At this time of year, I relish the hours spent in the garden, working the soil, sowing seeds and tending the beds. But I'm also always looking for new techniques to make the time spent more efficient and for new ways to make the garden beautiful. Here are a few of these tips and tricks:
Improvised potting shed
A true potting shed is a real luxury in the garden, but you can easily create one from an old armoire or cupboard found at a flea market or antiques shop. An armoire provides the perfect amount of space for all your gardening supplies and tools.
The front or back porch is a convenient spot for it: On your way out the door, you can gather your tools, then head out to the garden. When you're finished, drop off everything - including your gardening shoes - and you won't track any dirt into your house.
Good tools are well worth the investment and must be kept in top condition. Here's an easy way to keep your trowels and other small tools clean and sharp: Fill a flowerpot (lined with a plastic container) or a small bucket with sand, and mix in 1/4 cup motor oil. When you're finished with your tools, wipe them with a rag and plunge them into the sand up to the handle; the oil will inhibit rust. Store them this way until you use them again.
A slab of stone and a few flowerpots can be turned into a table that looks right at home in the garden or on the patio. Rest the chosen tabletop - a piece of marble, slate or even an old wooden door - on top of four large overturned terra-cotta flowerpots. Use the table as a work surface for potting or pruning plants, or as an outdoor coffee table.
Keep people from walking over freshly seeded patches of grass or other new plants with a charming natural barrier: Collect flexible twigs from your yard, bend them into arches and insert the ends into the earth. Use four or more to surround the area, or crisscross two over it.
Potted herb garden
This idea is perfect for gardeners without a lot of space, but even those with generous gardens may want to grow their herbs this way. Plant favorite herbs individually in terra-cotta pots and write the plant's name on the rim using a permanent marker.
Together, the pots look lovely on the patio or in a windowbox, but each herb is portable and accessible, so instead of stooping in the garden to harvest herbs, you can bring the pots into the kitchen. And since each herb is confined to its own container, you don't have to worry about quick-growing plants, such as mint, taking over the garden.
This simple tool helps you plant and space seeds. At the lumberyard, ask to have one long edge of a 4-inch-wide, 4-foot-long board beveled (or you can do this yourself by shaving the edge to a 45-degree angle with a table saw). On the other long side, cut a notch every 6 inches.
To use the board, press the beveled edge into the earth to make a furrow. Then lay the board on its side and use the notches to guide you in spacing the seeds.
Keep slugs from devouring your potted plants with a length of copper wire. It gives the voracious little creatures a mild electrical shock, making them turn back.
Copper wire is available at hardware stores (thin wire, such as 25-gauge, is easy to work with). Cut a piece just longer than the pot's circumference, wrap it around the pot and twist the ends together with needle-nose pliers. Make sure the plant's leaves don't reach the ground, or the slugs will climb right up them, avoiding the copper entirely.
Testing old seeds
Here's how to tell if seeds from past years are still worth sowing: Lay 10 seeds on a moist paper towel, then fold the towel up, encasing the seeds. Place in a resealable plastic bag, and label the bag with the seed type and date.
In a few days, check to see how many germinated. More than 70 percent, or seven out of 10 seeds, means the seeds are still viable. If the results are between 40 percent and 70 percent, sow the seeds thickly. If less than 40 percent germinate, it's time to buy new seeds.
Collect white stones, shells or small chunks of marble to mark a path through the garden. Make two rows about 3 feet apart, spacing stones about 6 inches apart in each row. After the sun sets, they'll reflect moonlight, glowing gently in the dark.