Primary Garden Maintenance Tasks

Learning how to handle basic maintenance tasks is important for gardening success. This overview will get you pointed in the right direction.

Pruning Basics

pruning peach

Pruning woody vines, shrubs and trees promotes plant health. Typically, it's best to keep pruning to a minimum and to allow a plant to grow to its ultimate height and spread. Do prune out dead, diseased or unsightly wood and remove branches that intersect and rub against one another.

The optimal time to prune varies with each species. Fruit and nut trees are generally pruned during a January or winter thaw in a way that optimizes production.

Flowering shrubs are generally pruned right after flowering, but it's important to know if the plant flowers on new or old growth wood. If a shrub blooms on new growth it can be cut back entirely. Plants that form flower buds on existing (old) wood should not be pruned until after they bloom. If you prune beforehand, you will remove your future flowers.

Trees should be pruned up only when necessary for clearance underneath. It's better to keep their center of gravity low (which is very helpful in our wind and ice storms) and allow the extra shade to protect roots from our weather extremes. Branches at narrow angles and double leader trunks should be removed because single leader trees with wide branch angles are more structurally sound.


Clean water is quickly becoming our most important and valuable commodity and smart gardening requires using it wisely. Select drought resistant and drought tolerant varieties of plants wherever possible. Using such plants is called water wise gardening or xeriscaping.

Drip irrigation and soaker hoses are a much better style of watering wherever possible because little water is wasted or allowed to evaporate. Overhead watering at night also reduces water evaporation. Otherwise, watering in the morning to midday is preferable to evening because wet foliage that doesn’t dry off is a breeding ground for foliar maladies like mildew.

Watering deeply but less often is far better for plants than frequent, shallow watering. Letting a hose trickle for a long period promotes a deeper soaking and sets the plant up for better long-term survival. It is also wise to place water-demanding plants closer to your home and water source so you can easily spot water while you water containers. Keeping them well watered also protects your home’s foundation from cracking in the high shrink-swell soils readily found around Greater Kansas City.


The rich clay soils around Greater Kansas City usually require very little fertilization. When in doubt, get a soil test through your local Extension Service. Over fertilization causes problems because excess nutrients simply wash away and cause water quality issues like algae blooms in area waters.

Soil-less mixes in containers and prepared beds do require fertilizers for optimal plant growth, especially in containers. Because containers are watered frequently nutrients often leach out. Use slow release and organic fertilizers whenever possible.

All fertilizers come with a three number rating, which corresponds with N (Nitrogen), P (Phosphorus) and K (Potassium). Over-fertilization with the first number "N" results in lush growth with poor flowering and fruiting and literally invites pests and diseases to flourish. The middle number should always be low or zero for outside use because our soils are rich in Phosphorus and any extra simply runs off. The third number potassium is good for root growth, hardening plants off and flower bud production.

Pest Control

Traps for monitoring insect populations

The very best pest control comes from Mother Nature. Encouraging the full "web of life" in your garden keeps bug populations in balance with predatory insects and birds holding the bad bugs at bay. We need the help of beneficial insects and pollinators to produce food and help control pest species.

To reduce pest problems, plant a diversity of naturally pest-resistant plants and varieties in the right conditions and water and fertilize wisely. When you do have an infestation, start with traps and lures, physical barriers such as fencing, screening, oil or clay spray coatings. Then turn to biological controls first and organic deterrents and pesticides if needed. Use pesticides only as necessary and target pests specifically with the least toxic method (you don't want to kill the good bugs!).

Organic pesticides break down quickly and don't linger in the environment, but remember they are still toxic--some highly toxic! Always follow the printed label for use, application and re-entry and remember that using more is NEVER better.

Did you know? Volunteers contributed more than 18,000 hours to Powell Gardens in 2011, working in nearly every area from horticulture to administration. Learn how you can get involved. »


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