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HOME: Key tips to successfully garden in the Montcalm County area

“I think this is what hooks one to gardening: it is the closest one can come to being present at creation” — Phyllis Theroux, American journalist (1939-present)

Landscape gardens this year in Montcalm County have been subjected to an usually wide range of severe environmental conditions — heat, rain and drought, just to name a few.

To be successful, area gardeners have had to adjust to these conditions to keep their gardens productive. I have compiled this list of key tips to help our novice gardeners continue to have successful gardening experiences in future years.

• Keep your Landscape Area Sanitized

Keep your garden and surroundings clean and free of trash and assorted debris that always seems to accumulate during the growing season. This will improve the landscape appearance and just as importantly, eliminate places where pests and diseases can survive over the winter.

• Maintain Healthy Soil

Testing the landscape garden soil takes the guesswork out of maintaining the landscape garden in optimum condition for plant growth. Very simply, various plants have different nutrient and acidity (PH) requirements. To better understand what is needed, a soil test will inform you which nutrients need to be added by fertilizer to the soil to optimize the growth of the various plants in your gardens. By not adding unnecessary chemicals to your garden, you will reduce the amount of pollution in the air you breathe.

MSU Extension provides an easy to use soil test self-mailers, which can be purchased at The neat thing about this soil test is MSU Extension will give you recommendations for your landscape gardens if you supply them with specifics on the kind of garden you are having tested. The results will determine your soil texture, pH and provide you with nutrient levels in your soil. Also recommendations for lime and nitrogen you may need to add to your soil (if necessary).

• Watering Correctly

Novice gardeners usually water too much or too little with disappointment as a result. To do a good job with your garden, you need to spend enough time to find out what each of your plant groupings requirements is. As a general rule — although there are some exceptions — a total of an inch of water per week between rain and irrigation should be sufficient for your landscape garden needs. This includes trees and shrubs as well as grass plantings.

Watering should be done in several sessions over the course of a week and will result in more robust plant root systems which in turn will lead to healthier plants. Watering lightly, even more frequently, will lead to shallower roots with the resulting plants more prone to drought and disease problems. Soaker systems are more effective than oscillating lawn sprinklers for watering plants. Using a ground drip soaker will minimize water loss through evaporation and reduce the risk of water soaked leaves which will eventually lead to plant disease.

• Pick the Right Plants to Grow

Picking the right plants to grow in your landscape gardens is not an easy task. It is easy to be overwhelmed with all the choices you have. An excellent choice for the novice gardener is sticking with native plants. Plants that naturally grow in our area and are selected to match the light and soil conditions on your property, will be the most desirable choices. These plants will require less water and have less need for fertilizers and pesticides to remain healthy.

Presently, there are many choices in native plants with varying heights and shapes that are well adapted to our area conditions. For example, MSU has an excellent website reviewing all types of native plants that can be grown in our area, as well as other areas in the rest of Michigan at Natives I have had success with in Montcalm include: coral bells, purple coneflower, columbine, bee balm, black-eyed susan, switchgrass and juneberry trees.   

• Don’t Forget to Mulch

Mulching is a real necessity for your garden. It acts as an insulator for the soil, keeping it cooler in summer and warmer in winter. Mulch significantly reduces weed growth, retains moisture and minimizes soil erosion. It especially helps in Michigan spring weather by preventing frost damage. Mulched plants will stay put in alternating freezing and thawing weather and will not appear early in brief spring warming periods.

In general, mulch is usually used year round for trees, shrubs and perennials while annuals and vegetables are covered with mulch in the spring. There are many choices for mulch organic materials. Wood chips, shredded bark and straw tend to be the most popular.

• Have a Bug Free Garden Mentality

Most novice gardeners are upset when they see any signs of bugs in their landscape gardens and will usually try to destroy them by any means possible. In actuality, a garden in healthy balance will always have good bugs and bad bugs present. In fact, most of the good bugs in your garden beds keep the bad bugs at bay. They also help pollinate, which is a necessity for most plants and vegetables.

Very few caterpillars, beetles, spiders or worms, for example, are really bad so don’t try to destroy them all. If in doubt use extension sites to research the bugs you encounter to determine whether they are beneficial to your garden.

• Keeping Good Records

As a final, but perhaps the most important tip is to review your past years gardening experience, both good and bad. To do this, I recommend keeping a garden journal — an inexpensive school notebook will work fine — so you have it as a handy reference.

Problems you experience during the year, which plants you grew and where you placed them in your landscape gardens, what you liked and what you didn’t, are all things to consider for your journal. Also important is to list any changes you would like to make for the new growing season.

Gardening is a wonderful hobby that almost everyone can enjoy at many different levels. By following the key tips described above, you will be able to manage most of the common issues you will confront.


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