The Seven Habits of Highly Successful Gardeners

Or is it The Seven Pillars of Horticultural Wisdom, or the Ten All-time Top Garden Tips?

As everyone’s resolutions remind us, something there is that loves a number attached to advice, a number smaller than the one I regard as most realistic: The Twenty Three Thousand, Four Hundred and Sixty Two Things It’s Important to Remember Before Getting Out of Bed.

So be warned. I haven’t really honed it down to only seven; these are just the first seven essentials that came to mind when I decided to do this. And not in order, either. (details after the jump)

* Make Compostcompost-bins-at-stonecrop The compost bins at Stonecrop

* Use Compost

* Plant Crops in Wide Beds


Feed the Soil, not the Plants

Share Something

Be There 

 Make Compost  

Short version: Mother Nature never throws anything away.

Longer version: Composting is the rare silk purse from sow’s ear, something for nothing win-win. You start out with kitchen, yard and garden debris and wind up with two benefits: 1) a great soil amendment and 2) many green points for avoiding the landfill.

It’s easy to fall into thinking that compost’s last name is bin, and that careful layering and turning are part of the deal. But piling shredded leaves in a corner counts too. So does “trench composting,” handy for those with little garden space, and so does bringing your kitchen scraps to a place (try the nearest community garden) that will compost them if you can’t. I have a friend in Manhattan, for instance, who brings her coffee grounds, orange peels and such to the Lower East Side Ecology Center at  Union Square Greenmarket.

Use Compost. Spread it around plants to ward off disease; put a bit in your potting mix to add slow-release micronutrients; top dress beds with it to improve soil structure no matter what kind of soil you have; use it to help restore life to soil that’s exhausted from years of chemical abuse. Sprinkle it on the lawn spring and fall to encourage the shallow grass roots… It’s almost impossible to use too much.

Plant Crops in Wide Beds.

wide beds in Maine garden

Wide beds in Maine garden

Crops being anything planted for harvesting: vegetables, cutting flowers, shrubs on hold… keeping these grouped as tightly as possible in beds that are not trod upon cuts down on weeding, conserves water, allows the compost to be concentrated where it will do the most good and improves soil structure year upon year as the layers of organic matter pile up. These beds are frequently raised or at least corralled neatly by boards or – I saw it once and am still impressed all these years later – by long slabs of granite. Aesthetics aside, the primary virtue of this tidiness is easier path maintenance. From the soil and plant point of view it’s the special treatment that matters.

 Mulch  clothes the soil in a protective barrier that moderates temperature, conserves water, helps keep soil-borne diseases from splashing up and helps keep soil itself from splashing up – on your lettuce, for instance. Almost any organic mulch that will rot down into the soil is almost always preferable to landscape fabric with some kind of icing, but choosing the right mulch for each job is worth the extra effort.

Straw for instance is inexpensive, but it’s untidy compared to wood chips and it breaks down a lot faster. That suits straw to the vegetable patch while the chips win under shrubs. (The specialized mulches for warming soil and/or reflecting back just the right light upon your vegetables are seldom biodegradable. My experiments with them are ongoing so all I can say at this point is: remember they only work when light falls on them; the more your garden resembles a jungle – no names please – the less effective they will be.

Feed the Soil, not the Plants

Short version: Junk food, including organic junk food, has plenty of calories and may include added vitamins. But it’s not great long term nourishment, for many reasons we’ve learned and others we can so far only observe. Our bodies know the difference between eating a carrot and taking a capsule of vitamin A. Same deal with the soil.

Longer version: Plant health depends on healthy roots; healthy roots depend on healthy soil for air, water and nutrients delivered in forms plants can use. Soil rich in organic matter  – compost! – is generally rich in nutrients and in the teeming life (fungi, bacteria, worms, etc.) that makes those nutrients available to the plants.

Ornamental plants in good soil seldom need added fertilizer and crop plants that do need extra food need less of it when it’s released slowly by friendly soil from things like rock powders, kelp and green manures. For an example of how this works with nitrogen, one of the most important nutrients, here’s a Rodale Institute Research Report.

Share Something; if you’ve got a garden, you’re rich.

Got seeds? The Seed Savers Exchange  isn’t just about vegetables; there’s an affiliated Flower and Herb exchange, too. Got flowers? Hospitals won’t take them anymore (allergies) but group homes, soup kitchens and  – why not? – your neighborhood hardware store might be delighted with a bit of brightening up. Got produce? There’s a national umbrella campaign for vegetable gardeners who want to plant a row for the hungry, and many food banks, farmers markets and community gardens have set up organized donations. But there’s no law that says you can’t just give your extra beans to anyone who genuinely wants them. Hunger isn’t always physical.

The garden itself is worth sharing too. Garden tours are popular fundraisers so if you’re up for the attendant stress it’s likely there’s a cause that’s looking for locations. In my experience with these things there’s always a lot more preparation than I’ve allowed for; also a lot more given back in new friends, new ideas and gazillions of pats.

Be There

Whether Lao Tse actually said it or not, it’s true: The best fertilizer is the shadow of the gardener.

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  • Dawn Fine Said,

    I love your blog! lots of wonderful information…thanks

  • leslie Said,

    thank YOU, Dawn, and happy new year

  • commonweeder Said,

    I’m so happy to have found your blog. I’m going to add you to my blogroll. We are totally in sync. I only wish I knew where you lived – where straw is cheap. A bale around here costs more than $10! Happily for me my neighbor had a tree taken down and I was passing just as the tree guy was asking if anyone needed wood chips. I got a whole free truck load! I’ve been using it over cardboard to make a border/path around the perimeter of the garden. Its a part of my weed control system.

  • leslie Said,

    welcome, CW it’s great to have you here! We live ( and garden) in the Hudson Valley and in Coastal Maine. Straw is about 7/bale in NY, 8 or so in Maine — or it was; I’m not going to be surprised if it’s more in ’09.

    Congrats on scavenging the wood chips and putting them to such good use. We’ve gotten chips the same way – just for the asking – from town road crews from time to time. It seems completely random; see the truck; ask the guys (always guys) and sometimes they’ll dump the whole load in your yard and sometimes they won’t. Mystery to me….

    update: now that Bill has explained so much (see below), I see I should have added that the mystery isn’t a problem because his scavenging efforts more than make up for any shortfall.

  • Bill Said,

    In the Hudson Valley of New York, over the past decade or so the crews keeping the power lines clear seem to have switched from spraying to using a pruning regime. That means that as they prune the bigger stuff, they come along with a chipper and grind up the grindable. Some they just shoot off into roadside piles, some they will bring to a home garden site as Leslie described but most they will bring to either a community composting site (like one at the periphery of the community gardens at Vassar Colege in Poughkeepsie, NY) or to the local landfill/transfer station. I have come to prefer picking up our chips at such a site.

    Currently I go to our town’s transfer station whenever I need chips. There are two or three piles always available, and depending on where in the pile I take the chips from I can pretty much get stuff that meets my needs. Some chips I want to be fresh and raw. I will use these to innoculate with mushroom spawn. Some I want to be rich with green matter, lots of leaves. These I will use in a trench compost mixture. Some I want to have already hot with decomposition. This still-steaming stuff I will use as a dressing around plants as the heat will have destroyed weed seeds and many pathogens.

    And, the best part is it is all free for the taking. One caveat. Blandings Turtles have come to use some of these piles for their egg hatching sites (the warmth, you know) and if momma with transmitter comes into a pile, those piles are off limits until the hatchlings are gone.

    The other great source for wood chips is to find a horse farm or stable and ask for the stuff that gets cleaned out of the stalls. The chips are usually of a very fine texture, often pine or oak, and since they are saturated with urine (the ammonia will make your eyes waterl) and contain lots of manure this stuff has a high nitrogen content and will cook very quickly. When I work one of these piles the heat is strong enough to make boots necessary. Sometimes the wood chip manure gets put into a metal trash collector. These are big railroad car sized trailors. If you are lucky enough to find one of these, dig down through the top layer to find the really great ‘black gold’ . Fantastic!

    When I was a kid back on the farm,my FFA Ag teacher taught us to fix the nitrogen in the urine by adding some superphosphate ( 0 -30-0). Leslie might know if greensand would also work. Otherwise much of the value can be lost to rainwater leaching if composting is interrupted.

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