How To Home Garden Like A Pro

Hello sunshine!

Now that it’s summer, welcome to gardening season! But here in Chicago, summer doesn’t always mean summertime weather. Whether it’s as hot and dry as the Sahara or raining night and day, make sure you keep your garden looking and feeling top notch!  Here are some tips and techniques for the home gardener from Terra’s own Master Gardener In Training, Justin Sigalos.  

Proper Plant Watering Technique:

An infrequent deep watering is better than frequent light sprinkling. For the outdoor garden, a good rule of thumb to follow is an inch of water per week. Water early in the day to avoid disease problems.

For indoor plants watering is critical to a successful plant. Overwatering is one of the most common causes of early indoor plant deaths. Most indoor plants vary with how much water they require. The best method to test for dryness is to put the forefinger into the soil up to the second knuckle and determine the wetness through touch. For larger containers you will have to go deeper. If the soil feels moist and you can squeeze some into a ball that doesn't immediately crumble, no watering is needed. Lifting the pot can be helpful to determine if watering is needed. A dry soil will weigh less than a watered one. 

Remember to make sure the water drains out the bottom of the pot when watering. This is important for two reasons. First, most of the plant's roots are located in the bottom 2/3rds of the pot. And secondly, allowing the water to drain through the pot allows excess salts to be washed from the soil. Do not allow the plant to sit in water. Once the pot has drained, always empty the saucer. Never use ice cold water to water your house plants. Water should be tepid or room temperature.

Lawn Care:

Follow these basic lawn care tips to reduce the amount of watering, reduce unnecessary fertilizer applications, reduce costly maintenance bills, and increase the health of your lawn. 

The top tip for a successful lawn is known as the 1/3 rule. Never remove more than 1/3rd of the height of your grass in a single mowing. This reduces stress on the roots of the grass preventing die back and weeds from moving in, as well as reducing the amount of watering needed to maintain the lawn.

Each time you mow, you should mow the lawn in a new pattern. This will prevent ruts from forming in your yard. 

Sharpen your mower blade several times a year. A dull mower blade will rip out your grass instead of cleanly cutting the grass blades. 

Consider leaving the grass clippings on the lawn. Not only will this save you money by not buying landscape waste bags, but it will also return nutrients to the lawn. Leaving the grass clippings will equal roughly one pound of nitrogen per 1000 sq. ft. of lawn. However, it is a good idea to collect clippings when your grass is overgrown or when the clippings will interfere with your intended use. 

Consider core cultivation (aeration) of your lawn once or twice a year during active growing season. If you can only do it one time, aerate in the fall. Aeration will reduce thatch build up, relieve soil compaction, allow more water to enter the soil, and provide more oxygen into the soil. You'll want to ideally aerate 2" to 2 1/2" inches deep. All of this will yield a healthier, stress free lawn.

Consider convincing your neighbors to aerate their lawns as well. You can split the cost of renting the aeration machine in half by pairing up with your neighbor. After the aeration process is an ideal time to top dress your lawn. Rake in about 1/8" to 1/4" of soil or compost into your lawn. Adding this compost post-aeration can reduce the need for fertilizer by up to 50%. Adding the organic material will also reduce the need to irrigate your lawn. Except in extreme drought years, all cool season established lawns can survive most summers without any irrigation.

The natural life cycle of cool season grasses has them dormant during the hottest parts of the year. 

Additional tip: to reduce water usage, leave your lawn longer (typically around 3" high) during the hottest months of the year, and limit foot traffic during dry spells. 

Ultimate Container Soilless Mix:

Regular garden soil should never be used in containers as it typically drains poorly and is over compacted. This simple recipe provides all the necessary ingredients for healthy plants:

Mix 5 parts peat moss, 3 parts compost, and 2 parts perlite. Fill the container to about an inch from the rim and transplant your new plant. Annuals, perennials, and vegetables will thrive in this environment.

Start your own compost:

Creating your own compost pile is one of the best things for a home garden. You can reduce both the amount of waste you contribute to the landfills and the amount of money spent maintaining your garden. Annual additions of compost and other organic material to the soil improves aeration and drainage, supplies plants with nutrients, and increases moisture retention. 

The key factors to a quality compost pile are:

  • The organisms that make compost
  • The carbon and nitrogen required to feed those organisms
  • Air
  • Water
  • Size of the pile
  • Temperature

It may sound like a lot to process, but once you break it down it's rather simple. Aerobic bacteria are the most important decomposers in the pile. There may be millions of bacteria in a single gram of soil.

Their utilization of the carbon and nitrogen in the pile creates the heat which in turn starts the decomposition process leading to a good compost pile. A carbon - nitrogen ratio of 30:1 - is the optimum range for rapid decomposition. If the ratio exceeds 30:1, heat production drops and decomposition slows. Too much nitrogen can raise the pH of the pile and potentially kill the beneficial bacteria. See the list below for acceptable and unacceptable items to add to a compost pile.

To speed the decomposition process, turning the pile will incorporate more oxygen, thus replenishing fresh air into the pile aiding the process. The pile should remain damp as well. Ideally the consistency of a wet sponge, roughly 40 to 60% moisture content, should be maintained. Lightly wetting the materials as you add them to the pile will insure a proper moisture level. The ideal temperature for fast composting is 122 to 128 degrees Fahrenheit. Climb above 160 degrees, and beneficial microbes will begin to die off. The size of the compost pile will also affect the speed at which the pile decomposes. A smaller pile may not heat up enough to allow adequate decomposition, while a larger pile may not allow enough air into it. For the home garden, aim for a 3'x3'x3' pile, and go no larger than 5'x5'x5'. 

You should start your pile on bare ground. Do not place your pile on asphalt or concrete which impedes aeration and inhibits microbial contact with the earth. Layer the pile to adequately mix materials throughout. Start with a 6 to 8" thick pile of organic material (refer to the list below). 

Cover that with a high nitrogen content or green materials layer (grass clippings or a cup of 10-10-10 fertilizer would be great choices). 

Cover this layer with 1 to 2 inches of top soil or existing compost. This will introduce microbes into the pile. 

Continue these layers until you've run out of composting materials or you've reached your size limit of your pile. 

If you still have more materials, start a second pile. Piles can be left over winter. Just know that the decomposition process will slow or stop during the cold months. It will pick up again during the spring. You can add materials at any time. 

Turn the pile with a pitch fork, shovel or rake about once a week for the first month. After that the compost pile can be turned once every 4 to 5 weeks. Finished composts should be ready to use 6 to 12 months later. In Illinois, a pile started in February or March may be ready to September or October of the same year. 

Do Not Compost:

  • Meat, bones, fats, grease or fish
  • Grains, breads or beans
  • Dairy products, whole eggs, milk sour cream, yogurt
  • Plywood or treated wood sawdust
  • Coal or charcoal ash
  • Some manures, including pet waste (cat, dog, bird, swine, human and carnivore manures)
  • Black walnut tree leaves or twigs
  • Sludge 
  • Diseased plants or plants with herbicides

Do Compost:

  • Leaves
  • Shredded black and white newspaper
  • Shredded stems and twigs
  • Vegetable or fruit waste
  • Coffee grounds, tea grounds, and leaves
  • Some manures (cow, horse, sheep, poultry, rabbit, llama)
  • Grass clippings (without chemicals)
  • Bone or blood meal
  • Straw or hay