Below are answers to some general gardening questions. For specific answers on the care of Gardener’s Confidence® Collection plants, please see the Care and Planting Page of the selected Series.
The following guidelines are to be used as general suggestions. For specific care of your garden, please speak with your preferred garden center specialist or local county extension service agent.
If you have a question we haven’t answered, feel free to Contact Us.
What type of fertilizer should I use for flowering bushes when it says “general purpose” fertilizer on the care and instructions. Do they mean 5-10-5, acid loving, or another kind?
Ideally you would run some basic soil tests and fertilize based on the results of the tests. They would tell you how much (and if) you need to fertilize or if your pH needs to be adjusted. In general, one would use a multipurpose granular fertilizer such as 10-10-10 or 5-10-5 according to the fertilizer's label instructions and/or some compost. Some shrubs do need a particularly acid soil, and you should check with your local nursery for specific plant recommendations.
Adding compost is one of the very best things you can do to improve your soil. Compost improves soil structure, making it more workable; improves drainage in clay soil; improves moisture retention in sandy soil; and provides food for beneficial organisms, like earthworms. However, the nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium--the NPK listed on fertilizer containers) in compost can vary considerably. So until you build up an extremely healthy soil, it would be a good idea to add some nutrients. Organic fertilizers also vary in their NPK ratios, so try to create a fairly balanced mix, such as 10-10-10. Some organic fertilizers include: Nitrogen: alfalfa meal, blood meal, coffee grounds, cottonseed meal, fish emulsion, seabird guano. Phosphorous: bone meal, rock phosphate. Potassium: greensand, seaweed, kelp. Mix your own with the above materials to make a custom blend specifically for what you're growing. In general terms, nitrogen produces lush green growth, phosphorous helps strengthen stems and produce flowers, and potassium keeps the root system healthy. In reality, these elements work in conjunction with one another.
What mulch is best?
All natural mulches break down over time, so they need to be renewed. There is no need to dig it into the soil in the fall. Usually, by fall it is time to top up or add to the summer mulch in order to provide that winter protection. By spring, that layer will be deteriorated and in early summer you may need to add more again. You may mix and match mulching materials depending on what you have available. Larger mulches such as bark nuggets will last longer than finer mulches such as the double shredded bark or a layer of straw. Cost and appearance considerations? Those are up to you!
Grass clippings can be used fresh in light layers. Thicker layers may mat down and impede moisture from reaching the soil surface; a thick layer may also be "hot" enough to burn nearby plants. Often, gardeners will mix clippings with another non-matting mulch material such as chopped leaves and use that. Using the clippings will not cause grass or weeds to grow in a given area unless the clippings are full of grass seed (or possibly weed seeds). The mulch serves to impede seed germination by blocking out light from reaching the soil, so mulching with any material cuts down on weeds and grass in the garden. Often, gardeners find that the grass clippings are a welcome addition to the compost pile and use them for that purpose rather than using them immediately as mulch. (The fresh clippings add needed nitrogen to the pile and help more carbon-rich materials break down.) Mulching is used all year and for a number of purposes. A mulch layer in summer will help cut down on weeds, help the soil stay cool and retain moisture, and as it breaks down, will "feed" the soil. In winter, the mulch can help insulate the soil from the freezing and thawing action or frost heaving; it can also help insulate the plants' roots. Snow is also an excellent insulation layer.
How and when should I prune my plants?
When pruning a shrub, shorten selected individual branches, taking them back to ground level rather than shearing the shrub's branches to a uniform length, which results in an unnatural shape and causes new growth to occur on the outer part of the plant only.
Don't prune a shrub if it will cause that plant to stimulate new growth shortly before cold weather arrives. Once the shrub is dormant, it can be pruned with no fear of harming it. Prune lower branches of deciduous trees as they grow taller to maintain a safe walking area underneath.
The following are some general pruning terms:
Pinching, a type of pruning, encourages more growth and branching. Pinch the tips of young annuals for new shoots that will give more flowers.
Deadheading is cutting off new heads of flowers that have already bloomed. When you deadhead, just be sure to cut just above a leaf node, where new growth can begin.
Benefits of deadheading:
Pruning Flowering Shrubs
Prune early bloomers, such as lilacs and azaleas, after the flowers fade so the plant will have time to set buds for next year. These shrubs produce blooms on "old wood".
There are some summer bloomers that bloom better and look neater if cut back in spring. These include Japanese spirea and 'Annabelle' hydrangea. They bloom in the summer on "new wood."
As a rule of thumb, just remember to prune early bloomers, ones that bloom on old wood, after the flowers fade so the plant will have time to set buds for next year. Shrubs that produce flowers on new growth can be pruned early in the season. That will stimulate more flowering branches.
How often should I be watering my plants? When is best time to water?
The general rule is to water if the soil feels dry 3 to 4 inches below the surface, though container plants usually need to be watered daily. As for the best time to water, the early morning is best time, as there will be less evaporation into the air than during the heat of the day. The second best time is in late afternoon or early evening. To cut down on watering needs, mulch all flowerbeds and around trees and shrubs.
More plants die from over watering than under watering. Plants can adapt to drought by sending their roots deeper into the soil. Though you might need to water evergreens deeply if spring showers are slow to come. When watering your lawn, be careful not to over or under water. One inch (2-3 cms ) of water per week is the ideal amount for most soils.
With proper care these new plants will grow into a beautiful landscape that will improve year after year. Proper watering is the first and most important requirement your plantings need now. The best way to tell if you have properly watered is to dig your fingers into the root ball and if it feels dry a few inches down, then it is time to water!
The plants installed in your yard were grown in a plant nursery where they either started from a seed, division, tissue culture, or a cutting. The plants have been carefully nurtured from this small size to its present size. If at any time during its life at the nursery, it did not get enough water, it would either have died or been damaged enough that it would have to be discarded. Until your newly planted plants become established and rooted into the soil, they will need basically the same care and watering requirements they received in the nursery.
Your soil has been prepared and the plants have been properly planted by yourself or a landscape professional. Now it is your turn to continue with the plants’ care. Many plants die because of too much or too little water. If a plant dies in its first few weeks after installation it is probably from improper watering. We recommend initially watering each individual plant and then the whole planting bed thoroughly. Always, water each plant individually for the first few months. When the surrounding soil in the plant bed is dry, thoroughly water this area just as a good rain shower would. Do not just depend on a good rain shower to thoroughly water your plants during their establishment period. A natural rain may only wet the soil an inch or so and may not be adequate enough.
Some people have used soaker hoses or movable sprinkler heads. These can work well if the homeowner is careful enough to continually check to see if each plant is getting the proper amount of water.
When the plants were growing in a container, the sides of the container would help hold some of the water until the potting soil would soak it up. Now that it is in the soil, the water sometimes tends to shed off the top of the root ball and does not soak into the root zone. Many times when a homeowner thinks they have watered well, they have only wet the top inch or so of the root ball. If this type of watering continues without checking to see if the plant is actually wet, the plant will begin to decline and may die. Some plants are easy to tell if they are dry because they show signs of wilting. However, many plants such as hollies do not wilt but will suddenly turn brown and die if the do not receive the correct amount of water.
If you have an underground sprinkler system, be especially careful. A sprinkler system will only water a few inches deep during a cycle and the root ball of the plants are usually over 12'' deep. To avoid problems, you could run the irrigation system through several cycles to deeply water. It is important to remember that supplemental water should be applied as needed and not on a timetable basis.
Avoid frequent shallow watering. Water deeply each time you water to promote deep rooting. After a month or so of steady watering, you will need to allow the soil to dry out between watering to encourage your plants to spread their roots deep into the soil.
Sometimes homeowners can over water their plantings, especially if the plants are planted in clay soils. If you check these plants and they are wet and saturated after an extended period without water, the soil underneath the root ball may not drain well enough to create the healthy growing conditions your plant needs. The plant may need to be raised to promote drainage, or another method may have to be used to make good growing conditions.
How do I know if my plants have cold damage from a recent hard freeze?
Cold damage may not be apparent in the plant for several days or weeks. To determine if your plants have been damaged by the cold, wait several days after a freeze and remove several buds, stems and leaves (if present) from the plant. Use a sharp knife or razor blade to cut a cross section of the bud’s top. If there is any discoloration in the bud, they have been damaged.
To determine if stems have been injured by the cold, peel the bark back to reveal the cambium layer (layer directly under the bark). If there is any black or brown discoloration, damage has occurred. Leaf damage may appear as obvious black or burnt foliage, usually occurring at the tip of the branches. Damage on buds, stems and leaves may be localized and the entire plant may not be affected.
Waiting to prune after freezes have passed will guard against removing living wood. If localized damage has occurred to the foliage or stems, prune several inches below the injured tissue. Although injured buds may reduce or eliminate flowering or leaf emergence in the spring, no pruning is necessary.
Acidic Soil: Soil with a pH level under 7.0 (soils with high acidity result in blue blooms on some hydrangeas).