A little patience goes a long way in the garden
If we slow down and live by nature's rhythms in the garden, the garden will become a place of peace
If we can school ourselves to pause, relax and let things happen in their own time, we won't just save money. We'll get stronger, healthier plants and more enjoyment from our outdoor spaces.
Don't work the soil too early. In early spring, when soil is wet, tilling, planting or even walking on it may pack it down so water and air can't flow between the soil particles, and roots have a hard time pushing through. If you have a vegetable garden, till in organic matter in the fall, not spring, so the leaves or compost have time over the winter to break down and you don't compact the soil in spring. Wait to plant until the soil warms up and dries out; it should be more crumbly than sticky.
Choose annuals that aren't blooming yet. Your first impulse, in the delirium of spring plant shopping, may be to buy the flat of pansies that's in glorious full bloom. But that means the pansies did half their blooming in the garden center; wouldn't you rather have them spend their whole bloom period in your garden? So buy plants that have plenty of buds, but just a bloom or two (to make sure of the color).
Don't buy perennials that are blooming out of season. When you're shopping on Mother's Day, of course you're going to pick the daylily with the flowers, right? Wrong. Daylilies don't naturally bloom until July; those May flowers were forced in a greenhouse. The forced blooms soon will fade, and the plant won't likely bloom again until the following July -- 15 months after you buy it. Read the tag to see when the plant is supposed to bloom, and don't buy it if it's blooming too early.
Start perennials from seed. Most species won't flower until their second season. But $3 or $4 for a packet of seeds can buy you 20 or 30 plants that would cost $6 to $12 each if you bought them in gallon pots in their second year.
Compost. A compost bin is an investment in the future of your garden, "your botanical 401(k)," according to Rinda West of Rinda West Designs in Chicago (rindawestdesigns.com). Sure, it will take six months or more of accumulating plant waste and kitchen scraps before you have nicely broken-down compost to add to your soil. But once you get the pile started and make a habit of adding to it and using it, you'll get steady returns in the form of a healthier garden. See chicagotribune.com/compost for tips.
Give plants their space. When buying young plants, "it's hard for people to visualize what they will look like," West says. So they pay for way too many plants and plant them too close. "The plant is not going to stay the way it looks in the garden center," West says. So read up on the plants you buy and space them to leave room for their mature size. If you don't like the mulch-between-plants look, fill in with annuals. Or fill in between shrubs with perennials that you can move when the shrubs grow up, suggests Rich Eyre of Rich's Foxwillow Pines Nursery in Woodstock (richsfoxwillowpines.com). Mike Nowak, who hosts a gardening show on WCPT-820 AM (mikenowak.net), uses houseplants in pots to fill in temporary bare spaces in beds during the growing season.
Let them have their shot. It takes four to seven years for a perennial to prove itself to Richard Hawke, who runs the plant evaluation program at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe (chicagobotanic.org). In his own Chicago garden, he has more than once rushed to replace a plant that hadn't sprouted fast enough in spring -- only to end up with two plants fighting for the same space. "You get antsy and you may dig out a perfectly good plant that's just taking its time," he says.
Buy smaller shrubs and trees. Older, larger woody plants are dramatically more expensive, because the grower has to invest more years, labor and risk in them and because they are heavy and difficult to move. And they also suffer more from transplanting. So buy a smaller, younger specimen. You won't lose anything except a year or two of having to use your imagination a bit.
Relax. Observe. Enjoy. The best thing about gardens is that they take us to a place that doesn't sprint from one news cycle to the next. It's a place where flowers appear when they're ready, butterflies drop by when it's time and trees become good friends over decades. If we slow down and live by nature's rhythms in the garden, the garden will become a place of peace.