants of all types. You will need to research and use some common sense when planning out your plantings to make this work, but sometimes, the most straightforward solutions are the best. Companion planting is an excellent organic garden practice in pest control by providing alternate hosts to the pests or discouraging the pests altogether.
Inter-cropping is another method of companion cropping in which the early-maturing crops are planted within the rows between late-maturing crops. For example, spinach, lettuce, beans, onion, and radishes are early maturing and maybe planting between the rows of late-maturing, i.e., cabbage, tomato, pepper, corn, etc. (Parker, J. E., Snyder, W. E., Hamilton, G. C., & Rodriguez-Saona, C. (2013).
9. Sprouted Seed Teas
Here is a little known trick that not many are talking about. SST is a liquid nutrient-rich organic food for plants, and it is easy to apply and can be used in place of chemical fertilizers. It is made of seeds of any crop, including alfalfa, corn, barley, mung, beans, pulses, or whatever you have, and you can easily prepare it at home. The most important role of SST is that it provides the growth hormones to the plants they need to develop. It is also very important to suppress fungal diseases, and it is referred to as a “Wholesome Food” for the plants.
Sprouted seeds differ from non-sprouted seeds because the process of sprouting increases the availability of the multitude of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, etc., that are present in the seeds.
The basic process is to soak your seeds for a day, let them sprout, and then grind them in a blender and mix with water to apply to your garden.
Sprouting seeds have the maximum enzymatic activity taking place in them; we use those enzymes to grow our crops. SST can be applied in the form of foliar spray as well as mixing with irrigation water. (Ilmi, M., Putri, L. K., Muhamad, A. A. K., Cholishoh, A., & Ardiansyah, S. A. (2019, June)
10. No-Waste Gardening
This concept ties in directly with what we were saying back in the nourishment section. Do not let the waste from your yard and home waste away. Instead, use the weed stems, leaves, kitchen waste, grass clippings, and other organic material to feed your garden.
You can manufacture excellent organic food for the plants. Keep 2, 3 compost containers or piles filled with the composting material so that you will never need chemical fertilizers. Turn the compost regularly to aid decomposition and use the oldest pile first. Organic compost is a long-term nutrient source for the plants and soil; every time you irrigate your soil, the water takes away the nutrients from the decomposed plant material and adds them to the roots. It provides a balance that is not provided by the chemical fertilizers. Rossow, H. (2001)
11. Native Plant Selection
As stated in the section on watering, native plants are always easy to maintain. According to the USDA Forest Service, native plants are resistant to pathogenic insects (eliminating the need for pesticides and insecticides), require fewer fertilizers, reduce soil erosion and air pollution, and are wildlife’s food and shelter source. Native plants have a special role in the conservation of Biodiversity. They are adapted to the local soil and environmental conditions and do not demand much maintenance. (Gleason, R. A., Euliss Jr, N. H., Tangen, B. A., Laubhan, M. K., & Browne, B. A. (2011)
- Garrison, N. (2005). Planting Your Vegetable Garden.
- Parker, J. E., Snyder, W. E., Hamilton, G. C., & Rodriguez-Saona, C. (2013). Companion planting and insect pest control. Weed and Pest Control-Conventional and New Challenges, 10, 55044.
- Finch, S., Billiald, H., & Collier, R. H. (2003). Companion planting–do aromatic plants disrupt host‐plant finding by the cabbage root fly and the onion fly more effectively than non‐aromatic plants?. Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 109(3), 183-195.
- Ilmi, M., Putri, L. K., Muhamad, A. A. K., Cholishoh, A., & Ardiansyah, S. A. (2019, June). Use of mung bean sprout (tauge) as alternative fungal growth medium. In Journal of Physics: Conference Series (Vol. 1241, No. 1, p. 012015). IOP Publishing.
- Rossow, H. (2001). Australia’s capital leads world in turning waste into resources: hospitality of cities: emerging issues.[Canberra’s Waste Management Strategy-No Waste by 2010.]. Australian Property Journal, 36(7), 619-623.
- Florentín, M. A., Peñalva, M., Calegari, A., Derpsch, R., & McDonald, M. J. (2010). Green manure/cover crops and crop rotation in conservation agriculture on small farms. Integrated Crop Management, 12.
- Gleason, R. A., Euliss Jr, N. H., Tangen, B. A., Laubhan, M. K., & Browne, B. A. (2011). USDA conservation program and practice effects on wetland ecosystem services in the Prairie Pothole Region. Ecological Applications, 21(sp1), S65-S81.
- Cubino, J. P., Subirós, J. V., & Lozano, C. B. (2014). Maintenance, modifications, and water use in private gardens of Alt Empordà, Spain. HortTechnology, 24(3), 374-383.