12 Things Every Gardener Should Know

You know the song… “and a partridge in a pear tree”. Well, I do not know about the partridge, but I would take the pear tree. Anyways, as 2020 comes to a close, I was thinking about all the gardening questions I answered through the year. And I have a list of the 12 most important things every gardener should know. But I am not putting them into song.

All of these things should be known by us gardeners. Without knowledge, wisdom is not attainable.

What are the 12 things every gardener should know?

I am glad you asked. I will go into as much detail as I possibly can, but the list is as follows. These are numbered, but not in an order of importance. You can decide for yourself which are most important in your gardening life.

  1. How to take, send, and read a soil test
  2. How to plant trees, shrubs, and perennials
  3. Books & Resources to know how to identify insects, diseases, weeds, and plants
  4. How to choose and plant bulbs
  5. Attracting and providing for birds
  6. How to read a chemical label and apply pesticides
  7. Cleaning and sharpening tools
  8. How to cut back and cleanup the garden
  9. Basic pruning cuts and how to apply tree care products
  10. How to build and maintain a compost pile
  11. Watering and fertilizing plants
  12. How to prune shrubs
Oriole eating jelly
Knowing how to attract birds is important to most gardeners

Now, I have already written detailed posts on several of these posts. I will not repeat them, but rather link to them here. Click on the topic above if it has a link and read all about them in previous posts.

What are some of the books and resources available to gardeners?

There are some resources that every gardener should have. Some are books, some are websites, but most are… other gardeners and extension agents. When it comes to gardening advice, we all know which gardeners to turn to, and which ones to avoid. But most of us can turn to an extension agent it times of trouble, and usually get help.

Extension Agents

There are extension agents in every state and most states have a variety of agents specializing in horticulture, aka gardening. Most of these are connected to a single research university. Here in Kansas, we have several extension regions with one or more specialized agents per region, all connected to Kansas State University.

Horticulture extension agents in Kansas have graduated from a university and take part in multiple research projects each year. They also help local 4-H groups and FFA groups with projects for county fairs. They have access to the most up-to-date research from our universities.

Websites and Social Media

I follow several social media platforms and gardening groups within those platforms. These groups are good places to post an idea or question and get a wide variety of answers. However, there is a lot misinformation being put forth, so I look for answers with backed-up research or websites. For the Northeast Kansas and Northwest Missouri, check out the Kansas Gardeners and Kansas City Area Gardening Group pages on facebook.

There are also a variety of websites available to gardeners, including this one here. Other good places to find quality information include the pages of Kansas Native Plant Society, K-State Extension, and Proven Winners.

Books and Magazines

gardening books
Favorite books of the author

I still love getting a new magazine every month from my various subscriptions. I know that many of these are online now, but I still prefer the paper copy in my hands. Magazines like Horticulture, Fine Gardening, Country Gardens, and The American Gardener are my favorites.

Books also hold a special place in my heart. While I do have an active audible account and listen to both books and podcasts while I work, hard-bound books are a special thing that cannot be replaced. I have an extensive library, as every good gardener should. However, there are 19 books that I could not be without.

  • Dirr’s Hardy Trees & Shrubs by Michael A. Dirr
  • Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy
  • Planting: A New Perspective by Piet Oudolf
  • A Photographic Field Guide to the Butterflies in the Kansas City Region by Betsy Betros
  • The Holistic Orchard by Chelsea Green
  • The Backyard Orchardist by Stella Otto
  • Building Soils Naturally by Phil Nauta
  • The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden by Roy Diblik
  • Planting in a Post-Wild World by Claudia West
  • The Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America by David Beadle
  • Caterpillars in the Field and Garden by Thomas Allen
  • Wildflowers and Grasses of Kansas by Michael Haddock
  • Attracting Native Pollinators by The Xerces Society
  • The Joy of Gardening by Dick Raymond
  • The Self-Sufficient Gardener by John Seymour
  • Making More Plants by Ken Druse
  • Weeds of the Great Plains published by Nebraska Department of Agriculture
  • Gardening with Prairie Plants by Sally Wasowski
  • Mike McGrath’s Book of Compost by Mike McGrath

How do I choose and plant bulbs in the garden?

I have spent countless hours planting bulbs for the companies I have worked for. At some jobsites I have planted a thousand or more bulbs. All this time planting bulbs has helped me to realize just how important bulbs in the landscape can be. They are usually the first signs that spring is right around the corner.

Buying Bulbs

daffodils in the garden
Daffodils blooming in the author’s garden in Northeast Kansas

When I begin to look at bulbs to buy, I try to stay away from big box stores. My experience has led me to know that you have to buy bulbs on the day they arrive in the store. Because they store them in sealed plastic bags or in areas where the humidity is too dry and the temperature too warm, they tend to dry out and rot quickly.

Mostly, I order bulbs through the nursery (Grimm’s Gardens) or buy them from other garden centers if I am in the area. Garden centers store there bulbs in open air bins in a cool, dry place. Bad ones are sorted out and discarded.

When you are buying bulbs, look for firm, not squishy bulbs with no greenish mold or dusty looking material. They should also not be papery and dry.

Planting Bulbs

Bulb planting is best done in autumn, from September through November, or until the soil is frozen. Follow recommended planting depths for the kind of bulbs you are planting. While it is not necessary to measure out each individual hole, get used to the depth by using a measured soil knife or trowel.

When planting, be sure the ground is loose and easy to dig. I have planted bulbs in extremely dry and hard packed soils, and it is very hard on the wrist. A bulb auger can be used if the soil is loose and you have several hundred or more to plant.

How to Read a Chemical Label and Apply Pesticides

Before one even thinks about applying any kind of pesticide, you better know what it is you are trying to correct or kill. IDENTIFY your disease, insect, or weed before you spray. If you do not know what is wrong, then find something or someone to help you before thinking about what chemical to blindly apply.

Chemical label
Chemical bottles have labels to help you know how to apply them safely

I do not advocate for the application of pesticides. Rather, I hope that you all make the choice to diversify your landscape, add more natives and disease-resistant cultivars, and go organic as much as possible. But even I use pesticides once in awhile. For blister beetles anyway.

What is in a chemical label and where do I find it?

There are actually 2 different chemical labels. The most important one to the home gardener is the one attached to the bottle of the chemical. The other one is called the Material Safety Data Sheet and can be found online. Just search for the MSD sheet with the chemical name. The MSD sheet has more information with regards to safety and regulations.

Usually on the back side of the chemical box or bottle, the label has directions, safety precautions and more. Let us look at each part.

Manufactured By

Here you find who made the product, EPA registration and establishment numbers, and a phone number for product questions. It is important to know where these numbers are, in case something goes wrong with the product, you may need the EPA numbers for a lawsuit.

Precautionary Statements

This is the section that usually includes PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and warns you about dangers if you spill it the chemical on your clothing, body, or get it in your eyes or mouth.

NOTE: If it say harmful if swallowed or avoid getting in eyes or on skin, you need to wear a long sleeved shirt, long pants, shoes plus socks, safety glasses, and a chemical proof mask or respirator. I have seen too many applicators skipping on safety gear when applying chemicals. They can harm you.

Environmental Hazards

This section informs you of what could happen to wildlife if it is spilled into waterways or storm drain systems. It will also tell you if it is harmful to aquatic life.

Chemical label
Inside the booklet

Bee Hazrds

This section was added in the last decade and basically says if it is harmful to bees. Please read.

Physical and Chemical Hazards

This section tells you where not to store the product and any hazards associated with improper storage of the product.

Directions for Use

This sections informs you on how and when to apply the product, including time of day, weather conditions, and temperature. There will also be precautionary statements about not spraying on sensitive plants and what plants those are. Please read thouroughly.

Pesticide Use (Fungicide, Insecticide, Miticide, Herbicide)

Here is the section where you will find what exactly you can use the chemical on. My example is a 3 part pesticide, containing insecticide, miticide, and fungicide. This sections will tell you how many times you can spray in a 2 to 6 week period, and how many days in between sprays there should be.

Each part of this section will show you what the different chemical will control. For example: the fungicide in Triple Action Plus controls Powdery Mildew, Black Spot, Brown Spot, Dollar Spot, Snow Mold, Downy Mildew, Anthracnose, Rust, Leaf Spot, Botrytis, Rust, Scab, and Tip Blight.

At the end of this part there will be Mixing Instructions. For some pesticides, mixing instructions are placed with different sections. For example: if you are trying to kill aphids, you might mix a smaller amount of the pesticide with water than you would to kill spider mites.

Storage and Disposal

This section goes over safe handling instructions for the container before and after use. Also under this section is the warranty and First Aid Instructions for misuse of the product.

Mixing and Spraying

Once you have read the entire chemical label and have noted PPE and mixing instructions, prepare to mix. You need a clean water source with a neutral pH. DO NOT mix 2 or more separate chemicals together unless recommended. I recommend getting a good quality 2 to 3 gallon tank sprayer with brass fittings. I have found that plastic fittings wear quickly and clog easily. Try to find a sprayer unit with a filter or strainer built in.

Follow all directions when mixing chemicals with water. Put the chemical in the sprayer first, then add the recommended amount of water. This helps mix the product together. If necessary, use a surfactant to aid in chemical adherence to the leaf surfaces. Surfactants include Spread Sticker or dish soap. For a 2 gallon sprayer full, 1 tsp of surfactant is more than needed.

Once you have your PPE on and your chemical mixed, you are ready to spray. When spraying, be sure to cover both the top and bottom of leaf surfaces. This will provide maximum coverage of the plant for what you are trying to manage. Also spray the trunks of trees, where all kinds of insects, fungal spores, and mites like to hide.

Using Dusts and Powder

I do not recommend using any chemical dusts or powders, such as Sevin Dust. These are extremely toxic to bees and beneficials. They only stop working once wetted and washed away. They are also very easy to come in contact with your eyes or be swallowed. DO NOT USE

Cleanup and Storage

If you are done spraying and you still have some chemical left in the sprayer, you can store it in the sprayer for 2-4 weeks in a cool spot out of sunlight, such as a cooled garage or shed. Chemicals, even mixed with water will break down quickly if left in sunlight and heat for too long.

Take off your PPE and wash by itself. After washing, run an empty cycle through your washing machine to remove any residues or oils. Be sure to wash your hands and face well.

Cleaning and Sharpening Tools

It is imperative that gardeners know how to properly clean and sharpen their tools. To extend the life of your tool, first buy the best quality tool you can afford. That does not mean spend the most money, but buy something sturdy, with easily interchangeable parts, that has good ratings and reviews.

I have a couple posts already about favorite tools, so you can read more about them there.

Cleaning Tools

Before you can sharpen your tools, you need to clean them. For pruners, trowels, and smaller hand tools, use a small wire bristle brush to remove dirt and debris. Blow off the dust with a compressor or wipe away with a damp rag.

For larger tools, such as shovels, rakes, and mattocks, use a larger wire bristle brush or a wire brush attachment on a grinder. Once the hard, packed dirt or mud is gone, wipe down with a damp rag.

Sharpening and Oiling Tools

Now that your tools are clean, we can start sharpening them. You will need a variety of flat and round files, and multi-purpose oil.

sharpening pruners
Sharpening pruners
  • Pruners – use a flat file or sharpener and hold the pruners so that you can draw the file up the blade from bottom to top. Always follow the curve of the blade and do not push down the blade, but draw up it.
  • Soil knife – using a round file for the serrations, and holding the blade away from you, push the file up against the blade. Switch to a flat or triangle file for the flat areas of the blade.
  • Shovel or spade – I like to do a once-a-year sharpen on these or after digging through roots. Place the tool blade up in a vise to hold it and use a grinder attachment to sharpen a 3/4 inch edge. You can finish with a flat file.

Oiling Tools

Once your tools are cleaned and sharpened, it is important to oil them. This protects the metal from rusting and keeps moving parts loose. I like to use 3 in 1 or 5 in 1 multipurpose oil for this. You can also use W,D-40 or similar spray for this. Wipe the oil over the whole surface of the metal parts of the tool.

Once the tool is oiled, it is ready for use, or storage. Store shovels, spades, and soil knives bucket of sand after oiling, this will help keep them sharp and clean.

How to Make Basic Pruning Cuts and Protect Trees

When it comes to the care of trees, gardeners need to know how to make basic cuts and keep trees safe from animal and sun damage. Once you know the basics, you can start learning about more advanced techniques of pruning.

What to Prune and How to Do it?

watersprouts on peach tree
Watersprouts on peach tree branches

There are 5 things to remember when pruning branches from trees and shrubs, when just cleaning up the tree. This is not for pruning fruit trees to promote fruiting, or pruning shrubs to promote flowering. Just basic pruning.

  1. Crossing branches – includes branches that are rubbing against each other. Where the rubbing occurs, the bark is worn away and can result in a place where insects and diseases can enter the tree.
  2. Dead branches – dead branches should be removed as soon as they are seen. If a dead branch rots away before being cut, the wound may not heal properly resulting in a hollow.
  3. Interior growing branches – these are branches that are growing inward towards the trunk of the tree. They usually end up dying from lack of sunlight or crossing with other branches.
  4. Suckers – these come up from the base of the tree and are often the result of stress or injury. However, some trees produce more suckers naturally, such as crabapple, apple, linden, and plum.
  5. Watersprouts – these are suckers that grow from the lateral branches of the tree, and are almost always vertical and quick-growing. They result from over-pruning the canopy, especially in fruit trees. To prevent watersprouts, do not prune more than 1/3 of the tree off per year.

How to Prune

Between the branch and trunk or branch and branchlet on each tree there is a small ridge of bark. This is called the branch-bark-ridge. The branch bark ridge is mostly responsible for growing the cells needed to heal cuts around removed branches. If you cut too deep and remove the branch bark ridge, the tree will not be able to heal properly.

Make your cut at the same angle of the ridge but 1/4 to 3/4 of an inch outside of the ridge. Make sure the ridge is still there after the cut.

If you are pruning large branches, it is necessary to make a cut 1/3 of the way through the branch about 6 inches from the ridge, on the bottom of the branch. Then make the final cut from above 1/2 an inch from the ridge.

Protecting the Tree from Animal and Sun Damage

If the bark on the tree has not begun to crack and split apart, you will want to apply a tree wrap to protect from chewing animals, deer rubbing, and winter sunscald. After September 15th, wrap the trunk of the tree with brown paper wrap or a plastic sleeve to protect the tree. I also use slitted black drain tubes on smaller trees with no lateral branching.

Remove the wrap in the spring, once grass and other herbaceous plantings have started to grow.

protecting tree with wrap and wire cages
Protect trees from animal and sun damage with wrap on trunks and wire cages

Another way to help protect young trees from deer browsing and rubbing is to place a wire cage around the tree. This should have holes no larger thank 4 inch by 4 inch. Place the wire 3 to 5 feet around the tree in a circle (see diagram below). Secure the wire to T-posts with zip ties or wire. Do not attach to the tree.

How to Build and Maintain a Healthy Compost Pile

Why do we compost at all? Well, I can think of a few reasons, but the big one is that you want to recycle the cut weeds, grass, and fallen leaves into nutrient rich fertilizer for the garden. As they grow, plants take nutrients from the soil and put them to work in their processes, including the production of chemicals for growth and defense. The soil becomes depleted over time if those nutrients are not recycled back to the soil.

Where to put the compost pile?

Your compost pile(s) can be sited wherever you have a room for it. Mine are placed behind a screen of trees, between the neighbor’s yard and mine. I put it here so it was not in direct sight of the gardens, though I am not ashamed of it. It gets shade and some rain protection from the trees.

If you are using bins, they can be anywhere that is convenient to the garden, or wherever you choose. Just so long as you can get easy access to the.

homemade compost tumbler
This homemade compost tumbler is a 1-batch system

If you are stressed for space in an urban or city garden, you may want to get a compost tumbler that could go on a patio or deck. However, the problem with tumblers is that they are a 1 batch compost maker. This means that you cannot keep adding into them all year long.

The best thing for a small garden might be a vermicomposter, which takes advantage of red wigglers or worms to compost materials for you. This can be partially buried among the flowers or set onto a patio.

What goes into the compost pile?

When you consult most books on the proper ingredients for compost piles, you will hear a lot about the carbon to nitrogen ratio. Well, for scientific gardeners who shoot for the perfect compost, go ahead and look into it. But for us, ordinary gardeners who do not have time to measure ingredients out, we will just make compost in normal ways.

Things to go into the Compost Pile

There are 2 types of things to be added into the compost pile, carbons and nitrogens, aka browns and greens. ALWAYS use more browns than greens, unless you want a stinky wet mess.

  • Chopped leaves
  • Straw
  • Dried grass clippings
  • Hay
  • Shredded paper (limited amounts)
  • Weeds and garden trimmings
  • Grass clippings
  • Kitchen waste including crushed egg shells, coffee grounds, tea bags, spoiled fruit and vegetables
  • Manures from rabbits, horses, chickens, ducks, geese, sheep, goats, cows
  • Wood ashes (in moderation)
Things that do not belong in the Compost Pile
  • Meat
  • Bones
  • Manure from cats and dogs
  • Cooking oils and fats
  • Chemicals and clippings from treated lawns
  • Diseased plants (unless you can get the pile really hot)
  • Charcoal or BBQ grill ashes

Mixing the Compost Pile

Once you have your site located and bins ready, you can begin to mix and make compost. Always use at least a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio of browns to greens when mixing your pile. If you continuously add materials as the season progresses, I recommend first turning the pile, then placing the new materials (browns and greens mixed together) on top.

Keep a supply of browns handy near the compost pile system. This could be bags of chopped leaves, or like me, a fenced pile of leaves. To get compost quickly, turn the pile from one spot to another weekly or bi-weekly. You can make compost quicker this way than by just piling it all together and leaving (though this works, only slower).

If you are using the pile and leave method, put an air vent in the center before building the pile. This can be a perforated tube or cylinder made from wire.

You are now ready to compost!

How to Water and Fertilize Plants

I get a lot of calls about fertilizing and watering in the garden, on both new and established plants. Knowing the basics of these two operations will keep your garden healthy longer.

Watering Plants

When you are first establishing plants in the garden, watering is the second most important task. The first most important task is putting your plant in the correct place.

If the soil is moist and the forecast is for rain, watering should be no problem. Watering amounts can be figured by using the size of the container the plant came in. If it was a five gallon container, put down 5 gallons of water. This method insures a good amount of water without overwatering.

If you overwater or drown the plant, it is less likely to survive than if underwatered. When the weather is rainy, water the first 3 days in a row, then 1-2 times per week for 3 weeks. Then water monthly after that, even through winter until the ground freezes.

If the weather is dry (less than 1 inch rain per week), water 1 time per day for 6 days, then every other day for 2 weeks. After that, water bi-weekly for 2 months, then monthly for the rest of the year through winter.

Basically, it is okay for the root ball to dry out slightly in between waterings, but you do not want it to be dusty. If the plant is wilting, check to see if the root ball is wet or dry – if dry, water it, if wet, let it dry for a couple days.

Water established plants with overhead or individual waterings when the weather is hot (above 85o F) and dry for more than 3 weeks on end.

Fertilizing Plants

For older, established landscapes, I only recommend fertilizing 2 ways. One, if you do a soil test and it is recommended that you need to add extra fertilizer. Two, with compost. Fertilizing each year with compost helps recycle spent nutrients back into the landscape from whence they came.

Before you plant new plants in a new bed you need to do a soil test. This test will advise you on what fertilizer to amend the soil with. It may only recommend compost as the soil amendment.

How do you prune shrubs?

Before you can prune any shrub, you must find out which group they are in. There are 3 groups of shrubs in the Central Great Plains and Midwest regions. The types are evergreen, old-growth, and new-growth.

Pruning Evergreens

Yew hedge
Yew hedges should be sheared with hand shears

Evergreen shrubs include yews, boxwoods, junipers, arborvitae, mugo-type pines, some rhododendrons and azaleas, and most hollies. While I never recommend shearing back plants because it is unhealthy and limits the longevity of shrubs in our region, I know some do like the look. Never shear pas the lowest set of live leaves. This will in most cases, kill the plant.

When hand pruning these shrubs, use clean, sharp pruners and make even cuts where needed. Boxwoods, yews, hollies, and junipers can be trimmed to maintain shape with had shears if the shrubs are large, but I recommend pruners for smaller shrubs. If you are growing shrubs with the plan to shear, then be ready for the higher maintenance costs of pest control that will be needed.

Pruning Old-Growth Shrubs

What do I mean by old-growth shrubs. These are shrubs that set their flower buds on the previous year’s growth, or old-growth. These include aronia, deutzia, forsythia, lilac, flowering plum, birchleaf and VanHoutte spirea, pussy willow, climbing roses, most viburnums, and older varieties of bigleaf hydrangeas.

Prune any of these right after they finish blooming for best results. Also, if they need rejuvenated, prune them as soon as they are done flowering, or in the winter. If you rejuvenate in winter, you will lose all your flower buds for the year. But this is sometimes necessary on larger, overgrown shrubs.

Pruning New-Growth Shrubs

New-growth shrubs are the opposite of old-growth shrubs, they flower mostly on wood or growth produced during the growing season. Examples include rose-of-Sharon, barberry, butterfly bush, beautyberry(Callicarpa), beautybush(Kolkowitzia), blue-mist spirea, buttonbush, most hydrangeas, crape myrtle, honeysuckle, ninebark, most roses, Japanese spirea, vitex, and weigela.

Prune these shrubs hard in early spring (February to May). They can be cut back down to 6 to 12 inches or pruned for a specific shape or size. Some, such as Japanese spirea, ninebark, buttonbush, roses, and weigela, can be cut again after the main flowering and will rebloom on the new growth produced.


I know there is a lot of information here, but I feel gardeners should be well-prepared for all the things that will come up. Keep an open mind when gardening and do not be afraid of each new insect or disease that you see. Remember, there is a whole community of other gardeners around you, and most are willing to help you.

Happy planting

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