Perennials are the come-back stars of the garden, returning each spring after going dormant in winter. That means you can plant them once and then enjoy them for years. Healthy, happy perennials such as long-blooming coneflowers and shade-loving hostas will grow vigorously and multiply, creating new plants for you to expand your own garden or to share with friends. But sometimes, your perennials might not produce as many flowers or they just won’t grow as well as they should. Chances are you’ve overlooked something they need to thrive. Here are the most common perennial garden mistakes you might be making, and how to fix them so you can get back to enjoying a season-long color show.
Many different perennials can create a beautiful display in a mixed bed. CLINT FARLINGER
Mistake 1: Putting Perennials in the Wrong Spot
The old garden adage “right plant, right place” means matching a plant’s light requirements and soil preferences to where you want to put it. Some perennials, such a coneflower and yarrow, revel in bright sun from morning until night while others, such as astilbe and old-fashioned bleeding heart, do best in afternoon shade. When it comes to soil, some perennials need fast-draining sandy soil and others thrive in soil that stays moist but not wet. Knowing the preferred growing conditions a perennial needs is as simple as checking the plant label when you’re in the garden center or consulting a plant encyclopedia. Pair the light and soil characteristics of your garden with plants that thrive in those conditions for a winning combo.
Mistake 2: Ignoring Your Zone
Every perennial has a hardiness zone range, based on the lowest temperatures various regions experience on average. Make sure to choose plants that can thrive in your particular zone, based on the USDA Hardiness Zone Map. For example, if you live in Zone 5, plants that are hardy in Zones 5 and below will likely survive your area’s winters. Plants that are rated Zone 6 probably won’t without some extra protection from the cold, such as a thick layer of mulch in winter.
Mistake 3: Neglecting Maintenance
The best things in life often require a little bit of work and that’s the case for perennials. While these plants tend to be fairly low-maintenance in general, they will look even better when you add a couple of key tasks to your garden chores list. In particular, regular deadheading, or removing spent flowers, encourages plants to channel available energy into developing a healthy root system and, in some cases, another flush of flowers later in the season. Division also helps reinvigorate many perennials. Aim to divide your perennial plants every three years or so.
Mistake 4: Not Planting for Color Through the Seasons
Most perennials bloom for a period of about three weeks. When you plant several different types of perennials together, your garden could have something in bloom at least three seasons out of the year. Make sure to think about color early in the season, with early-blooming species like hellebore and trillium. Then mix in plants that will extend the flower show through summer into fall, when late-season perennials such as aster, black-eyed Susan, and Russian sage take over. Perennials prized for their foliage, such as hosta and sedum, add both color and texture while plants with more showy flowers are coming into bloom.
Mistake 5: Mulching Too Much or Too Little
You’re adding mulch, right? A 3-inch layer of organic mulch, such as shredded bark, will help you keep down weeds and hold moisture in the soil longer. But when you apply it, keep any mulch 2-3 inches away from the crown, or growing point, of each plant. Mulch too close or over the crown can help diseases take hold or slowly suffocate the plant. Mulch breaks down over time so you likely will need to spread a fresh layer annually. A really thick layer of mulch (6-8 inches) can be used to insulate fall-planted perennials from harsh winter conditions. If you apply a mulch blanket to newly planted perennials in late fall, make sure to remove it in early spring so the soil can warm up better as air temperatures rise.
Mistake 6: Planting Too Close
Crowded perennials create conditions that encourage disease. Although it’s hard to imagine, a young perennial in a 4-inch pot can easily expand to cover several feet over a period of three years. When adding new plants, pay attention to the width and height you can expect them to reach. Choose planting places based on the plant’s full size, both in relation to structures and pathways as well as other plants around them. And then wait patiently. Perennials grow slowly in the first year. In the second year, you’ll notice a rapid increase in growth, and by the third year, they usually reach their full size.
Delphiniums have a single stem with a cluster of heavy flowers at the top, so staking helps keep them from flopping over. DOUG HETHERINGTON
Mistake 7: Not Staking Tall Stems
Some perennials need a little help to stand tall. Delphiniums, peonies, and asters are just a few plants with long or thin flower stems that tend to flop onto the ground when they begin to bloom. To get the most out of their floral show, you’ll need to do some staking earlier in their season of bloom. You can use single stakes or a growth-through grid, depending on what works best for the plant you need to support. Or, if staking is a chore you would rather avoid, look for more compact varieties of your favorite perennials that won’t require support.
If you’ve made some of these perennial garden mistakes in the past, you can easily correct course because these types of plants tend to be pretty forgiving. Chalk up your errors to experience and make note of these gardening tactics so you can start growing perennials like a pro.
Clematis is a hardy climbing vine that can grow up to 30 feet in just a few months. It will tolerate many soil conditions and does equally well in part or full sun. Festooned with white, purple, or pink flowers during late summer and fall, this bright beauty can spruce up any bland exterior.
A low-growing evergreen ground cover, creeping Jenny is lush with a profusion of small rounded leaves. It comes in both green and golden varieties and looks just as good filling in a planting bed as it does cascading over rocks or walls. If you’re going for classic villa charm in your front yard, a smattering of these will surely do the trick.
This perennial vine boasts coral-pink flowers from mid-June through September and can scale a 10 to 15 foot trellis in one season. For a front yard that overflows with color and sweet scents—not to mention hummingbirds—don’t overlook this vibrant bloom.
Thuja ‘Green Giant’
This rapid-growing evergreen will give you quick privacy when planted along a property line, fostering a cozy and secluded feeling. It grows three to five feet a year, is both drought- and disease-tolerant, and provides lush green foliage throughout all four seasons.
The Cleveland pear is a fast-growing ornamental tree that blooms furiously with white flowers in springtime. It’s a front yard showstopper that will grow four feet a year, reaching 30 to 40 feet at maturity. It is both cold hardy and heat-tolerant, but requires full sun to put on its best show.
This flowering perennial is both fast-growing and long-blooming, throwing a party of blue flowers in the garden from May to July. Both deer and rabbit resistant, it attracts bees and its foliage takes on a variegated color in the fall, ensuring that your yard always offers something new to enjoy.
This fast-growing Japanese shrub is ideal for creating a tailored hedge that perfectly outlines your property. It will grow 10 to 15 feet tall and 5 to 7 feet wide, and its display of white flowers in the summer gives a bright boost to any facade. It tolerates shearing and shaping well, and does best in full sunlight.
The colorful flowers of this fast-growing bush attract butterflies and hummingbirds all summer long, making it a power player in your front yard. Butterfly bush isn’t fussy when it comes to soil or sun conditions, but it will reseed quickly; be sure to pull out new seedlings early to keep it in check.
For shade in a hurry, set your sights on a hybrid poplar. The tree can grow 30 to 40 feet in three years, topping out between 50 and 70 feet. Often planted by developers around new homes, a shade tree like this can increase the value of your property by thousands of dollars. And if that isn’t reason enough, its foliage turns a brilliant yellow before shedding in autumn, yielding truly charming results year-round.
Red Twig Dogwood
Red twig dogwood is a fast-growing shrub that is perhaps more stunning once it loses its leaves and berries, as its bright red bark makes a beautiful counterpoint to a snowy winter landscape. If you’re hoping for a bold statement, then don’t skip over this showstopper.
Here’s everything you need to know about watering your container garden plants to ensure they stay healthy and grow to their best potential.
COURTESY LAURA DENT
Every garden needs water to grow, but with a container’s small amount of soil, watering is vital for plants to look their best. But don’t overdo it, either. “Proper drainage is just as important as the amount of water added to the container,” says Andrew Holsinger, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator. Follow these tips for watering your container plants.
Soil Type Matters
Avoid using garden soil in containers because it won’t drain properly. Look for potting mixes that include vermiculite or perlite to help with drainage. And a good balance of organic matter, such as compost, will provide the nutrients that plants need. Psst—here’s how to take your garden from good to great.
Pick the Right Container
Choose your container based on what plants you want to grow. A variety of containers will work for growing vegetables and herbs, but size does matter. Some plants such as tomatoes need more soil to accommodate the root system, so go big. If you’re reusing a container from last year, disinfect it before planting. Always select a container with drainage holes on the bottom so the plants don’t become waterlogged.
Pay attention to the material your container is made out of. Non-porous and porous containers will affect the soil’s moisture level. Potting mix in clay, fabric, and unglazed ceramic containers will dry out sooner than in plastic or glazed pots, so you will need to water plants frequently. Check out more container garden dos and don’ts.
How Often to Water?
Make sure you check containers daily. Most plants need to be watered when half of the moisture is gone. Don’t wait until the soil is completely dry. Use a soil moisture probe or estimate by the feel of the soil. The container will also become noticeably lighter as it dries out. Water thoroughly until you see water drain out of the bottom.
Automatic Watering Options
For busy gardeners, there are solutions available. Self-watering containers include a reservoir of water to lessen the frequency of watering. Drip irrigation provides just the right amount of water to container plants when it’s needed. Learn how to revive your potted plants.
Prevent Water Loss With Mulch
Limit how much and how often you need to water by mulching the top of a container. “Mulch is an effective tool for reducing evaporation, even in container plantings,” Holsinger says. This is why organic mulch is best.
Buying a new lawn mower or tractor can be a serious investment, so the experts at the Good Housekeeping Institute teamed up with Roy Berendsohn, Senior Home Editor at Popular Mechanics, to give you the best recommendations on the market right now. Overall, our top picks for the best lawn mowers to buy in 2020 are:
The size and slope of your yard will be the main factors for choosing the right option, plus your willingness for physical exertion and the time you have to dedicate to mowing your lawn. The two main classifications are walk-behind or riding mowers:
Walk-behinds come in three basic types: manual lawn mowers, where you’re doing all the work without any assist from a motor or engine; push lawn mowers with an engine or motor to power the blades; and self-propelled lawn mowers, where an engine or motor powers the wheels and the blades.
Riding mowers are available in both manual and automatic transmissions (much like how you control a car) as well as hydrostatic, which uses fluid instead of belts for power transfer. Zero turn tractors are essentially suped-up riding mowers and enable better handling and higher speeds than traditional tractors, as you control rotation with a pair of levers as opposed to a wheel (i.e., turning one will move you in a circle). If you’re looking for a more detailed breakdown of the types of mowers, we recommend you check out Popular Mechanics‘ lawn mower buying guide.
As a simple rule of thumb, you should get a walk-behind mower if you have less than ½ an acre. Berendsohn says instead of considering the overall lot acreage, it’s better to look specifically at how much cutting space you have. When factoring in just grass, he recommends a walk-behind for anything less than 10,000 square feet, which is just shy of a quarter of an acre for comparison. Anything more and you’ll want to opt for a riding option.
What other features matter when it comes to lawn mowers?
Once you determine the type of mower or tractor you’ll want, there are a slew of other considerations you should be mindful of:
Bonus and advanced features: For riding mowers, extras like an ergonomic seat and cup holder may not be lead determinants, but sure are nice to have! While we’re at it, cruise control is definitely another nice-to-have, as is automatic drive for adjusting speeds. Some tractors have the ability to switch mowing modes without a manual blade change required – super handy! For cordless electric walk-behind machines, some have removable batteries which makes storage and charging simpler.
Warranty: This is a product category where you want to look for a robust warranty to ensure if something goes wrong you’ll be covered.
Wheel size: You’ll want to consider both the front and rear wheels. You’ll want taller rear wheels if you’re going over rougher surfaces.
Cutting options: Mowers can mulch, discharge (either to the side or rear), or bag clippings. Some mowers can only support one type of cutting option, some two, some all three. Depending upon what you are trying to accomplish and how frequently you cut your lawn will determine what’s ideal for you.
Storage space: Most electric push models can be placed vertically to save storage space, but only specific gas models can handle vertical storage, as it requires special engine seals to ensure gas won’t leak out.
Budget: Of course, you’ll have to factor in your budget when weighing these features out. In the end, it will be a trade-off of performance, comfort and durability. Lawn mower models start at a few hundred dollars, but prices can climb well into the thousands.
The Good Housekeeping Institute’s engineering team has looked at lawn mowers in the past for ease of use and performance capabilities. While a full battery test has not been completed recently, based upon brand experience, speaking with other industry experts, and knowledge of specifications and engines, these are the picks we feel are worthy of beautifying your lawn:
Swathes of tall, wafting grasses look wonderful in large gardens, but they can also be used to great effect in a small space.
It pays to be bold when using ornamental grasses, which tend to work best dotted throughout border schemes, mingling with other plants. Many will look good until the end of autumn, undergoing subtle colour changes as the seasons progress.
The grass family is one of the largest in the plant kingdom, having evolved to cope with every conceivable soil and site. This means you can choose species that suit your garden conditions, as well as your taste.
Discover our pick of grasses for small gardens, below.
Our native purple moor grass, Molinia caerulea first flowers in May and adopts subtle shades of green, blue and purple. However, as its flower stems head skyward they change to gold, and when they extend and open, they start to shimmer. The plants that make the greatest impact are bred from the subspecies Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea, which is much taller. Molinias are the most versatile of grasses, and the changes in light from dawn to dusk, or from storm to glorious sunshine, give them different guises. Plant them against a dark background to enjoy the full benefit of their sunlit golden stems, but make sure you can see them silhouetted against a brilliant blue autumn sky, too.
Molinia caerulea ‘Edith Dudszus’ bears vertical, needle-like foliage and refined upright flower stems, this molinia forms a compact clump that’s ideal for a small space. You can also see through it, to other treats growing behind.
Flowers: July-November Height x Spread: 75cm x 50cm
Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Edith Dudszus’
The two best reasons for growing miscanthus are their statuesque presence in the garden and their magnificent flowerheads, or inflorescences, which last for months, making a striking feature from late summer into winter. Some cultivars, such as ‘Flamingo’ have silky pink flowers that cascade softly, while others, such as ‘Nippon’, have more upright spikes in a deep bronze-red. Neither of these is too big for a small garden and there are several other compact varieties. ‘Kleine Fontäne’ and ‘Kleine Silberspinne’ both grow to shoulder height. They bring light, air and movement into even the tiniest garden and since they grow upwards, they take up no more space than a clump of hardy geraniums.
Flowers: July-November H x S: 120cm x 50cm
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Kleine Silberspinne’
A brilliant addition to any hot-coloured planting, Imperata cylindrica spreads by underground rhizomes, but grows so slowly that it will never wander too far in our climate. Give it deep, fertile soil with plenty of humus to keep it happy.
Flowers: June-August H x S: 50cm x 50cm
Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’
With its long pointed leaves, Hakonechloa macra must be the most elegant of grasses. It’s always impeccably groomed, with never a blade out of place. Brilliant in containers, it’s probably most effective when giving a solo performance. Grow it in sun or part-shade.
Flowers: July-September H x S: 35cm x 40cm
One of the prettiest grasses for shade, its dainty owers are widely spaced along its branching stems. It’s a woodlander and if you choose the variegated form, the silvery tones of the foliage and inflorescences will stand out even more in shade.
Flowers: May-July H x S: 40cm x 40cm
Wood melick (Melica uniflora)
Milium effusum ‘Aureum’
Milium effusum is ideal for adding zingy colour to a shady border. It self-seeds readily and looks especially effective in spring, when the dark ground is sprinkled with bright new seedlings. In summer its dainty owerheads dance on the breeze.
Flowers: May-July H x S: 60cm x 30cm
Milium effusum ‘Aureum’
Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’
Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ is covered in fluffy flowerheads from midsummer onwards. Despite its delicate appearance, it’s totally hardy and extremely tolerant, even of heavy, damp soil.
Flowers: July-September H x S: 120cm x 100cm
Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’
If you have dry, hot conditions, you may get away with growing pennisetums. Pennisetum orientale has arching, fluffy heads of pink and crimson, wonderful with a dark sedum. Anpther one to try is Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Herbstzauber’. Its multiple fluffy flowerheads look like furry caterpillars.
How to grow ornamental grasses
Raising from seed – scatter seeds over the surface of damp seed compost and cover lightly with grit. Once the seedlings are sturdy enough, prick them out into modular trays and grow them on.
Dividing plants – many grasses can be increased by division, but do this in spring – never in autumn or winter. With some grasses, lift the whole clump, then pull or chop it into pieces. It’s best to pot up the resulting divisions, rather than planting them straight into the ground, as they will have a much higher chance of survival.
Growing in pots – when planting in containers, use a loam-based compost and make sure there’s good drainage. Generally, grasses don’t need feeding, but in containers an occasional dose of a weak liquid fertiliser will help them thrive.
Cutting back – never cut back evergreen grasses – simply comb out dead growth with your fingers. Molinias don’t need cutting back, as they simply collapse, however miscanthus, calamagrostis and panicums should be cut down to the base in spring.
Thick patches in your lawn are easy to spot. They may be darker or lighter in color and often have a finer or thicker leaf (blade) texture than the surrounding grass. The leaves may also be softer or stiffer to the touch.
What Causes These Thick Patches of Grass?
Patches of thick grass can be caused by several things:
Some lawn grasses that don’t blend well with other grasses, like tall fescue, can invade your lawn and grow in unsightly clumps. This creates an uneven look and possible tripping hazards in an otherwise smooth lawn. Other out-of-place lawn grasses, such as Poa trivialis, annual bluegrass and creeping bentgrass, are common invaders that can grow into thick patches of grass that gradually increase in size over time.
For a non-chemical solution, these patches of unwanted grass can be cut out with a spade or sodcutter. Make sure you remove as many of the roots as possible or you’ll see some of these plants grow back. You can also spray these areas with a nonselective herbicide like glyphosate. This will provide a total kill with little grow-back. Once the patches are removed or killed, you can seed or sod these spots.
Bunch-Type Grassy Weeds
Many bunch-type grass weeds, such as crabgrass, can show up as thick clumps. Crabgrass is yellowish-green and usually shows up in mid-summer, especially along driveways, curbs and sidewalks where soil is warmer and drier.
Undesirable lawn grasses and grassy weeds can be dug out and removed by hand, if practical. Spraying a non-selective herbicide will also work, or you can try natural weed killers.
After removal, reseeding the dead areas will fill the void left behind.
Dog urine can also cause areas of your lawn to thicken and turn darker green. The urine acts as a fertilizer, unless the concentration is so high that it kills the grass. Flushing these areas with water can help. Applying fertilizer to the entire lawn to mask the color difference will also work.
Decomposing Organic Matter in the Soil
If the dark, thick patches appear in a circular pattern, you may have a fairy ring. This is a color response caused by decomposing plant material under the soil surface. Mushrooms often pop up in and around these rings of darker grass. To remove, simply bust up the mushrooms with a leaf rake.
Fear not — though these fairy rings may look odd, this condition will not harm your grass. An application of fertilizer will mask the dark-green circular pattern so it’s not as noticeable.
Leaky Sprinkler Heads
Leaky sprinkler heads can cause your lawn to look greener and thicker in spots immediately surrounding the leak. Check the sprinkler head and pipe joints for leaks and fix or replace defective sprinkler heads.
Found throughout most of the United States, it’s not uncommon for poison ivy plants to pop up in residential backyards and gardens—especially if you live in a rural area. “Poison ivy prefers moist woodland environments, but can be found in gardens and landscapes, creeping in from surrounding woods, along fence rows, pastures, and disturbed sites where birds and deer visit and deposit the seeds,” Myers explains. Fortunately, if you do happen to find a patch of poison ivy in your garden, she says there are ways to safely remove it without getting a rash.
Learn how to identify poison ivy in your garden.
Myers says if you know what to look for, you can spot (and remove) poison ivy in your garden while the plants are still small and manageable. “Poison ivy has leaves in clusters of three, called a compound leaf,” she explains. “These clusters alternate along the stem—they are not opposite each other. The leaves can be shiny especially when they emerge in spring and the edges of the leaves may be wavy, have teeth, or be smooth. The leaves usually turn red in fall but can be yellow. The flowers appear in spring and berries ripen to a grayish-white in late summer and persist into winter.”
Don’t underdress for the occasion.
Since all parts of a plant, including the stem, leaves, and roots, contain rash-causing urushiol oil, Myers says it’s crucial to protect your skin when dealing with poison ivy. “Always dress for the job,” she says. “Cover your skin, wear waterproof gloves, and I would even suggest safety glasses when managing poison ivy plants and debris.”
Try a targeted spray.
Once your face, hands, and skin are covered, Myers says you can use a poison ivy-specific chemical spray, such as Ortho Max Poison Ivy and Tough Brush Killer (from $8.99, amazon.com), to eliminate a patch of poison ivy plants in your garden. “Be sure to read and follow label directions,” she says. “You will need multiple applications as this plant has an extensive root system and will keep sending up new stems. Keep in mind these chemicals will damage or kill any nearby plants they touch, so spot treat or paint the poison ivy leaves with the chemical to avoid damaging desirable plants.”
Remove it manually.
If you prefer to keep your garden chemical-free, Myers says you can simply keep cutting poison ivy back to remove it. “Continually removing the above ground portion eventually kills the plant, but you must be persistent and thorough,” she explains. Myers also says you can help diminish the growth of poison ivy in your garden by covering it. “Control isolated patches of poison ivy with black plastic. Edge the poison ivy infested area and cover with black plastic for several months or clear plastic for six to eight weeks during the hottest months of the growing season.”
Dispose of poison ivy properly.
After you’ve removed a poison ivy plant from your backyard, Myers says it’s important to dispose of it correctly. “Do not burn or compost poison ivy debris,” she says. “Instead, put all poison ivy debris into large garbage bags and dispose of it in the trash. Rake the area to capture any stems you may have missed. Mulching the area with a four- to six-inch layer of clean woodchips can help isolate any urushiol-containing plant debris you may have missed, reducing the risk of future exposure.”
Gardening often involves dirty fingernails and dirty knees, grass stains and muddy cuffs, and an old hat faded by sweat and streaked with soil. But there is one gardening chore that doesn’t have to involve sweat in the eyes and an aching back: deadheading.
It’s a task you can usually do without getting dirty, and you can squeeze it in even if you only have a few minutes to spare. In fact, one of our favorite times to deadhead is when when we’re talking on the phone, because you really only need one hand in most cases. It’s easy, it’s fast, and — most importantly — it really matters.
Flowers Bloom Better and Longer
When a flower fades and petals drop off, plants know the time has come to produce seeds. This is the main goal of a plant, remember, to reproduce. The flowers are just the beautiful lure they use to draw in pollinators. So once the flower is done, plants throw all their energy into turning that flower head into a seed head. This is especially true of annuals that only bloom once a season. Deadheading allows gardeners to “fool” the plant into flowering again, since they have no seed heads to grow.
Flower Gardens Look Tidier
Dead flower heads are often just plain unattractive. Removing them makes your garden look neater immediately, even if a few weeds are still lurking nearby.
Deadheading Keeps Aggressive Plants in Check
Plants are usually determined to spread their seed far and wide, and sometimes that’s not especially welcome in more cultivated flower gardens. By trimming flower heads before they have a chance to produce seeds, you can keep more aggressive plants from re-seeding and taking over.
Allows You to Keep a Close Eye on Your Garden
To all those reasons, we would add a fourth — deadheading your flowers is a simple task that allows you to stay in contact with your garden beds.
The hot sun and humid temperatures wilt even the strongest gardeners in just a few minutes, so sometimes a week or two will go by and we realize we really haven’t looked closely at my gardens at all. So once the sun has set, walk around for a few minutes in the (relative) cool of the evening, snipping deadheads and checking your plants for any signs of disease or pests, as well as looking for new blooms and growth we otherwise might have missed the chance to enjoy.
Really, this task is pretty easy. But here are a few things to remember to make it worth your time.
Remove the whole flower head, not just the dead petals. Remember, once the petals are gone, the plant will start putting energy into turning that flower head into a seed head. Snip off the whole thing to stop that process. (Look closely though. Some plants will start another bud directly next to the first one on the stem, so be sure you’re not removing new buds as well as dead flowers.)
Carry a small pair of scissors. Some flowers are easy to snap off by hand, like marigolds, but others have tougher stems. A pair of small sharp scissors will make a clean cut, reducing the area for disease to get into your plant.
Tuck a bag in your pocket. If you’re focused on keeping your garden tidy, or want to make sure you are keeping aggressive plants under control, throw the deadheads into a small bag to dispose of later. If you’re not worried about that, you can just drop the deadheads on the ground around the plant.
One last thought: If and when you’re ready for your plants to produce seeds, be sure to leave a few deadheads on your plants so the process can get going. If you feel the need to tidy up, you can pull off the dead petals, but leave the flower heads there to become seed heads.