10 gardening projects to take on when you have time
Keep busy in your own backyard.
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Spring is here, and it's time to get outside. Treat the changing season as an opportunity to tackle some yard and garden projects you never seem to get around to doing. Your garden and yard will end up greener, healthier, and easier to care for in the long run—and getting your hands dirty might even bring you joy.
Here are 10 gardening ideas to accomplish now that you finally have the time.
1. Sharpen your tools
Yard work is no fun with dull tools. Cutting and digging are harder when you’re using blunt blades, and you’re more likely to damage your plants—and possibly hurt yourself! And while we typically believe that winter is a great time to sharpen your tools, if you didn't get to it then now is the time.
You can sharpen pruners, loppers, and lawn mower blades. Even your trowels, shovels, and hoes will all cut more smoothly if you sharpen the edges.
You can sharpen most garden tools with an 8-inch to 12-inch bastard-cut file (“bastard” simply means “medium grit” when it comes to files). You can also order drill attachments to sharpen your lawnmower blades, and stones and files specifically made for pruners or trowels.
Clean dirt off your tools with a stiff wire brush and rags. If your tools have gotten rusty in storage, you can use a rust eraser to remove the rust before sharpening.
Remember to oil the blades after you sharpen, and to clean and oil them after every use. Raw linseed oil is a great all-purpose oil for yard tools. It protects metal blades from rust and keeps wooden handles from cracking. Don’t confuse it with boiled linseed oil, which contains solvents that you may not want in your yard.
2. Add vertical growing structures
A lot of gardens look a little… flat. You can perk up your patio and gain a lot of garden space by adding vertical structures to your yard. As a bonus, growing vining plants on trellises helps prevent plant diseases by letting more air circulate through the leaves.
Trellises are great for growing vines like pumpkins, tomatoes, or morning glories, but in a pinch even an old bicycle will do. If you can tie sticks together, you can make a bean tent for a shady garden hideaway.
You can also buy vertical planters that attach easily to a wall or deck for instant green space.
3. Get weeding
It’s hard to get excited about weeding, but it’s the secret to keeping your yard and garden looking their best.
Start by attacking the small weeds like those tiny sprouts coming up between your flowers and shrubs, or between the stones of your patio or walkway. A Japanese hand hoe slices through small weed roots just under the soil; you can leave the seedlings on the ground as mulch.
If you have weeds in the narrow cracks between stones or brick paving, try a crack weeder. Crack weeders, also known as patio knives, are thin L-shaped blades attached to a handle; they do a great job of rooting out walkway weeds.
You can also try pouring boiling water on young weeds coming up between your pavers. Various sites recommend adding baking soda, vinegar, Epsom salts, table salt, or dish soap to the boiling water. But take note that there isn’t much evidence that all these additives are more effective than simply pouring boiling water, and table salt can leach into nearby soil to poison the plans you want.
Once you remove the weeds between pavers, immediately add sand to cover the hole. You don’t want light to penetrate and wake up more weed seeds. Or beat the weeds at their own game by planting creeping thyme between the stones.
If you waited a little longer to weed, a CobraHead weeder is good for yanking out larger, tougher weeds. It’s easier to pull weeds when the soil is moist, usually the day after a rain. For wholesale weed clearance, a garden hoe will give you the leverage to pull out larger weeds on a larger scale. Don’t forget to sharpen the hoe blade from time to time.
Once you’ve taken out your weeds, cover up the ground immediately with compost or mulch.
4. Create yard edging
Putting in yard edging is like getting a haircut: It makes the rest of the package look better, even if everything else is the same. Creating a visual and physical barrier between your lawn, garden beds, and walkways makes it easier to contain garden mulch and soil and to mow without accidentally scalping your plants.
A good edging will also keep nearsighted relatives and young children from stomping on your flowers, and it makes messy garden beds look like they’re an intentional contrasting design.
5. Plan for a rainy day
Sure, rain falls from the sky, but it doesn’t always fall when you need it, and the water from your hose costs money. With a little planning and digging, you can shrink your water bills, reduce erosion, and keep runoff from clogging your local storm drains.
If your house has gutters, you can invest in a rain barrel to collect the rain from your roof and keep your garden watered between storms. Rain barrels are a great way for homeowners to save tons of money.
Make sure you mulch any area that isn’t planted or paved; mulch can reduce rainwater evaporation by up to 90%. Be sure to check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendation of water-conserving plants for every state, and think carefully about how much turf grass you need around your home. Turf grass can consume 50% more water than mixed-plant landscapes.
Take a hard look at your paving and hardscape too. Permeable pavement lets rainwater drip into your soil instead of running off into the street (where your plants can’t get it).
You can also turn that ugly, eroded ditch in your yard can become a rain garden. Rain gardens are simply low areas with plants that can withstand regular flooding paired with dry spells. Since these plants’ roots hold the soil in place, the water drains slowly instead of running offsite—reducing erosion and keeping debris from getting swept into storm drains. The EPA has lots of advice on building rain gardens.
6. Cover up empty soil patches
If you have bare ground in your yard, you’re asking for weeds. Weed seeds lurk in every soil, and when they’re exposed to light, they can grow very, very quickly. Every inch of your yard should be covered, whether it’s grass, a ground cover plant, garden plants, mulch, sand, gravel, or some other paving or structure.
The easiest way to cover up empty patches of soil is by adding an organic mulch, which is shredded plant material that will break down and enrich your soil over time. If you change your mind about how to use that part of your yard later, you don’t have to worry about removing old pebbles, ground-up plastic or rubber. Avoid colored wood-chip mulches as they’re sometimes made from demolition waste wood, and can contain creosote and chromated copper arsenate.
If you can’t get out to the store to buy mulch, you can use other plant-based mulches such as shredded pine bark, straw, shredded leaves, grass clippings, or compost. You can also make mulch out of shredded paper or cardboard. All of these mulches should be applied 2-3 inches thick to keep light from getting to weed seeds.
7. Start composting
If you’ve got some time on your hands, the best thing you can do for your garden is start making compost. Compost combines the best parts of fertilizer and mulch, and helps flowers, veggies, and grass grow green and strong.
The simplest way to compost is to just throw all your veggie kitchen scraps and yard waste in a pile in your backyard. Over time, they’ll break down into rich, dark-brown compost—assisted by earthworms coming up from the ground to check out your pile.
If you’d rather not let your neighbors or local critters inspect your compost, you can get a closed composter or through your local public works department. If there are rodents in your neighborhood, put a quarter-inch of wire mesh over all the openings including the ground your composter is resting on. If you live in a hot desert area, a keyhole garden combines a compost bin and a garden bed to keep plants moist and healthy in the harsh summer sun.
Keep your compost pile happy (and fresh-smelling) by combining “brown” materials like dried leaves, straw, or shredded cardboard with your “green” materials like kitchen scraps and fresh grass clippings.
The number one tip for composting? Relax. Let the microbes do their thing, and in six months, you’ll have black gold.
8. Prune your shrubs, hedges, and trees
Flat-tops are out. Your shrubs and trees will be happier and healthier if you learn how to prune your plants along their natural growth. Shearing shrubs straight across the top can lead to excess top growth, with little light reaching the middle of the shrub.
In general, when you prune, cut limbs back to a quarter-inch above a bud to stimulate new growth. Cut any branches that are diseased, dead, or rubbing another branch, and never remove more than one-third of a plant’s branches in a season.
If your shrub or tree blooms in the spring or early summer, prune it immediately after blooming. Mid- and late-season shrubs can be pruned in the spring, but watch out: Several popular shrubs bloom on the last year’s growth. Prune away all the branch tips of your lilac, azalea, or rhododendron, and you may be pruning away all of this year’s flowers. Check bloom times before you break out the pruning shears.
If you don’t have a pair of hand pruners, ARS and Felco pruners are the gold standard—their manufacturers sell replacement parts, and they come in a variety of sizes. Check before you buy to make sure they’re the right size for your hands. Corona pruners are also sturdy and tend to fit larger hands.
9. Create a layout that works best for you
Do your back and knees hurt after a gardening session? Take some time to think about where and how you garden.
If your raised garden beds are more than 2 ft. wide, consider dividing the bed or putting in stepping stones so that it’s easier to reach everything without stepping on plants. You could even put in a zen-garden style river of gravel to make access easier.
10. Build a labyrinth
In times of stress, having a calm place to walk and meditate can be invaluable. Labyrinths—circular mazes with a single curving path—have been used for contemplation since at least 1200, when a labyrinth was built at the cathedral at Chartres, France. Today, they’re featured in gardens and landscapes around the world.
By building a labyrinth, you will be joining a long tradition of making a place for quiet thought and calm in an unsettled world.
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