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In the Garden and on the Lawn, Cheaters Always Win


You Bet Your Garden
Question of the Week © 2018 Mike McGrath

Note: Hundreds of Mike's informative articles are available (in alphabetical order!) right here at the Gardens Alive website. To find Mike's answers to your specific garden problem, Click here and find your topic (like Weeds, Worms, Rhododendrons...) in our complete alphabetical archive of Questions of the Week.

In the Garden and on the Lawn, Cheaters Always Win

Q. You do a great job and I follow all your advice exactly (as long as it's convenient and cheap). For example, I always cut my lawn at the advised time...as long as that happens to fall on a weekend and the kids aren't keeping me too busy. For those not as committed as me, do you have any advice on how to…well…how to…cheat? Basically, the Cliff Notes version of garden care? For instance, how do I get rid of lawn weeds without harming the dog or the kids and do it quickly? And what if my wife tells me it's time to trim a plant when the calendar disagrees? Calendars can't make me sleep in the spare bedroom, my wife can.

---Chad in Gaithersburg, Maryland

A. Cheating? I'm supposed to help someone cheat? My pleasure!

As I try and point out whenever I talk to groups of impressionable school-age children, "cheaters always win". And all seriousness aside, what Chad is really asking is for a low-work method, which is at the core of my horticultural philosophy. If you're working hard in the garden, you're doing something wrong.

Oh, and bending is for chumps.

Let's start with the lawn care cheats. Number one: Start the season with a brand-new blade or get the old blade sharpened. A sharp blade is one of the keys to having a great looking lawn. And it's a passive activity; you go to a hardware store and buy a new blade—and, let's be honest—a trip to the hardware store is a day's vacation for most guys. Or you go to a power equipment dealer and get them to sharpen the old one for you while you marvel at how many different sizes of string trimmer line there are on the wall.

Number two: cut cool-season grasses like fescue or bluegrass when they get to around four inches tall and then take just an inch off the top. That's also time-saving, because the grass will grow more slowly and you won't have to mow as often. It amazes me that so many people mow by the calendar instead of checking the height; they probably cut twice as often as they should—and excessive cutting makes it easier for weeds to move in.

Three: Wise watering. Long, deep and especially infrequent. That means sitting on your hose until you have gone a week without an inch of rain. So toss a rain gauge in the cart when you're at that hardware store and set it up at home. It'll even make it look like you're paying more attention to the lawn instead of trying to avoid watering! I'm getting into this plan!

Now, if you live in the Northeast or mid-Atlantic, as Chad in the DC suburbs does, you only went that dry—a week without rain—twice all season; and then it rained like heck within a few days. In years like that, you should probably just not water at all.

It's the ultimate in laziness! And if you cut at the right height with a sharp blade, your lawn can go a few weeks without water. It'll just grow deeper roots in response. Those roots will crowd out weeds without you ever having to attack them directly. That's lawn care on the couch! (And if a weed does pop up in a noticeable area, have one of the new iron-based herbicides on hand and use it as directed. These iron-based weed killers are safe AND effective.)

And finally, never cut your lawn when its wet or you'll shred the blades of grass and then it won't matter how much you water because the water holders are cracked open. And always leave your clippings on the lawn to give it a passive feeding every time you mow.

Q. Now, what about the pruning issue? It sounds like Chad knows that spare room all too well.

A. Get ahead of the game. Prune spring bloomers like azalea, rhododendron, forsythia and lilacs right after they bloom. If they're getting too big for their space, cut them back hard—by a full one-third—and they should look fine the rest of the year.

Prune hedges, summer bloomers and roses about two weeks after they begin growing again in the Spring. You can cut things like roses and such back by a third as well, but try not to go nuts with the hedges or they'll grow faster, and you'll have rogue shoots popping out all summer.

And if that happens?

Go out with a pair of pruners and just clip off those shoots. But stay out there a long time, douse yourself with the hose before you come back in, claim its sweat and that you're exhausted.

And what about the fall, when NOTHING should EVER be pruned?

Find a good sitter for the kids and go out every Saturday night. Dinner and a movie. Glass of wine when you get home. Keep chocolate in the house at all times. Feign injury. Oh, and recycle all those calendars…

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