6 Tips for Preparing to Grow Flowers, Vegetables and More


Keep that growing season momentum all year long with these gardening tips.

Does spring have you dreaming of lush gardens and sunshine? Despite what you might see on TV, beautiful landscapes don’t happen overnight. Weeds will invade your beds and need to be pulled. The mulch will break down and require replacing. And your attention span will no doubt move on to shinier things long enough for your garden to fall into disrepair.

If you get to know your garden’s unique conditions and choose the right plants, you’ll ensure that both the garden — and your enthusiasm for it — will last for a lifetime.

Invest in your soil

To get the dirt on your dirt, perform a soil test with your local agricultural extension office. This will tell you everything you need to know about what will grow there and how to improve it.

In the meantime, amend your soil with as much organic matter as possible — either by starting a compost pile or by adding bags of composted manure. This will give it a better texture, a diverse population of beneficial organisms, and more fertility.

If your soil is poorly drained, either grow plants that tolerate wet feet, or install a dry creek bed or French drain to prevent standing water.

Ditch the trash trees

With any luck, the trees that you plant today will be there for a long, long time. Keeping that in mind, don’t grow things that you’ll regret one day — like a messy silver maple that drops seeds all over the lawn, or a cypress that will eventually dwarf your house.

When choosing a tree or shrub for your garden, consider the eventual size, form, and habit. Avoid planting anything that has weak limbs or is susceptible to pests and blights, because tree removal is a costly and unnecessary expense.

Understand your garden’s sunlight

Those little “full sun” and “part shade” icons are on the plant tag for a reason — too much sunlight will burn the foliage and compromise the plant’s health, while too little will make it lanky and weak.

Choose plants that thrive in your conditions. A spot that receives eight or more hours of direct sunlight is a perfect place to grow vegetables, fruit trees, and most flowers. Part to full shade is ideal for growing plants like perennials, ferns and small trees that are naturally found in the forest’s understory.

If you have a shady yard but can’t live without roses and tomatoes, consider hiring a professional arborist to remove trees or large limbs to get more sunlight.

Purchase plants with confidence

If it seems like everything you grow dies sooner or later, stop buying unhealthy plants. Inspect the foliage and slip the plant out of its pot to check for firm, white, and healthy roots. The best place to buy healthy plants is at a local garden center, but otherwise, purchase them shortly after they’ve arrived on a shipment.

If you can’t find the plant you’re looking for, order seeds, bulbs and plants online from reputable sellers like Burpee Seeds and Plants, Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, and Plant Delights Nursery.

Plant for all four seasons

It’s tempting to do all your plant shopping in spring, but those pretty blooms will soon fade away. To avoid 11 months of boredom, choose a variety of plants that offer interest at different times of the year.

Grow summer-blooming plants like canna, coneflowers and guara to keep the show going until fall, when colorful foliage and fall bloomers like mums and goldenrod take over.

For winter interest, look to trees with interesting branch patterns and bark, as well as unusual cultivars of evergreens — like heuchera and abelia — or even architectural, hardy palms and succulents.

Divide and conquer

Here’s a huge money-saving trick: Choose a perennial, bulb or ornamental grass that can be propagated by division — one that you’d love to see growing all over your garden in a few years.

Plant several copies of that plant in your garden. After a couple of years, divide the plants by digging them up and slicing through the middle with a sharp spade. For best results, do this in spring when the weather is cool and the plant is actively growing.

Plant the divisions in the ground again, cover the space between the plants with mulch, and water them thoroughly to help them establish. Repeat these steps every two years, and you’ll have not only a ton of free plants, but also a garden that looks cohesive and established.

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Originally published February 2017



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How to Attract Birds to Your Yard (Hint: Don’t Just Wing It)


With a little effort, you can build a swanky bird paradise even your fussiest feathered friend will love.

While you’re spending time at home, why not find ways to bring the natural world to you? Backyard bird watching is an enjoyable way to experience your local ecosystem up close.

It takes more than a bird feeder to attract a colorful variety of songbirds to your backyard. Think of your feeder as a drive-thru fast-food joint in an unsafe neighborhood: The birds will stop to eat, but they won’t stick around for very long. They want to get home to their comfy nest in an exclusive deciduous broadleaf community, where they can get fancier food anyway.

If you want to see more than bird backsides at a millet buffet, you need to give them all the luxuries they’ve come to expect.

Create a habitat

Birds prefer townhomes to single-level ranch houses. They need perches for preening, thickets for hiding, branches for bickering, wide-open spaces for showing off, and, eventually, a tree cavity where they can nest and paint their nursery a nice robin’s-egg blue.

Give them privacy by planting walls of foliage. Native shrubs, small trees, and even tall grasses and perennials offer the versatility they need to make a quick escape.

Create a ceiling of tall deciduous and evergreen trees at the back of your property, and plant small understory trees between them and your house. Selectively prune lower limbs of shrubs and small trees so you can easily see perching birds from your window. They’ll appreciate the perch, and you’ll appreciate the camera angle.

Grow your own birdseed

Money doesn’t grow on trees, but, conveniently enough, birdseed does! It also grows on shrubs, perennials, grasses, annuals and anything else that qualifies as a plant.

To grow the seed that your local bird species prefer, however, choose the native plants that they’d otherwise find in the wild. Native plants vary by region, but some good choices include coneflower, blanketflower, beautyberry, asters and sunflowers.

Attract hummingbirds with nectar-filled trumpet honeysuckle and cardinal flowers. Native oaks, hollies, dogwoods, sumac, cedars and spruces provide nuts and berries, as well as shelter.

Stage your birdhouse

Research the birds that you’d like to attract, and give them the house that suits their needs. For example, bluebirds like their nesting boxes out in the open, while chickadees like thick leaf cover.

Whichever bird you try to attract, keep that nesting box away from human noise and activity so you’ll never have to witness the heartbreaking sight of abandoned eggs in an empty nest. Also, keep your cat indoors, if possible. Otherwise, you may find birds not only in your backyard but on your front doorstep too.

If birds haven’t moved in yet, be patient. Sometimes all your birdhouse needs is a little lichen, moss, or wear and tear to make it more appealing.

Turn a birdbath into a Jacuzzi

If your birdbath is emptier than a swimming pool in January, there could be a reason. The ideal birdbath doesn’t look like you’d expect — it’s placed directly on the ground in a shady space with nearby shrubs.

Add some gravel to the basin so birds can find their footing, and even add a few rocks on the outside to serve as steps. Include a small pump or fountain, if possible. This turns your birdbath into a miniature water feature, and the circulation keeps the water clean and helps birds cool off on hot days.

Leave the leaf litter

If you’re looking for an excuse to get out of gardening chores, you’ll be pleased to know that you’re absolutely allowed to keep that accumulation of dead leaves and small branches on your garden’s floor. It gives birds everything they could ever ask for — bugs and other small animals for snacking, materials for nesting, and even a hiding place from predators.

If things begin to look untidy, just break down the larger branches by hand or with a pair of anvil pruners, and spread everything out evenly. Everyone loves free mulch.

Invest in your feeder

Rather than spending money on multiple feeders that you have to replace year after year, invest in a feeder that’s made with quality materials, has a tightly fitting lid, and drains easily. Better yet, purchase a sturdy pole and squirrel baffle.

Even the best feeder will need maintenance, so give it a thorough cleaning every year, and break up any clogged holes so moisture doesn’t accumulate. Trust me on this — cleaning out a maggot-infested feeder is something nobody should have to experience.

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Originally published June 2017



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7 Simple Ways to Keep Your Kids’ Toys From Taking Over Your Home


Conquer the clutter and reclaim the precious space you once ruled.

If having your family at home all day, every day has made your space feel chaotic, and your days and nights seem to run together, regain a sense of order with these simple tips.

1. Reduce the clutter

It doesn’t matter how organized you are — a surplus of toys will always ensure your house is a mess waiting to happen. Fortunately, getting kids on board with the idea of ditching their stuff is a lot easier than it sounds.

The trick is to make it an opportunity for them to define themselves and their interests. Encourage kids to make a pile of ”baby toys” to donate, and have them set aside any toys that no longer interest them, such as action figures from a forgotten TV show. Separating these toys will help them appreciate how much they’ve grown and rediscover the toys they love.

2. Choose toys wisely

Since you’ll probably be stuck with them for a while, it pays to be picky when it comes to buying toys. To make toys more meaningful to your child, only buy them for holidays, special occasions and rewards — don’t shy away from asking relatives to do the same.

Avoid toys that are poorly made (cheap), not age-appropriate, unnecessarily large, pointless or anything tied to a movie — unless it’s that one you’ve been playing on repeat every day. The best toys are versatile, encourage creativity and can easily be expanded upon, such as Legos, wooden train tracks and dollhouse sets.

3. Leave some toys out of reach

If you’re constantly finding play dough and puzzle pieces in the sofa cushions, it’s time to put them on the top shelf of the closet. Designating these messy toys as ”family toys” will give you more quality time with your child instead of scrubbing pen marks off the curtains.

Also, try to set aside a tote of toys, games and puzzles for rainy days. This ensures you’ll always have a trick up your sleeve for sick days or when a boring relative visits.

4. Set boundaries

If toys are already sprawled out over every available surface of your house, don’t worry! You can quickly reclaim order in your household by setting a few ground rules, such as ”no toys in the kitchen” or setting limits on the number of toys allowed out overnight.

While that might seem a bit draconian, children are generally happier when they’re given clear expectations and few surprises. That’s why it’s important to follow through and pick up every night, no matter how exhausted you feel at the time.

5. Give kids ownership

Picking up toys doesn’t have to be boring. Babies, toddlers and big kids alike can have fun organizing and picking up, just as long as it’s not a negative experience. This means you should provide enough time for enjoyment without resorting to counting ”1, 2, 3” or shouting empty threats.

A great thing about setting aside extra time for picking up is that you and your child can do fun things like scoop up blocks with a blanket or deliver toys across the house via tricycle. If you make it fun enough, your kid will eventually pick up without even being asked.

6. Give every toy a home

Without a simple organizational system, picking up can be a major headache. Don’t throw everything into one big toy box; there’s a better way.

Buy a series of matching plastic bins and line them up along the wall where your child can easily put away and retrieve toys on his own. Designate one box for Legos, one for stuffed animals, one for train tracks … you get the idea.

Use stacking plastic boxes for smaller toys like matchbox cars and dolls. Organize them further by storing puzzle pieces, doll clothes and other annoyances in Ziploc bags.

7. Hit the books

It’s not your imagination. That pile of storybooks by the couch really is getting taller, and if you wait much longer, it will likely turn into a giant heap.

Worse yet, your kid uses those books to stall and push back bedtime a little later with each passing night. That’s why it’s important to either keep the books in your child’s room, or keep a small selection of favorites in a basket for easy retrieval.

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Originally published December 2017



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