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Sally Cunningham: Want a better garden in 2020?

As the calendar flips, experts in every field have opinions about how we should reassess, re-evaluate, and generally improve ourselves.

The word “resolutions” begins to feel like pressure. Even garden bloggers, radio hosts, and news columnists assail us with shoulds.

It can be daunting, and makes me ask, “Who am I to say how you should change your ways, make a better garden, and generally save our ecosystems?

Browsing the advice of other garden writers, I came across a creative approach from the late Karen Zaworski of Oak Park, Ill. – who was a fellow member of GardenComm (Garden Communicators).

A few years ago she offered 50 possible New Year’s resolutions, with the gentle advice to choose just five for this year and five for next “until you’ve built the garden of your dreams.”

It was refreshing to read that one need not change everything at once. She took the pressure off. Whew, just one thing at a time, starting from wherever you are in the lifetime adventure that is gardening.

Here are just 20 suggestions from me, as well as some from Zaworski and some Western New York gardeners that you may (or may not) choose from.

I am grouping them as: (a) save time, work, money; (b) beautify; (c) take better care of nature’s systems, and (d) be kinder to yourself.

Save time, work, money

• Improve the soil before planting season; in most cases add compost. For a new home or garden, get a soil pH test (or entire soil test) with the help of Cooperative Extension or Certified Nursery & Landscape Professionals (CNLPs).

• Leave grass clippings on your lawn. Raking is rarely necessary. Grass decomposes and adds nitrogen and moisture to your soil.

• Weed early; patrol the yard to watch for small patches of invasive or rapidly multiplying weeds before they are big problems.

• Plant seeds rather than purchase seedlings for some easy-to-germinate crops (lettuce, kale, spinach, peas, beans, squash). Observe instructions for planting time.

• Analyze your site before purchasing plants, especially trees and shrubs. Buying a pretty plant on impulse is risky if you do not know you can meet its requirements for sunlight, drainage, protection.

Beautify. Add some excitement

• Replace at least one hardscape element that has become shabby or ineffective – a path, wall, arbor, fence or gate.

• Analyze your garden art and decorations and remove things that no longer represent you, look pretty, or fit together.

• Invest in one beautiful, special piece of art or garden décor.

• Remove boring plants or plant groups, or any with a very short-term appeal; replace them with large swaths of dynamic plants.

Plant large swaths of dynamic plants, such as hostas. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

• Step back to look at your front landscape with curb appeal in mind. Consider widening the front beds, adding an island and planting colorful flowers.

Take better care of nature’s systems

• Plant at least five native plant species this year (and several of each) – trees, shrubs, grasses or perennials – that support pollinators and other native animals.

• Help yourself (or a partner or child) to get over fear of insects: Learn about one species at a time, to gain appreciation for the role of each creature in ecosystems.

• Cut less lawn and designate portions of your yard for a hedge row or corridor to provide habitat for birds and animals.

• Provide a water source at ground level or waist level for birds, amphibians and beneficial insects.

Provide a water source for birds, amphibians and beneficial insects. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

• Give up using pesticides including herbicides; if a landscape or garden plant seems to require chemical treatments, remove the plant(s) for the greater good.

Be kinder to yourself

• Buy one high quality pruner, hoe or shovel, and sharpen the ones you have.

• Purchase, build (or have built) a raised bed near the house for an easy-to-manage salad or cutting garden. Raised beds are significantly less work than large in-ground planting areas.

• If you continuously fight with tough weed infestations (horsetail, creeping Charlie, goutweed, Japanese knotweed, cinquefoil), decide to end the battle: Either hire professionals to remove and replace all the soil and provide new beds or turf, or cover the entire area with heavy black plastic and mulch for at least two years.

• Stop planting the same garden areas year after year just because you always did so: Think about what vegetables you really enjoy growing and what ornamental beds satisfy you or have ecological value.

• Admit your limitations and hire a professional gardener or landscaper for tasks that are physically too difficult or dangerous.

Above all, as a good friend said to me, let us resolve to enjoy our gardens. It’s not a job; it’s a pleasure and a joy.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant. She and Jim Charlier are the authors of “Buffalo-Style Gardens: Create a Quirky, One-of-a-Kind Private Garden with Eye-Catching Designs” (St. Lynn’s Press, $24.95).

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