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Do’s and don’ts when starting a home garden

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Happy spring! This is the time of April showers, which bring May flowers (or in my case, a wet basement). But as you stay inside to help curb the COVID-19 pandemic, you might be wondering, "How do I start gardening at home?"

Hosts Caroline and Jeff welcomed Erik Maietta of Country Mile Garden on a recent episode of the vipHome Podcast to score gardening tips and tricks, including how to start a garden from scratch. 

The do's for starting a home garden

Get out your gardening tools.

Essential tips for gardening at home 

When it comes to starting a home garden or growing vegetables, Maietta provides three essential do's:

  • Choose a site that gets sunlight a good portion of the day.
  • Know your garden soil conditions, so you can treat them (or build raised beds).
  • Start small – with potted vegetables or a few vegetables.

The last point is especially important when you're learning how to start a garden from scratch.

"You don't know the conditions," says Maietta, "and you don't know what animals are going to do."

Maietta attempted to grow cherry tomatoes in a few pots but since he lives in a woody area, met some resistance from his furry neighbors. 

Cherry tomatoes are a favorite garden item of humans and small animals.

"Who knew that once squirrels get a taste for delicious, juicy, easy-to-handle cherry tomatoes – that every day I would come out and find them missing."

While tomatoes proved difficult, basil and eggplant were easy wins when it came to vegetable gardening.

Laughs Maietta, "I saw one little tiny bite out of the eggplant, and [the animal] spit it out and never touched it again. So I had tons of eggplants and plenty of basil but almost no tomatoes."

Maietta says his clients find similar issues with deer as most homeowners may not have interacted with this wildlife until they grow leafy greens.

"That's why I say, 'Start small, do an experiment, and then you can scale up the next year as you see how the garden progresses.'"

Maintain your garden and lawn 

Up your curb appeal with a maintained lawn.

"Just maintaining, taking that shovel and having your bed and lawns edged out – it's super important," says Maietta.

Mulch it! 

"Some homeowners don't like mulch because it doesn't last forever," says Maietta, "but doing a thick two- or three-inch coating will last a few years. You can use hemlock mulch that stitches together better and also holds the color better than cedar."

According to Maietta, hemlock mulch is lightweight, which makes it easier to install (lighter than hardwood mulch). Stone mulch also has permanence but is very heavy and labor-intensive to install. Also, the color is light/whiter stone, like river rock, and has a very different look compared to dark mulch.

"Just be careful that you are not inadvertently drawing the eye to the brightness of the stone along your foundation," warns Maietta. "You can also just add a strip or small area of river rock for erosion control, so it's not overwhelming."

Mulch also helps to win that ever-important first impression of a home.

Get your mulch on.

"It distracts you from looking at all the weeds and all these patches like mud, and then your eye is just drawn to that rich contrast of the foliage of your shrubs and the flowers."

However, Maietta reminds homeowners that a major concern with mulch is bugs, so it's best not to pile it up against the foundation of your home.

"Also, don't make what's called a mulch volcano where you pack it around the base of trees," says Maitetta. "It ends up high, and that rots the bottom of the tree. It also encourages insects."

(Country Mile Gardens' garden center is currently closed due to the pandemic, but delivery is available!) 

The don'ts of home gardening 

Make sure to water - but not overwater - your garden.

Don't drown plants 

"You don't realize it until it's too late," says Maietta.

Water your plants long and thoroughly but not every day. For potted plants, a great tip is to pick it up immediately after watering to feel how heavy it is. A week later, pick it up again, and if it's paper light, it's ready to be watered. If it's still heavy, then the plant needs to dry out, which helps prevent mold and fungus.

Don't be fooled by sprinklers and misty rain 

Hand-water your plants.

"You think you're okay because you have sprinklers on a timer," says Maietta, "but I would say hand water and make sure that you can see how the water penetrates."

When watering plants or your garden bed, see how it seeps into the ground. "Don't be afraid to put your hand into the mulch to see how much water has soaked in."

You should also do this after a misty rain, which generally doesn't water your soil as much as you think. A good soaking rain or even a "long and slow" watering is the best way to give your gardens and plants enough to drink.

Don't forget to transplant your…plants 

Don't forget your young ones!

If you're using starter kits to kick start your garden plants indoors, make sure to plant them into the garden outside when the time is right. This gives your plants room to grow.

"I did make a space for a few, and then I never got around to transplanting them at the right time," says Marietta. "It's easy to get busy and just like forget about your young plants. Then they get real lanky, and that's it."

Don't plant before the last freeze 

"If you wait until late April, you should be fine," says Maietta, when discussing the season's frost dates. "You can also wait until the last freeze, which is typically in the middle of May, but this year's unseasonably warm weather can let you get a jump on transplanting."

There are also cold-hardy vegetables you can start in March/April such as beets, broccoli, spinach, lettuce, kale, and cauliflower. (You can pick these up at Country Mile Gardens at the appropriate time in late winter/early spring.) 

Don't plant trees too close to each other or your home 

Give your plants room to grow.

"When people plant small arborvitaes about a foot apart from each other – you don't realize they need to be planted from the center of one to the center of the next one," says Maietta. They need to be at least five feet apart.

"Even when I do it, I have to check myself and make sure I'm not getting tempted to start squishing everything together to make it look a little fuller," says Maietta. "Now I admit it. It's very tempting, but that's a huge mistake."

Maietta also reminds homeowners to plant small shrubs a minimum of three feet away from the foundation of a home. "I've seen people plant shrubs a foot away from the home, and then in five or 10 years, it's a mess."

This is also imperative for trees.

"You want to keep everything away from the house," says Marietta. "I've got a lot of clients that have had older plantings, and they put the tree maybe like four feet from the house. Now it's 30 feet tall and engulfing the home itself."

This also leads to animals climbing up a trunk and right into your awnings, vent, and attic.

Homeowners should also keep in mind bi-level homes that have overhangs and awnings. It can get very dry underneath those areas and produce shade a majority of the day, stopping most plants (and trees) from growing. 

Don't prune trees into lollipop shrubs 

Be creative with your shrubs.

"I always recommend spacing properly and letting them grow naturally," says Maietta. "Just let them do their thing. You'll have a much nicer, more complementary landscape."

With certain plants, such as rhododendrons and azaleas, it's best to let them grow and hand prune as needed. "Use a little artistic ability," says Maietta. "Prune a few branches, then take a few steps back. Once you like how the branch looks, go onto the next one."

Don't forget the koi ponds and bird baths  

Beautiful koi ponds are difficult to maintain.

"I did one," admits Maietta. "It was just a constant maintenance nightmare."

In Maietta's interconnecting ponds, the herring ate all the koi, and the pumps sprayed water. "It turned into a mosquito horsefly resort."

Bird baths have the same issues (minus the herring) with standing water that attracts insects.

If you want accents in your garden, Maietta advises to keep it simple. "For statues or objects, maybe just like one. Simple and clean is always better." 

Don't plant these disastrous plants 

Wisteria flowers may conquer your yard.

Weeping willows: "Beautiful trees and great for wet areas, but the roots spread out 250 feet in every direction. It's incredibly aggressive and can damage foundation."

Bamboo: Used mostly for privacy, bamboo never stops growing. Certain roots penetrate concrete. "It ends up your problem, and if you think you had any issues with your neighbors before – wait until they see roots puncturing their foundation. You're going to have a real awkward situation."

In order to kill bamboo, a gardener would need to cut them down and inject each stock individually with a weed killer.

Wisteria vines: They grow 50 to 100 feet in every direction, "like tentacle monsters wrapping everything in roots as it goes." If you tear the plant out, the roots will stay and regrow.


Learn more about gardening ideas for beginners, including how to rid your home (or attempt to rid your home) of poison ivy, by listening to the full podcast now. Find it on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify Podcasts. You can also watch the full video podcast above and see more episodes at vipHome Podcast.

Looking to get a professionally designed garden and lawn? Reach out to Erik Maietta at Country Mile Gardens now.


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