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September 22, 2014

Garden time: The key to a happy gardener is good timing

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Posted: Sunday, April 20, 2014 12:55 am

I’ve always heard that timing is everything and it’s true — a missed flight, an overcooked soufflé, suede shoes in a sudden rainstorm — bad timing can ruin your day. Like so much of life, gardening is most successful and satisfying when your timing is right.

Perhaps the best kept secret in gardening is this: When you do the routine tasks in a timely manner, plants will usually grow, bloom and fruit as expected. Every gardener should find a timely rhythm for attending to routine tasks because gardening works the body and appeals to your eye for beauty, but its greatest boon is to the psyche.

The satisfaction of gardening, of controlling things in one little corner of this chaotic world, is unparalleled in its ability to bolster self-esteem. You plant something, give it modest amounts of timely attention, and it thrives. You get a well-deserved pat on the back internally, and often externally when friends see your garden.

Most gardeners have just a few daily rhythms, usually the much-anticipated harvest of edibles and flowers — hardly anyone forgets to pick the tomatoes or cut the roses. A daily walk through the garden, though, is my front line in both pleasure and pest control. Nothing goes unnoticed, whether it is the joy of a first blossom or the crawler stage of scale insect on the camellia. That’s the moment rhythm pays off. My grandfather carried a sharp hoe with him on the daily walk and nary a weed survived to compete with his vegetables; his timing inspires me.

The routines that need weekly consideration are the most mundane, yet also the most important — water, fertilizer and cultivation to keep weeds at bay. These routines develop around your plant choices but the time to attend to them can be scheduled just like pizza night.

Many garden rhythms are seasonal, like lawn mowing and leaf raking. Southern lawn grasses can outgrow most weeds and suffer less from pest damage when you mow them regularly. The type of grass dictates specific heights, but each mowing should clip off no more than one third of the grass blade. If you let any lawn grass grow ankle deep and then mow it low, the plants suffer stress — pests and weeds rejoice.

Many family feuds have begun over whether and when to rake fallen leaves. Truth is, the middle ground triumphs here. A light blanket is fine, but lumps of leaves piled on top of garden soil or lawns can stop needed water and air circulation. Put leaves on your list every other week once they begin to fall, and if you haven’t raked yet, make time now. Rake into a wheelbarrow or tarp and dump into piles of 3 foot cubes to make compost.

Spring-flowering shrubs like azaleas offer the best example of why good timing is important to your garden experience. Get in the rhythm of pruning them right after they flower each year to control and stimulate growth — if the shears come out more than a month after flowering ends, next year’s flower buds are lost.

The Deep South has one of the widest varieties of gardening styles in the nation. Our desires can lead to a deck full of pots, a diverse garden home or suburban landscape, or to a personal collection of rare plants. Each lends itself to an irresistible rhythm so give in to good timing and get happy.

Nellie Neal is the author of “Month by Month Gardening Deep South: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama.”

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