Your mother was right. Neatness does count. A messy garden makes even more work than a tidy one. It's preventive maintenance-like changing the oil in the car before it gets to be sludge. A little bit each day goes a long way. Let me give you some examples.

I went away for ten days last month and when I returned I found that the rose garden was a disaster. There were lots of black spots on the leaves. Faded blooms were dusty lumps of fungal spores. I found a broken cane where the neighbor's dog had run through. The weather had been hot and cold, wet and dry, but mostly muggy - ideal weather for fungus, but that's life in the maritime Northwest. I could have anticipated that.

A big part of my problem is me. I should not be growing the delicate hybrid tea roses that are so prone to diseases like blackspot, botrytis, powdery mildew and canker. I didn't choose the right plant for the right spot, so I have more work. There are roses that resist these diseases and still give you wonderful flowers and scents. I also didn't clean up the faded blossoms right away so they had an opportunity to become fungal nurseries. I didn't pick off and discard the spotted leaves in the trash (never the compost, please) so the blackspot multiplied.

And the broken rose cane is an open wound just asking for a bacterial disease or other nasty to enter the main stem. That means some heavy pruning is in order. And now I am going to have to rake out all of the mulch I put down last spring, dispose of it in the trash and re-mulch the whole bed to try to keep the diseases under control. I may even have to spray a fungicide on the worst spots. Meanwhile, my plants will look leggy and unhealthy for many weeks. This is much more work than spending a few minutes each day cutting off the old flowers and watching for potential problems to "nip in the bud".

Another place prevention really pays off is in the annual flowers. An annual is defined as a plant that germinates, grows, flowers, sets seed and dies in one season. What the books don't always tell you is that an annual plant will go through all of these stages as fast as it can, without looking at the calendar if you let it. That's why so many folks have dead or dying lobelias and petunias by August 1. It's like the plant says, "Okay - I'm pregnant now, so I'm out of here!"

To keep the flowers going into October or even November, you need to cut off the fading flowers before the seeds form. This makes the plant think it's still June. Give your annuals a haircut after bloom, feed them a light meal of low-nitrogen fertilizer and water them as needed. This regimen takes minutes of time and its reward is weeks and weeks of bright flowers. I spend a lot of money on annual transplants and I feel it keenly in my Scots ancestry when they brown out on me too soon.

Third example: weeds. The old adage that "One year's seeding means seven years weeding" is probably an understatement. Weeds are weedy because they are incredibly successful at self-propagation. They seed, germinate, run, spread by stolons ... you get the picture. If you let a weed get a toehold in your beds, you will have weeds for a long time. This means that you will dig, hoe, pull, kneel in the mud, possibly curse, and probably lose some valuable plants as weeds invade the crowns of your prize exotics.

The best solution to the weed problem is to (a) pull them out when they are really small and (b) keep the soil covered with a mulch so that light doesn't get down there to start more of those dormant seeds to action.

Be aware that your soil has weed seeds in it. Some of them have been there for fifty years. No kidding: Scots broom seeds are reported to grow well after 70 years. If you don't let them start, they won't cause you any problems. But, once they are going, get rid of them pronto. Regular attention to tidiness is the key. Five minutes a week may be enough to weed a bed of flowers or vegetables, unless you skip a week or two. Then the time needed to clean up increases dramatically. Don't let yourself get behind.

Remember, there is no such thing as a "No Maintenance" garden, but you can reach low levels of work if you plant the right plants, use mulches and water-wise irrigation systems and keep up on your tidying. Like mom said, "Go Clean Up Your (garden) Room!" Trust me, you'll like the results.

Please contact Jonathan Cox for master gardening questions at The Enchanted Cottage 665-4086 or e-mail at cox@pacifier.com.

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