Step 6: Caring for Your Garden

How to Design & Grow Your own Garden

Caring for one’s garden can be a relaxing, therapeutic activity and a great way to enjoy some exercise outdoors.  However, most of us operate on a limited schedule.  Here is some practical advice on garden tasks you must do to keep your plants healthy, things you should do, and things you could do if you had the time.


  1. You must water your plants to keep them alive.  If your region receives less than one inch of rainfall per week, you will need to provide supplemental water for your plants.  Drought tolerant perennials will not be as thirsty as others, but all plants require water to survive.  Pay special attention to things you have recently planted; they will require extra water the first year as they are getting established.  It’s best to water deeply and less often than to water a little bit every day.  Deep watering encourages the roots to grow deeper down into the soil where moisture naturally resides, making the plant more self-sufficient.  
  2. You must control the weeds in your garden.  Weeds rob vital nutrients and water from desirable plants.  Develop a weekly routine of passing through the garden and pulling any weeds you see right away.  It’s amazing how quickly they can grow!  


You should feed your plants.  The best way to feed your plants is through the soil.  When you add nutrients to the soil, you are making them available for the roots to take up.  You enriched your soil when you established your garden, but you’ll need to add more nutrients from time to time as they are used up by the plants.  An easy way to do this is to add an inch or two of compost on top of your garden bed each fall.  Top that with a layer of shredded leaves that will decompose during the winter, leaving the soil ripe for planting in spring.

Nutrient-rich soil provides enough food for most perennials.  However, if you would like to provide additional fertilizer during the growing season, we recommend using organic rather than man-made fertilizers.  Consult your local garden center for more information.

You should divide some of your perennials every few years.  One of the best features of perennials is that they increase in mass every year.  After a few years, they need to be divided and replanted again.  You’ll know it’s time to divide a perennial if:

    • There is a bare spot in the center of the clump
    • The flowers are smaller than usual and less prolific
    • It has overgrown its allotted space

The best time to divide perennials is in the spring, just when the foliage is beginning to emerge.  There are a few exceptions: early spring bloomers should be divided in the fall, and tall bearded irises should be divided a few weeks after they finish blooming in summer.  For more specific information, please refer to the Grower Tips for each plant in our Perennial Encyclopedia.  

Perennials with tap root systems, such as Columbine, cannot be divided.  However, most perennials have a more fibrous root system that can be divided.  Dig and lift the entire clump onto a tarp or into a wheelbarrow.  Carefully pull or cut away the younger plants around the edge of the clump to expose the old, woody center.  Toss the old, woody part of the plant onto the compost pile and replant the younger divisions.  If the clump is not very old, the center may not yet be woody.  In that case, the entire root mass can be cut into pieces (like a pie) and replanted.  Make sure there are at least 3 eyes or growing points on each division or it will be very slow to reestablish.   

You should cut back most perennials in the fall after a hard frost and dispose of their foliage.  In late fall after several frosts have triggered the dormancy process in your perennials, it is time to cut back the foliage and get it out of the garden.  There are a few exceptions noted in the Perennial Encyclopedia, but most perennials should be cut back in fall.  Slugs, snails, and other damaging insects like to lay their eggs in the dormant foliage laying on the ground, so cleaning that up in the fall will help control insect and disease problems the following year.

You should mulch your garden in the spring and/or fall.  We learned in Step 5: Building Your Garden that mulch serves a number of functions in the garden.  Since it degrades over time, it is necessary to add more from time to time.  Check your mulch levels in spring and fall and add more as needed.  A three inch layer is ideal.  Sensitive, less cold hardy perennials will benefit from an extra deep layer of mulch going into winter, especially in climates with unreliable snow cover.


  1. You could stake your perennials to give them support.  Some tall perennials such as delphiniums and peonies really should be staked so their stems do not break.  This is especially important in windy, exposed sites.  However, the plants will still live if you do not stake them.  If you don’t have time for staking, it’s best to choose varieties that will not require it.
  2. You could deadhead spent blooms on your perennials.  Deadheading can be a very relaxing garden task and it is an instant way to improve the look of your garden.   Some perennials benefit greatly from deadheading and will reward you with a second round of blooms.  Other perennials will not rebloom if deadheaded, but will benefit because they will not have to spend unnecessary energy on developing seeds and can focus on root development instead.  If you do not want a perennial to reseed, it’s a good idea to deadhead the spent flowers.  
  3. You could pinch or cut back your perennials.  Some perennials, such as garden mums, benefit from being pinched back periodically to maintain their compact form.  The general rule in the Midwest is that you can pinch the plants back until July 4th without sacrificing flowers in the fall.  Perennials like Cushion Spurge (Euphorbia) and other spring bloomers tend to grow better if they are sheared back right after they are finished blooming.  A new flush of growth will quickly replace what you have cut back, leaving the plant looking more lush and full in the long run.

Step 1: Perennials 101
Step 2: Getting Started
Step 3: Find Your Style
Step 4: Garden Design Elements
Step 5: Building Your Garden