The Month-by-Month Gardening Guide

Daily Advice for Growing Flowers, Vegetables, Herbs, and Houseplants


By Franz Bohmig

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“Bursting with useful advice, especially for new gardeners.” —Booklist 
To be a successful gardener, you need to know two things: how to do something and when to do it. Both concepts are thoroughly tackled in The Month-By-Month Gardening Guide. This comprehensive approach to gardening guides home gardeners—whether you are growing vegetables, flowers, or houseplants—through a year of growing. Throughout, the emphasis is on organic, wildlife-friendly techniques. By following the guidance detailed in this hardworking primer, you’ll be well on your way to a beautiful and bountiful garden that will provide pleasure throughout the year.




All the plants are still lying dormant beneath a dense layer of snow and are quietly awaiting beautiful sunny days. Similarly, the birds that have not migrated south are dreaming of summer and bountiful food sources. They are our helpers in combating vermin and other pests. Specially built feeding sites are the meeting places for our feathered friends, who will soon be delighting us again with their chirruping and song.

During the cold time of year, it is important not to neglect the birds’ care and feeding. Their feeding sites should be kept clear of snow, and their feed supply should be replenished continually as required.


1 The garden should serve primarily as a place to relax after a day’s work and during the weekend.

This is something that we need to remember when we acquire a garden, since building on and looking after even the smallest plot of land requires a considerable work input. Accordingly, it is important for us to know how much effort we are prepared to put into a garden as a place for relaxation without it becoming too much of a burden.

2 Water and soil conditions, together with the overall situation, are the most important factors to consider when taking on a garden.

Pure sandy and loamy soils always require considerable improvement measures. Habitable microclimates can be established on cold and windy sites through appropriate planting.

3 Water and electrical connections make gardening work easier.

Ideally, water and electrical connections should already be present, or should be planned for in new construction, taking local factors into consideration. A water supply is of prime importance for gardening success. NB: Connections to an electrical supply should be made only by a registered electrician!

4 An excessively high or low water table will reduce the value of the gardening land.

Expensive drainage measures will not be practicable in most cases. If the water table is too low, it will be necessary to plan for a high water demand. Ornamental gardens can be adapted to the conditions by a suitable choice of plant species.

5 If a vegetable garden is to be established outdoors, the total area should not exceed 240 square yards.

For intensive vegetable growing, such an area will require considerable work, especially in spring and in the fall; the success of the entire year is dependent on the timely completion of the necessary tasks in spring. Combining a vegetable garden with an ornamental garden is very common—the latter is more expensive to plant at the beginning, but requires less work than a vegetable garden later on. ▸ TIP 6

6 To supply enough vegetables to feed a family, an area of at least 60 square yards per person will be required.

This assumes intensive use of the available land; most of the work will need to be done during the five months from March to July, involving a total of nearly 200 working hours. If a neglected garden is taken on, the required work in the first year will be considerably greater.

A good supply of compost is essential for healthy plant growth and high yields in the vegetable garden.

7 If the soil requires considerable improvement, an ornamental garden should preferably be established over a period of two or more years.

To avoid land lying fallow, it should be planted in the meantime with simple crops that do not need a great financial or work outlay, such as potatoes—these will also greatly contribute to soil improvement. The same applies if new fruit or vegetable gardens are being established.

8 Humus improves the soil.

Humus-rich soils have a good structure and promote healthy plant growth. Humus is formed at the end of the decomposition process (composting). Accordingly, all garden waste and a goodly proportion of kitchen waste should be composted. However, unlike plant waste, animal or cooked kitchen waste does not break down without unpleasant odors, and can attract rats, martens, or foxes—for this reason, it is best not to compost such materials. Kitchen waste should be cut up as finely as possible to speed the decomposition process. Weeds with considerable seed production, or diseased plants (with clubroot, for example), do not belong in the compost. The mature compost is suitable for soil improvement and as manure. One- or two-year-old compost can be incorporated into outdoor beds; for pot plants, a three-year decomposition process is required. Commercial, ready-made compost should not be used for planting directly, or used for sowing seed, without the addition of earth. Combining compost with earth yields compost earth—it should be remembered that it is not possible to make a complete distinction between the two in the garden, because it is always possible for earth to end up on the compost heap as well.

9 Coarse organic waste—such as small branches and twigs, which can be ground up with a chipper or shredder—facilitates good aeration in the compost.

There are many different chippers with a range of performance levels, and these determine the thickness of the branches that can be ground up. Stones, plastics, and metal do not belong in either the chipper or the compost.

10 This is the best time for working and turning the soil heap.

Compost soil is valuable only if the compost heap has been properly maintained. This includes turning over the compost. Everything that has been on the outside should now end up on the inside and vice versa, ensuring that both wet and dry materials are mixed. Compost heaps should be turned at least once a year. Like other soil heaps, a compost heap should not be higher than 3¼ft. If, when it comes to turning, the outside layer is already frozen, use a mattock to break it into coarse chunks, and then stack these loosely, covering them with the material that had originally been inside. This ensures excellent aeration of the compost heap, and greatly aids the decomposition process.

11 The compost bin can be placed over a 4 in. thick layer of peat or, preferably, bark humus.

To minimize peat extraction and to protect wetland areas, the use of peat in the garden should be avoided wherever possible. Bark humus is a suitable alternative to peat and has similar properties. ▸ TIP 18 Such a layer is especially important where the compost will be sprinkled with plant fertilizer tea or nutrient solutions over the course of the year. This layer takes up the substances that could otherwise be washed out by precipitation, ensuring that the nutrients are not lost. When the compost heap is turned, the soil layer of bark humus is mixed between the compost soil, and the new place is again given a layer of bark humus. This is followed by chopped-up kitchen or garden waste, which is covered by a thin layer of garden earth. This, in turn, is followed by chopped-up waste and a loose covering of leaves, earth, or grass cuttings. Good aeration is important here. If too much moist material has accumulated, it should always be interspersed with material that is rather coarse, such as chopped-up wood waste, to avoid putrefaction and rotting. Despite this, the compost must always be uniformly moist, since otherwise no decomposition will take place.

12 Compost heaps or thermocomposters do not take up much space, and garden waste decomposes faster.

The double-walled, and therefore heat-insulating, construction of the thermocomposter aids faster composting. Since birds are unable to peck or scratch at the compost, the surrounding area can also be kept cleaner. A range of sizes are commercially available: 60 gal. is suitable for smaller gardens, while 125 gal. is required for larger gardens. Decomposition continues into the winter, provided temperatures do not fall below 32°F for a longer time.

13 Acidified soil is unsuitable for growing plants.

If house and garden waste is piled too high onto the compost, or if there are too many grass clippings or leaves, the soil will become acidified. Turning the compost and occasionally scattering agricultural lime (in the form of limestone dust, dolomitic lime, or algae lime, with different brand names) will help counteract this. The lime binds excess acids that are present in the humus and mobilizes particular nutrients. Lime should not be applied if stable manure has been used in the composting.

14 So-called quick composters will reduce the time required for complete decomposition.

Bacterial and fungal growth will lead to a significant acceleration of the composting process. The compost will warm up to 122 to 140°F within a few days, and the compost heap will gradually shrink in size, since the rapid decomposition process will cause it to fall in on itself. Additionally, the high internal temperature will kill off many weed seeds.

15 In frosty weather, ready compost earth can be spread over land that has been tilled in the fall. Use a coarsely meshed upright sieve to deal with large clumps of material.

Compost is a nutrient-rich alternative to stable manure. Rather than being mixed into the soil in the fall, it is spread over the tilled land and worked into the surface in the spring. Compost earth should not be sieved too coarsely or too finely. The sieve should be set up flat enough so that only very large lumps and stones remain behind.

16 Soot and wood ash contain important nutrients and should be added to the compost heap.

Soot contains mainly nitrogen, while wood ash is especially rich in potassium and phosphorous. A small proportion of coal ash will not diminish the value of the wood ash. It is best to add these ashes and soot to the compost heap while decomposition is still taking place. That way, the nutrients will be more effective than they would be if they were added to the soil directly.

17 Avoid using peat for soil improvement whenever possible.

Peat extraction destroys wetlands, which are also valuable habitats for unique plant and animal species. Accordingly, peat is gradually being superseded as a soil improvement material. Meanwhile, as well as having good characteristics, such as water retention and structural stability, peat also has less-desirable characteristics for soil improvement. For example, peat has a low nutrient content, as well as a low pH—in other words, it is acidic. In the garden, these characteristics are useful for acid-loving plants only, such as rhododendrons, garden azaleas, hydrangeas, and astilbes. By contrast, most garden plants prefer a weakly acidic, neutral, or weakly alkaline soil. For pot plants, substrates with good structure and water retention are most important, but here, too, there are drawbacks. If the peat becomes too dry, it will no longer take up water. If this is not remedied immediately, the plant will dry out. The soils of commercially available pot plants usually still contain a very high peat content.

18 In the specialist trade, bark humus and wood fibers, among others, are offered as alternatives to peat.

These materials have similar properties to those of peat. Bark humus is made from chopped-up, fermented, or composted conifer bark, is structurally stable, weakly acidic, has soil-aerating properties, and is nutrient-poor. Bark humus is also available with additional nutrients. Wood fibers have a peat-like structure, similar soil-aerating properties, a somewhat higher pH value than peat, and a low nutrient content. Wood fibers, too, are available with additional nutrients. They are extracted from wood fragments (primarily conifer wood) without bark, and from wood chips through heating, mostly through the application of steam and pressure.

19 Commercially available potting compost often contains a high proportion of peat.

Peat-free potting compost generally consists of bark humus, compost, and wood and coconut fibers. When buying potting compost, ensure that it has a low peat content, or, better still, that it is peat-free.

20 Bark mulch is used to cover the soil.

Bark mulch should not be confused with bark humus. Bark mulch consists solely of chopped-up bark, and often contains growth-inhibiting substances to suppress weeds. Bark mulch is good for covering the soil as a protection against drying out, or to protect sensitive herbaceous perennials against black frost. In the case of newly planted trees and shrubs, it should be used to cover the tree pit.

21 Snow is the natural protective cover for all plants that are growing outdoors.

Snow lying on paths and open ground can be put to good use if it is spread over cultivated land. It is especially useful as a protective layer for wintergreen perennials, woody plants, and other low-growing plants that are susceptible to black frost. If spread over tilled land, snow will also increase the all-important soil moisture level.

22 Snow-covered land should not be tilled; the snow must be removed first.

The ground beneath a thick snow covering is often frost-free, which means that it can also be tilled in January. However, the snow should not be mixed in with the soil because this will impede the warming up of the soil in spring. Since snow that is present in the soil only thaws slowly, the soil will stay wet for a long time, and sowing or planting will be delayed. Accordingly, it is important to remove the snow before tilling. This task can be made much easier by freeing up only a strip of land to begin with. This strip is tilled first, and then covered with the snow from the next strip to be tilled. Today, there is often a different perspective on tilling land. More and more, it is being realized that intensive digging sometimes does more harm than good. ▸ TIP 1213 to ▸ TIP 1219

23 When planting trees, shrubs, or perennials, trenches should be dug—two spade cuts deep in medium-heavy soils (“double digging”), and at least three spade cuts deep in very heavy soils (“triple digging”).

Both techniques are described in ▸ TIP 1217 and ▸ TIP 1218. Deeper trenches are dug at least three spade cuts deep to loosen up the soil. While “triple digging” is rarely used anymore, this procedure is still sometimes employed, particularly in heavy soils, or in those which have been completely taken over by couch grass; follow the technique described in ▸ TIP 1217, ensuring the upper topsoil does not end up further down. Frost in the soil makes triple digging more difficult; accordingly, frost clumps should not end up in the lower soil layers, where they will thaw only slowly, and will also hinder the warming of the upper soil layer. If the work is delayed until the soil is frost-free, spring will often arrive first. However, there are so many gardening tasks to be done during the spring that there is usually no time left for triple-digging the trenches. In any case, it is better if the soil where trenches are to be triple-dug is still exposed to frost for a period of time.

24 Mineral fertilizers will already be required in early spring.

For most perennial plants, regardless of whether they are aromatic herbs or flowering plants, an initial fertilizer application is often necessary in late February if it is to be fully effective. Since most mineral fertilizers take up moisture from the atmosphere, they should be purchased only when they are required, since otherwise they will become watery or hard, making them more difficult to spread. Fertilizers in sealed plastic sacks can be stored for longer.

25 Complete fertilizers with trace elements contain all the important nutrients required for plant growth.

With a complete fertilizer, it is possible to provide plants with everything that they need for good growth. In addition to a range of mineral substances, these mainly include nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K). Nitrogen-rich complete fertilizers are applied mainly in the spring or during the main growth period. However, as a general principle, only nitrogen-poor fertilizers should be applied from early August.

26 Apply mineral fertilizers to the uppermost layer of the soil before tilling. As the plants grow, apply as surface fertilizer or dissolve in water.

For trees, shrubs, perennials, and other long-term crops, scatter mineral fertilizers over the plants dry and lightly rake them in afterward. For annual crops, apply them dry or as a nutrient solution as soon as the plants exhibit good growth. To avoid damage to the plants, spray with water after applying fertilizer. Granulated fertilizers are easier to apply and roll off the plants by themselves. Light but frequent fertilizer application is better than too much all at once.

27 Excessive fertilizer application damages the plants and places stress on the environment.

Components that are not taken up by the plants can end up in the groundwater and cause considerable harm. Organic fertilizers are more suitable, because they contain all the required nutrients. These fertilizers are not effective immediately, but they ensure a continuous supply. The risk of overfertilizing is much smaller when using organic fertilizers.

28 Fertilizer application with organic substances has many benefits.

Organic fertilizers can be of animal origin, such as manure or hoof and horn meal, or purely plant material, such as compost. Unlike mineral fertilizers, organic fertilizers have a better long-term effect, and they are also not so readily leached from the soil.

29 Compost and manure are naturally occurring materials. They improve the soil, while also acting as fertilizers.

The fact that compost is essential as a fertilizer and for improving the soil characteristics should be well known. ▸ TIP 8 to ▸ TIP 16 Stable manure or manure from the hardware store in the form of pellets helps optimize yields in in high-demand (“heavy-feeder”) vegetable species and makes the leaves of rose plants shine. Fresh manure is either composted or spread over the beds in the fall, and then mixed into the uppermost soil only. Fresh horse manure in particular generates a lot of heat during decomposition and is therefore ideal for use in cold frames.

30 Fertilizer tea made from manure, compost, or plants generally stimulates immediate strong growth.

These act both as fertilizers and to invigorate the plants, and are often applied to protect against pests. You can also make them yourself with plants such as nettle or field horsetail. Fertilizer teas should be strongly diluted for use with sensitive plants. Specialist dealers also offer dried herbs or powder for making the tea. To combat pests, fill a spray bottle with undiluted tea and spray the affected plant areas on three consecutive days—exercise caution, however, since some plants will not tolerate such high concentrations.

31 You can also make your own nettle fertilizer tea.

Loosely fill a plastic (not metal) container with freshly gathered nettle leaves. These plants should be cut closely above the ground; larger plants can be chopped up as required. Add water at a ratio of about 1:10, in other words 1 lb. of nettles to 10 pints of water. Cover the mixture with an airtight lid and stir daily. With the onset of fermentation, bubbles will form on the surface. The odor is very unpleasant, but can be alleviated somewhat by scattering rock dust into the mixture. After 8 to 14 days, when no more bubbles form, the fermentation is complete. Next, dilute the manure at a ratio of 1:10 (for young plants 1:20, and for lawns 1:50) and apply with a watering can. If the manure is applied or sprayed in the evening, the odor will have largely dissipated by the following day.

32 Green manuring loosens the soil, protects it from evaporation, and suppresses weed growth.

It also protects against muddiness and leaching of nutrients during heavy rain. Legumes such as lupines and some clover species will also enrich the soil with the aid of the bacteria in their root nodules, which fix nitrogen. Plants for green manuring can be sown either several weeks before tilling the soil (at least five weeks, depending on the plant species) or after the beds have been harvested. They can be mown before the seed ripens and can then be used as a mulch layer. In spring, they are worked into the uppermost soil.

33 Hoof and horn meal is a fertilizer that remains long active.

Hoof and horn meal is won from the hoofs and horns of slaughtered animals. Depending on grain size, the fertilizing effect will be faster (116 to ⅛ in.) or slower (⅙ to ⅕ in.). Hoof and horn meal contains plenty of nitrogen.

34 Sugar beet extract is used as an organic liquid fertilizer.

Such fertilizers are offered with a range of nutrient (NPK) ratios, for example, NPK = 4:3:6. This means 4 percent nitrogen, 3 percent phosphorous, and 6 percent potassium. ▸ TIP 25 Special organic liquid fertilizers are commercially available for a wide range of plants. It is important to note which original substances the fertilizers contain, so follow the application instructions exactly, and seek advice if necessary. The nutrient ratio and trace element content are important here.

Winter should be used for repairing and sharpening garden tools. That way, you will have more time for the plants in spring and summer.

35 Use the winter off-season to repair damage to cold frames.

Cold frames are often used as early as February, when they are warm and heated, packed with horse manure. In older wooden boxes, check the posts and replace them with new ones if necessary. The side wall edges will often be damaged, which means that the glass panes will no longer sit tightly in place.

36 Repair fences in winter rather than waiting until spring, and deal with any holes that are used by wild rabbits.

A fence that separates two gardens always belongs to the garden on which the posts or beams are standing. The outermost side of the pickets (palings) or the wire mesh delineates the exact boundary. Since it is possible to nail the pickets to a wooden fence from the neighboring side only, neighbors must allow access to their land for any improvements to be made. However, the fence owner must compensate the landowner for any damage. To ward off wild rabbits and hares, it is best to secure the garden boundary with wire mesh. This must penetrate at least 12 in. deep into the soil or else the animals will burrow underneath the mesh. Only well-galvanized wire mesh will last for several years.

37 Don’t wait until garden tools are needed before repairing them.

From February, garden tools will need to be ready for use at any time. Broken handles should be replaced, since otherwise they can lead to nasty injuries. Missing rake teeth should be replaced with new ones, preferably made of hardwood. Spade blades whose edges are slightly damaged can generally be made usable again after a few file strokes. In the case of pressure spray tools, it is mostly important to clean the spray nozzles, or replace them with new ones.

Invest in quality garden tools. They will make the work easier.

38 When buying new garden tools, consider their suitability for the task at hand.

Garden tools should be made so that the particular task can be performed without using excessive force. Accordingly, they should be well made; in the long run, cheap tools will turn out to be the most expensive. For spades, hoes, rakes, and wire brooms, the handle should be long enough for you to work without bending over. One-piece hand spades last the longest, while ash-wood handles are the best for shovels. Painted watering cans will rust quickly—accordingly, it is best to use plastic or galvanized cans.

39 Working with a spade or gardening fork is made easier if the handle length matches your body height.


On Sale
Jun 7, 2022
Page Count
424 pages
Timber Press

Franz Bohmig

About the Author

Franz Böhmig was a commercial gardener, teacher, lecturer, and horticulture consultant based in Meissen, Germany.  The first edition of The Month-by-Month Gardening Guide appeared in 1964 and has gone through thirty editions, making it one of the most important garden references ever published.

Learn more about this author