Garden Chores for Garden Maintenance
Keeping a garden growing is about much more than just planting seeds at the right time of year or keeping the garden well watered. The garden will need attention year round, and keeping up with a few basic chores will help you keep your garden in good shape. To keep track of your maintenance chores it is a good idea to keep a monthly or weekly calendar, such as those you can find on our Weekly Maintenance Calendar page (where you can access calendars for your state or region).
There are a few essential garden chores that are key for a successful garden, and this page will give you some basic tips on how to make sure you are keeping up with the necessities like general maintenance and upkeep, fertilizing, pest control, watering, weed control, winterizing, and harvesting.
General Maintenance and Upkeep
A few general chores can be done regularly to keep your garden looking its best. These may not improve the taste of your tomatoes or the health of your asparagus plants, but they will keep the garden an inviting place to visit and relax. These types of chores include:
- Collection of any litter or yard debris (branches, twigs, etc)
- Sweeping or raking up stray leaves on walkways/paths
- Trimming/mowing any areas of turf
- Keeping walkway edges clean
- Raking gravel paths
- Upkeep of sheds, fences, sheds, etc. through the occasional coat of fresh paint
- Clearing moss from stone or brick walkways, which could become slippery
- Maintaining any water features
If you maintain a variety of plants and rotate their placement in your garden, you may find that you need very little additional fertilization to keep most plants productive. If you are starting a new garden, however, particularly in an urban area, you may find that your garden has only a small layer of rich topsoil (if any at all), or may be sandy, clayey, or otherwise inhospitable to the type of plants you would like to cultivate. Our Soil Health page will help you cope with some of these challenges, but there are a few basic fertilizing techniques that will help you maintain your soil's health and ensure the continued growth of your garden.
There are three major plant foods that need to be available in your garden -these are nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K). There are four basic types of fertilizers that can be applied to your garden to add these and other nutrients to the soil - composts, animal manures, natural or organic fertilizers, and chemical fertilizers.
It is a good idea to conduct a regular soil test to identify any nutrients your garden may be missing. Conducting a soil test will help you in determining the exact levels and types of fertilizers your garden needs. These tests can be very effective when conducted in the fall; the results will tell you if you need to add an organic fertilizer like lime (for acidic soils) or aged manure (for soils low in nutrients or organic matter) to your soil, and if you add these before winter they will have plenty of time to be absorbed before the spring planting. Manure, in particular that which has not been composted, should never be applied when vegetable or fruit plants are mature, because it can infect plants with bacteria that could make you sick if you consume them.
Chemical or artificial fertilizers should be avoided if at all possible, because the regular use of them can actually impede the soil's ability to hold nutrients. Overuse of chemical fertilizers in conventional agricultural practices and turf grass management has also been proven to have negative effects on soil and water resources. For healthy plants and people, ditch the chemicals!
While there are many beneficial insects that your plants rely on to keep them healthy and productive, there are also some insects and animals that will harm your garden by attacking the leaves, fruits, or roots of your plants. Check out the National Gardening Association Pest Control Library for help identifying common garden pests. There are a few basic types of methods to help you protect your plants from pests, and these include physical control, cultural control, biological control and chemical control.
This method of control involves physically keeping pests out of your garden with barriers and traps, as well as removing established pests on a one-by-one basis.
Keeping pests out of your garden involves a variety of different tactics - from erecting a fence to keep out pests such as deer and rabbits, to setting out an old-fashioned beer trap for slugs. Even if you do not have a permanent barrier like a fence in place, you can set up temporary barriers to protect seedlings and other sensitive plants. Mesh or wire netting can keep birds from eating newly ripened raspberries, for example, and juice bottles with the bottoms cut off can be placed over plants to protect them from slugs and birds.
Removing pests on a one-by-one basis is not a fun job, but it can help you cope with persistent pests such as mice or caterpillars. Mice traps can be set in the garden to capture these pests, and caterpillars and larvae can be individually picked off of plants into a bucket of soapy water.
This method involves choosing how, what, where and when to plant in your garden to help minimize attack by pests.
Companion planting is one approach to cultural pest control - introducing plants that ward off specific pests. One of the oldest and well-known types of cultural control is the planting of marigolds to ward off flying pests and nematodes, but many other plants can do the job as well. Chives, coriander, and nasturtium can help ward off aphids; rosemary and sage keep carrot flies at bay; hyssop, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme keep cabbage moths out of your garden.
If you know that a certain type of insect pest can be problematic in your garden, timing your planting may be one way to avoid infestation. For example, planting summer squash late in the season so that they mature after squash vine borers have finished laying their eggs can help protect the plants from attack. You may want to contact your local extension service for advice on planting times for pest control. Ask to speak with the IPM (Integrated Pest Management) specialist.
If you have an infestation of certain insect pests in one year, you may very well lose most of a certain crop of vegetables, which can be very discouraging. But you can keep this from happening again the next year by rotating your crops - if your cabbage plants were moth infested one year and you would like to plant cabbage again the following year, choose a site that is as far as possible from the original one to help prevent re-infestation.
Keeping your garden clean is another approach - remove diseased plants, rotting fruits and debris because they will attract pests.
For help keeping up with the pests in your garden, it is easy to enlist a little help. You should try to attract pest predators like insect-eating birds, toads, bats, snakes, insects, and frogs to your garden so they can help you control your pest population. There are many ways to attract these beneficial creatures, and certain approaches will make your garden more attractive to people, too. Adding a bird bath or bird house will attract birds, as will the creation of a garden pond. Old logs laid in a shady part of your garden will help attract toads and beetles, and flowers like sedum and butterfly bush will attract bees and butterflies. You can also purchase beneficial insects, like ladybugs, and set these loose in your garden.
Chemical controls should only be relied on as a last resort, because they can harm the soil and the beneficial insects that you need in your garden. Chemicals are also expensive, and will be washed off of your garden when it rains where they can pollute groundwater and waterways like streams and rivers. Use chemicals only if you can find no other way to cope with the pests in your garden, and then do so sparingly. Insect-specific chemical treatments, like slug pellets or Japanese beetle traps, will have little or no impact on the beneficial insects in your garden, but these can still have negative environmental consequences. Always make sure to read instructions carefully, and use only the minimum amounts recommended.
Watering is best done in the in the early morning or late evening, when you will lose the least amount of water to evaporation. Watering with a drip line (a hose or tape with holes in it) will help you minimize water loss as well, because it will deliver the water exactly where it is needed, at the roots. In sunny weather, you should do your best to keep water off of leaves, fruits and flowers, where it will do little to benefit the plant and may lead to scorching.
Because water resources are valuable, you should try to conserve water whenever you can, and there are a few strategies that are useful to know. Water conservation tactics include:
- Plant species well-adapted to the average rainfall in your region
- Apply mulch to the soil to help hold in moisture
- Weed regularly, because weeds will pull moisture from your plants
- Install a rain catchments system to make the most of rainfall
- Use drip irrigation to minimize evaporation
- Avoid planting or transplanting during dry spells
- Enhance sandy soils with organic mater, to improve moisture retention
Knowing how much to water depends on the types of plants you have in your garden, because all have different moisture needs. It is most efficient to give your garden a good soaking once a week, which will penetrate deep into the soil, rather than watering just a little bit each day. As a general rule of thumb, a few types of plants need extra attention to ensure their watering needs are met: transplants, seedlings, flowering vegetables and fruits, and container plants. Also keep a close eye on plants that are in exposed parts of your garden, who receive high levels of sunlight and/or wind.
Weeds are often considered the bane of any gardener, because they rob plants of moisture, nutrients, and light. Knowing a few basic weeding approaches can help keep them at bay. The first trick is to start early, and to remove weeds often in the spring and summer before they have a chance to go to seed. You also want to make sure to remove the entire weed - including its root - because some plants are able to re-grow from just a small piece of root.
It is a good idea to weed during hot, dry periods, because the weeds will be easy to remove and will wither on the surface. When using a hoe, try to dig as shallowly as possible, to avoid disturbing the roots of your garden plants.
Chemical weed removers are commonly used today on gardens and lawns, but they should only be used as a last resort because they can pass harmful chemicals on to your fruits and vegetables. If you must use chemical weed killers, you should follow a few basic rules: apply weed killer in the spring, when it will kill newly emerging weeds and prevent re-growth of new ones for a few months; do not apply weed killer on a windy day, when chemicals can be carried onto other plants, or cover plants with plastic sheeting during application; if you apply weed killer in the vicinity of edibles, only eat fruits and vegetables once they have been thoroughly cleansed with a produce wash.
Lastly, it may be wise to learn about the weeds in your garden before beginning to eradicate them. A few plants that are treated as weeds, such as dandelions, purslane, nettles, burdock, and wild garlic, are actually highly nutritious and prized by cooks for their flavor. Get to know your weeds, and you may find that you have a crop that you never knew of! Confining beneficial weeds to a certain area and creating an "Edible Weeds" garden is one way to make the most out these plants. Check out the site You Grow Girl, for some advice on caring for and eating from a weed garden.
Depending on where you live, winterizing your garden can be an important chore in the late fall, particularly if your garden contains perennials (which grow back every year) or any species that are suited for climates a little warmer than yours. Vegetable gardeners have less to worry about when winter's cold hits because in cold regions only a few vegetables - like asparagus and artichokes - live more than one season. Fruits and many flowers are perennials, and may need extra attention to survive the winter months.
Bulbs, tubers, and delicate or young plants may have to be removed from the garden and be stored indoors or in a protected outdoor spot over the winter. Planting plants in containers will make this job easier, but it may not be necessary if you live in a region that does not see deep winters.
Less sensitive plants can be protected though an insulating layer of straw or hay, held down with fleece or plastic. Certain vegetables, such as cabbage, collards, and broccoli, can be harvested in cold winter months through a method called "live storage," where layers of straw are used to insulate the plants. You can also build something called a cold frame to protect these plants, which is a layer of plastic secured by weights and held off of plants by wires or stiff tubing (see our Project Gallery for instructions on how to build a cold frame). These cold frames will insulate plants and protect them from frost, and will allow you to harvest hearty greens like collards and kale even after the snow has begun to fly. Cold frames can also be utilized in the spring, to warm the soil for the first planting.
See our Harvesting Tips page for general tips on harvesting and storage, and our Plants That Taste Good page for detailed harvesting information for the most popular garden fruits, vegetables and herbs.