Congratulations on making it this far and having a beautiful garden to show for it! But while the initial grunt work is done, your plants still need a little TLC to keep them looking and performing their best. Strive to spend at least one afternoon a week (or a few minutes a day) to walk among your beds, pick a few flowers, or simply sit in your garden and take it all in.
Being aware of what's happening outside, and taking the time to properly care for your garden throughout the season, will actually make it less work in the long run — and give you more time to sit back and enjoy the fruits (or vegetables?) of your labor.
Mulch serves several important functions in a garden: it conserves moisture in the soil, helps suppress weed seed germination, prevents soil erosion, and can improve soil texture and fertility. It helps reduce fungal diseases caused by water splashing onto the leaves of your plants. Mulch also shields the soil from summer's heat and protects from winter's chill. All of this, and it keeps your garden beds looking nice and neat to boot.
Organic mulch is most ideal in a garden, especially an edible garden. It consists of formerly living organic matter, such as compost, straw, rice hulls, grass clippings, dried leaves, shredded bark, and wood chips. These types of organic mulches decompose over time and need to be reapplied each year, but they offer the most nutritional benefit to the soil and can often be found for free or almost free.
Inorganic mulch can also be used, especially in a perennial landscape or in the paths between your garden beds. Options include rocks, rubber chips, and plastic sheeting. They work well in containers and last a long time, but they're also more expensive than organic mulches. Since they can't be incorporated into the soil, they have to be removed before replacing or adding new plants.
At the start of every season, apply mulch around the base of your plants, leaving a few inches around the stems, in a thick layer about 2 to 4 inches deep (the coarser the mulch, the thicker it should be applied). Take care not to place the mulch directly against the stems, as this could lead to rotting. Replenish the mulch when its volume has reduced by half or more.
Weeds are plants that grow where they're not supposed to, and some are considered noxious or invasive in certain regions. They include well-known (and much-maligned) weeds like dandelions, mallow, thistle, and purslane, but can also include mint, fennel, shiso, and other freely self-rooting or self-sowing plants. If not kept in check, weeds take away moisture and nutrients, compete for space with your other plants, and sometimes smother them completely.
To effectively control weeds, start with a thick layer of mulch in your garden beds. If you're mulching a path, it helps to lay down several sheets of newspaper or cardboard first before you add the mulch. Most of the time, this is enough to keep weed seeds from sprouting. If some weeds still appear, pull them as soon as they pop up, and definitely before they flower.
For weeds with long taproots, like dandelions, be sure you dig down and remove the entire taproot, as the plants can regrow from any part of the root left in the soil. Most weeds can be eradicated by this simple method of hand-picking, so stay on top of them throughout the season, and be sure you catch them before the flowering and seeding phase.
Feeding and Fertilizing
If you feed the soil, the soil in turn feeds the plants. Therefore, it's vital that you start a regular routine of fertilizing through the season to continue the flow of nutrients to your plants.
Fertilizer adds a dose of NPK that assists with foliage growth, flowering, and fruiting. NPK stands for the nutrients that make up a complete fertilizer: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Nitrogen encourages leaf development, phosphorus promotes blooming, and potassium plays a part in stem development and root growth.
When you read the labels on different types of fertilizers, you'll notice that they provide NPK in varying ratios, such as 10-10-10 or 4-6-3. These ratios, also known as the fertilizer analysis, are formulated to deliver a certain amount of nutrients to your plants. Some fertilizers are formulated for specific plants, such as flowers, citrus, tomatoes, or vegetables in general.
If you have a mixed garden or aren't sure what you need, choose a fertilizer labeled as "all-purpose." They usually come in liquid or granular form, but are also sold as fertilizer spikes (which are driven into the soil for root uptake) or foliar sprays (where the nutrients are absorbed by the leaves instead of the soil).
Follow the manufacturer's suggested rate and frequency of application. For seedlings, use a diluted liquid fertilizer (about 1/4 strength of what's recommended on the label) and feed weekly to promote steady and sturdy growth.
Pruning and Deadheading
Even in the most low-maintenance of gardens, regular pruning and deadheading are beneficial to your plants. Not only does the practice keep your plants looking nice and tidy, it encourages more growth and extends the season.
Pruning (the act of trimming the tops off your plants or removing excess foliage) helps promote air circulation and reduce pests and diseases. It also facilitates growth and improves the health of your plants.
When and why would you need to prune?
- To encourage bushier growth, so your plants don't become too tall and spindly
- To train plants to grow in a certain direction, as with espaliered trees or shrubs
- To increase the amount of flowers or fruits, if pruned at the right time in the right places
- To remove older stems, so your plants can redirect their energy into growing new shoots
- To lessen the shock of transplanting, so plants can focus on regrowing their roots instead of new leaves
Deadheading, a term for removing the spent flowers on your plants, is essential to keep them flowering again and again. Most flowers that repeat bloom will only do so once their old, dying flowers are removed. Otherwise, they focus their efforts on producing seed for the next generation. Even plants that bloom only once benefit from deadheading, as they'll save their energy for growing instead of seeding. Be sure to deadhead your flowers regularly, or harvest them for your vases!
Frequent harvesting is an essential (and also the best!) part of maintaining an edible garden. As soon as your crops are mature enough to harvest, you should pick them at least once a week to keep them productive.
Leafy greens (such as lettuce, mizuna, and mustard greens) are "cut and come again" crops, meaning they'll continue to grow new leaves as they're harvested. You simply snip some bits off and within a few days, they'll generate new leaves from the base for a continual supply through the season. If you neglect to harvest your leafy greens, they'll eventually bolt — an act of sending up flower stalks, signaling the end of life for your plants. Plants that bolt often become unpalatable, as their leaves start to turn tough, fibrous, or bitter before dying altogether.
Fruiting crops (such as tomatoes, peppers, and peas) should be harvested often, and harvested before the vegetables (and therefore the seeds) have a chance to mature. You want to pick at the peak of ripeness. If you let these vegetables over-ripen and set seed, your plants will think they've done their job in the cycle of life and slow (or even cease) production of flowers. No flowers means no fruits — but if you stay on top of harvesting, your plants will keep producing until the first frost, or even through winter in mild climates.
Expert Tip: Enjoy the learning experience. While there's much to learn about gardening through books, blogs, and classes, the best education is out in the field. Just do it! Get out there, get your hands dirty, and see what happens. Learn as you go. Worst case scenario, you start over again next season. But best case? You've beautified your space, supported the ecosystem, gotten a dose of fresh air and vitamin D, and added a valuable new skill set to your repertoire.