The Well-Dressed Garden

New Year's Resolutions for Gardeners

It's a good time to take a look at last year's gardening successes and failures, savoring the better accomplishments and trying to learn something useful from the not-so-good. It's time for a few New Year's gardening resolutions.

New Year's resolutions are often intimidating or even a little depressing -- and the fact is, most of them are scrapped before the end of January. But gardening resolutions are low-pressure pledges. "I see them more as goals, or even like a dream," says Karen Beaty, a horticulturist at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. Beaty is in charge of the Wildflower Center's 4.5-acre family garden. At the end of the gardening season, "I think of what we did and what we can do better next year," she says. On those terms, resolutions aren't burdensome: They're full of promise, just like a package of seeds.

This year, Beaty has pledged to document the development of the garden more thoroughly. She's not thinking in terms of spreadsheets: She plans to take pictures of flower beds, making a record of the garden's growth through the seasons, highlighting plant combinations. She's going to photograph the installation of an underground irrigation system, so it doesn't get dug up later by mistake. She plans to take pictures from her favorite vantage points in the garden, and even to photograph things she doesn't like. "That way I can see what I want to do more of, and what I don't want to do more of," she says.

Beaty has also vowed to be more ruthless in her pruning practices this year. Pruning stimulates growth, after all, and she regrets not having trimmed long-blooming perennials in midsummer, to encourage them to continue producing flowers well into the fall. "I'm trying to coach myself to not be afraid to prune like that," she says. Salvia, bee balm, helianthus, coreopsis, purple coneflower and black-eyed Susans will all produce an extra flush of blooms if they're cut back in early summer. Of course, annual flowers, such as zinnias, cosmos and marigolds, also keep blooming heavily all summer long if you cut off the flowers as they fade.

Heather Sherwood, a horticulturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, is concentrating on beneficial insects and pollinators in her gardening resolutions for 2018. In fact, she got started on this resolution in late fall, blowing autumn leaves off the lawn and into shrub and flower beds, where they serve as mulch, create a rich habitat for beneficial insects and, over time, decompose to add nutrients and micronutrients to the soil. "People used to think this was bad," Sherwood says, "but now we realize that good insects are in those leaves." Turning autumn leaves into a resource for the garden saves time that would otherwise be spent bagging the leaves and getting rid of them. It also saves money because she doesn't have to purchase mulch for the flower beds.

To make more pollinators feel welcome in the garden, Sherwood plans to install bee houses made with short lengths of bamboo, bundled together. Hang these bee houses from tree branches, and mason bees will find them. Sherwood protects pollinators at home, too: She keeps bees on the flat roof of her garage, where she harvested 50 jars of honey last year. "Bees are so cool," she says.

Taking care of pollinators is good for the health of food gardens, too. Chris Smith, an enthusiastic home gardener and marketing manager for Sow True Seeds, a mail-order seed catalog company in Asheville, North Carolina, plans to grow more flowers in his vegetable garden this year. Flowers attract pollinators, which increase yields, Smith says. Planting flowers among vegetables also "looks great, and it breaks up the monoculture of a single bed," he says.

Smith plans to grow a border of sunflowers along one side of his backyard vegetable garden. He's also going to plant nasturtiums in with his squash, and he's making room for lots of marigolds, among other annual flowers.

Smith also vows that in 2018 he'll work harder to make the most of vegetables that can be harvested several ways. Instead of composting the tops of beets and carrots, he's planning to eat the greens. "I'm trying to tackle the problems of food waste and small-space gardening" by making the best use of everything he grows, he says. Turnip greens and radish tops are likewise edible. The leaves of some beans, sweet potatoes and peas are also delicious. Smith really appreciates okra (he once grew 14 different kinds) and delights in recipes for the unexpected, such as okra pizza. He also eats the leaves.

Gardening resolutions are meant to be inspiring, not onerous, these professionals say. If your busy life gets in the way of your good intentions, just do the best you can. "If you don't achieve your resolution, don't beat yourself up," Beaty says. "If it's a good one, you can recycle it. There's always next year."

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