How to do Garden Stuff

Learn how to mulch, prune, water, dig the perfect hole and select plants. Ready to get started?  Here are some quick tips as you begin your gardening adventure.

You have decided on a general design style, layout and color palette. When selecting specific plants, here are some important things to consider.

Right Plant, Right Place

Gardening successfully depends on putting the right plant in the right place. Sun plants need sun and shade plants need shade. People often think they can make up the deficit with water, but this won’t work.

Try making a sun/shade diagram if you’re not sure how much sun your garden bed receives. Watch our video below to see how.

Buying Your Plants

You can save a lot of money by propagating plants on your own, but most people choose to buy plants at the local nursery. Check out our “Selecting Healthy Plants” video below for tips. 


In the San Antonio area, all soils will be alkaline because geologically we are on limestone. It will be very difficult to grow plants that prefer acidic soils, such as hostas and azaleas. But there are plenty of other great plant choices for our area.

In the Hill Country, you’ll have very thin soil or poor soil provided by your builder. In central San Antonio, your soil will be heavy clay. If you are south of town, you may have sandy soil. Do a little research and choose the right plant for your soil. If your budget allows, you can amend the soil.

South Texas Tip

Summer afternoon sun in South Texas is brutal. Even sun-loving plants can do fine with a little afternoon shade in the summertime.

Design Tips

We all get carried away with all the beautiful flowers at the nursery. Resist buying one of each. Instead, limit how many different kinds you buy and plant in groups of threes.

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Careful, thoughtful planting is a key element to ensure gardening success.

Dig a $100 Hole for a $5 Plant

Get your new plant started off right:

  • Dig your hole wider but not deeper than the pot your plant came in.
  • Add a little compost in the hole.
  • Carefully backfill the hole once you have positioned your plant. Be sure it is not planted too deep or too shallow.
  • Hand water in well before you mulch.
  • When you mulch, keep it a little away from the stem.

Continue to hand water using the 3 -2-1- method.

Planting Trees

Plant a tree properly for the generations to come. It’s important to spend extra time on the selection of the tree, the placement and the planting of your tree.

Be sure you are well aware of the tree characteristics when grown, how long it lives, the shade or ornamental value or the wildlife value depending on your landscape goals. And understand that as much as you wish it, some trees will not do well at your home. They may need deeper soil, acidic environments (in San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country you can’t acidify the soil enough), or a creek to be near. Pick a tree that will do well at your home. There are still plenty of choices.

South Texas Tip

In San Antonio, fall is the best season to plant trees, shrubs, and perennials so they have time to develop their root systems before summer. This is especially important for trees.

More Time Than Money

To save money, you can buy WaterSaver plants in smaller pots (commonly referred to as 4-inch or 6-inch pots). They will need a little more care during their first hot summer but within a year they will be the same size as the larger gallon-size plant.

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Some pruning you can do yourself, but if you hire someone, make sure they are a professional arborist to avoid long term damage to this valuable asset.

Pruning Trees

Pruning may comprise most of the heavy work for your trees, but it does not have to be year round. A few directed pruning cuts in certain months is all you need to do.

Shade Trees

Contrary to a common belief, you may prune any tree, including oaks, at any time, as long as you paint the pruning wound of an oak within 30 minutes. On the other hand, for many other reasons, the best time to prune a tree is during the winter, i.e., December and January. The worst time is March and April.  Summer and fall, pun intended, are in-between.

Always have a reason to prune. The main reasons to prune are your safety, tree health, and lastly, aesthetics.

Ornamental Trees

Ornamental trees are those that flower or are understory species that prefer to grow beneath shade trees.

Those that bloom in the summer, you can prune in the winter.  Those that bloom in the spring, you may prune in May.

Never, never, never, ever “top” a tree. It will make limbs weak and result in early death. Crape myrtles seem to be a particular target.

Safety First

If you need to get on the top rung of a stepladder, it’s time to hire a professional arborist.

Tool Tip

Pruning Saw: If you are using a saw, the preferred saw is a professional curved blade with tri-edged “razor” teeth and a pistol grip. These are designed to cut quickly and cleanly. Bow saws and carpenter saws are never recommended.

Chainsaw: If you are using a chainsaw, follow ALL of the safety precautions provided by the dealer. Don’t try to use it on a ladder. Don’t use an old chain. Always spend a little money and get a sharp one on a regular basis.

Cleaning Tools: Clean pruning tools with a mixture of 5% bleach and oil after using to prevent any potential transfer of disease.

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Perennials live from many years to decades. Roses are perennials too. Depending on the plant and your goals, you may prune them once or twice a year.

Pruning Perennials

Some perennials are evergreen and do not need any pruning, though you may want to shape them a bit. Most perennials come back from the roots each year. This means that after a hard freeze, your perennials will be all brown sticks and seed heads. That’s okay, they are not dead, just keeping all their nutrients safely underground in the root system for the winter.

Those seed heads are offerings to the birds and other seed-eating critters that will feed them through the winter. A few seeds will become a new plant. Keep the sticks and seed heads through the winter to provide habitat for wildlife and cut back to the ground around Valentine’s Day.

Cutting Back Roses

Roses are special. Bush roses will need to be handled differently than climbers.  Bush roses you can lightly prune, creating a vase shape with plenty of airspace in the middle for good air circulation. For climbers, prune to shape, keep off walkways and promote flowers.

Tool Tip

Bypass pruners work like scissors where two blades pass by each other. These pruners are more precise. Use them when making specific cuts that can affect the health of the plant.

Anvil pruners work similarly to a knife where a blade is pushed through the plant material onto a cutting board. Use this when you are thinning bushes.

Both bypass and anvil pruners are available as hand tools for close-in work or with longer handles. Long handheld pruners are often referred to as loppers.

Clean pruning tools after use with a mixture of 5% bleach and oil to prevent any potential transfer of disease.

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Mulch is easy to use and has many benefits.

On-Site Mulch: Don’t Bag It

When you hear people talk about mulch, they rarely consider the leaves that fall into their garden. But it’s often the best mulch, with nature providing exactly what the specific plant in your garden needs. And without question, it’s the cheapest and easiest mulch to get. You may need to rake them where you want them and that’s about it.

Those seed heads are offerings to the birds and other seed-eating critters that will feed them through the winter. A few seeds will become a new plant. Keep the sticks and seed heads through the winter to provide habitat for wildlife and cut back to the ground around Valentine’s Day.

Organic Mulch

Organic mulch is composed of shredded bark or wood chips. The most common mulch is a natural pine bark mulch. It has an added benefit of decomposing slowly, adding structure and nutrients to the soil. You will need to replace organic mulch at least once a year.

Inorganic Mulch

Inorganic mulch includes decomposed granite, pebbles, larger rocks and even shredded tires or other non-organic materials. This choice can be particularly useful with plants that want reflective heat or to delineate a dry creek bed feature.

Many people use it thinking they will never need any other care. This is wrong. Regular cleaning of the leaves, seeds and dirt that blows in on top is required to keep it neat.

Smaller rocks should not be used near the street because they will wash into the stormwater system and can clog it up. Use rock deliberately and thoughtfully.

Why Mulch?

Mulch is anything you put in a garden to cover bare dirt. The main purpose of mulch is to help keep moisture in the soil. It will also help manage smaller weeds. In hot South Texas, it also keeps the soil cooler in summer.

Tool Time

Leaf or Fan Rake: Leaf or fan rakes are lightweight, flexible rakes best used to remove  leaves from lawns into surrounding beds or into piles for removal.

Wheel Barrel: To carry bags of organic mulch or mulch you receive in bulk deliveries.

Shovel: Use a round-pointed shovel for moving mulch.