pot luck: Container gardening tips


15 essential tips from our gardening expert Yvonne Cunnington’s new book Clueless in the Garden

By Yvonne Cunnington
First published in Chatelaine’s May 2003 issue.
© Yvonne Cunnington

1. Watch and learn

The main reason novice gardeners fail has less to do with being clueless than with not paying enough attention. Really look at what’s going on in the garden a couple of times a week–what’s growing well, what needs watering, and pull out that weed before it goes to seed.

2. Buy quality tools

With garden tools, the old adage stands: you get what you pay for. When shopping for that garden spade or shovel, look for forged metal heads and handles that fit securely into the shaft (avoid those that are just bolted on). Hardwood handles should have a varnished finish, fit comfortably in your hands and feel the right weight for you to handle easily.

3. It pays to compost

Compost is the best treat you can give your soil. As well as enriching it and improving its texture, compost may help protect plants from pests and disease by making them hardier. Make it in your own backyard–all you need is plant-based kitchen and yard waste, and a composter–or get it through your municipal composting program.

4. Magnificent mulch

Without something growing on it or covering it, topsoil erodes with the wind and rain. Nature quickly covers bare patches of soil with weeds as a way of keeping it in place, which might not suit your gardening plan. Cover bare soil between plants with a layer of mulch–usually chopped leaves, bark or needles. It will make your beds look neat and help the soil retain moisture.

5. Go for buds over blooms

Plant sellers know that gardeners make a beeline for plants in bloom, but if there’s a choice between a perennial in full bloom or one that’s just beginning to bud, choose the latter so it will bloom in your garden, not just in the garden centre.

6. Grey days are for planting

The best time to plant annuals and perennials isn’t a hot, sunny day but a cooler, cloudier one. Such conditions are less stressful for the plants–and for the gardener.

7. Myth: Nothing will grow under pine or spruce trees because the needles turn the soil acidic

Fact: Many perennials can’t thrive here because of the intense shade and extreme dryness. The cure: water deeply and frequently, and layer mulch over the soil. If all else fails, put shade-loving plants in containers and use those under your evergreen tree instead.

8. Weed or perennial?

Many weeds start growing before most perennials wake up in the spring. They tend to have tiny flowers that seem to bloom and go to seed in a nanosecond. By comparison, desirable garden flowers tend to be much larger and bloom longer. It’s worth identifying your perennials with a label so you’ll know where they are in spring.

9. Love bugs

The more insects in your garden, the better. Maintain a healthy balance by having as many different plants–and insects–as you can so one bug problem won’t affect everything in the garden. Plant dill, cilantro, fennel, yarrow, and parsley, and allow them to flower–they’ll entice beneficial insects, like ladybugs, that feed on more destructive bugs, like aphids. Plant herbs and flowers among your vegetables.

10. Keep tabs on your tools

This happens all the time–I’m using a tool when I see something else that needs attention and put it down. Then I come back and can’t find it. The solution: spray-paint the wooden handles of your spade, rakes and hand tools bright yellow so no matter where you put them, they stand out.

11. Ditch the crutch

Staking isn’t necessarily a good thing. Studies have shown that trees establish more quickly and develop stronger trunk and root systems when they aren’t staked. So stake only if your site is very windy and leave the stakes in place for one growing season only.

12. Indestructible perennials

Barren strawberry, big-root geranium, bishop’s hat, or barrenwort, dead nettle, sweet woodruff–these plants can tough it out in dry shade under trees. Like all plants, though, they’ll do better if you water them during the driest periods. Or go really low-maintenance with pachysandra and periwinkle, both tough evergreen ground covers.

13. Be sensitive to your plants

Pests and diseases tend to leave healthy plants alone and zoom in on stressed plants. Plants become stressed when their needs aren’t met, such as a sun lover planted in shade, or a cool-weather specimen forced to exist in a hot, humid climate. To avoid aggravating your flowers and bushes, pay attention to their proper growing conditions.

14. Shop for lasting colour

New gardeners often shop only in the spring for what’s in bloom then. By July, their garden is finished. To avoid this, organize your shopping list by blooming season–early, mid, and late summer–and then pick a variety of perennials that flower at different times to cover each part of the growing season.


  • Pot luck
  • Grow your own herbs
  • Yard workout
  • Your complete gardening guide
  • Swap gardening tips in our Home + garden forum
  • Gardening pro Yvonne Cunnington: April 14 to 18.

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