Grumpy’s Top 10 Garden Tips of the Year

November 10, 2013 | By | Comments (9)
Grumpy's Top 10

Thousands of fans flock to Grumpy’s weekend home in France, excited to relive the most entertaining, enlightening, and educational moments of the Grumpy Gardener. Photo by Steve Bender.

As 2013 draws to a close, it’s only fitting that Grumpy and his legions of adoring fans all over the world (and beyond) look back in awe at his 10 top pearls of gardening wisdom guaranteed to bring you joy, success, self-actualization, and the envy of others in the years to come.

Pearl #1 — Don’t Rake Leaves to the Curb

Grumpy's top 10

This was the last photo taken of Grumpy’s son, Brian, before billions of microbes breaking down these leaves into rich soil mistakenly attacked and consumed his body. Photo by Steve Bender.

The French love their wine, the Aussies love their beer, the Argentinians love cosmetic surgery, and your soil loves organic matter. And what is the best source of free organic matter if you don’t have cows, horses, or congressmen? Falling tree leaves. Don’t send them to landfills! Instead, run over leaves with your mulching mower and either compost them directly onto the lawn (grass likes this) or bag them and toss them into the compost. The best way to loosen hard, clay soil is adding leaf compost every year.

Pearl #2 — Don’t Plant Shade Trees Near Power Lines 

Grumpy's top 10

Expert tree pruning courtesy of our local power company. Photo by Steve Bender.

It doesn’t matter if the tree isn’t interfering with the lines. It doesn’t matter if the tree isn’t on a power company easement. All that matters is that you’re not home when the power company pruners descend on your street. Then you will come home one fine afternoon to discover your beautiful, 30-foot sugar maple has been carved into a giant, living toothbrush. So do yourself a favor and don’t plant anything near the lines that grows as tall as the lowest line. I replaced this tree with a dogwood. Hope that’s OK.

Pearl #3 — Don’t Build a Mulch Volcano

Grumpy's top 10

This much mulch is too much mulch. Photo: Mahan-Rykiel.

Mounding up more than 2 inches of mulch around trees is bad for several reasons. Tree roots can grow into the mulch instead of the soil, making the tree less drought-resistant. Bugs and critters can hide in the mulch and bore into the trunk. Mulch volcanoes also reduce the oxygen supply to roots, while aiding harmful soil microbes that produce toxins. Mulch should never touch the trunk of a tree or shrub. There. I said it. So it shall be done.

Pearl #4 — Plant A Persimmon

Grumpy's top 10

Unlike our native persimmons, Japanese persimmons won’t make you pucker. Photo by Steve Bender.

The big, bright-orange fruits look like tomatoes on a tree. They taste sweet and delicious. The trees that bear them love the Southern climate, have no pests, don’t need spraying, and are as goof-proof as they can be. They’re called Japanese persimmons. And if you’ve shied away from growing fruit trees because they’re too much trouble, meet these no-spray, no-fuss trees that even an Inca mummy could grow.

Pearl #5 — Don’t Fear Your Poinsettia

Grumpy's top 10

Photo: Ralph Anderson

Allow Grumpy to quash one stupid myth about poinsettias that keeps some people from enjoying them. They do not spontaneously combust. Never happens. They are also not poisonous. If you want to poison yourself, eat an azalea or daffodil. But a poinsettia, while not tasty, is not toxic. So as Deputy Fife used to say, let’s nip this one in the bud.

Pearl #6 — Don’t Save Old Pesticides

Grumpy's top 10

I found these banned pesticides neatly stored in my Dad’s basement. Bad Dad! Photo by Steve Bender.

Pesticides are not fine wines. They don’t get better with age. They lose potency over the years and don’t work like they’re supposed to. And if they’re really old, they may be banned by now. So get rid of them. The question is how and where. Contact your city or county sanitation department to see how you can safely dispose of the toxic waste museum in your basement or shed.

Pearl #7 — Plant A Smaller Crepe Myrtle

Grumpy's top 10

‘Acoma’ crepe myrtle makes a beautiful small tree all by itself. Photo by Steve Bender.

What’s the main reason people commit crepe murder? Answer — Their crepe myrtle grows way too big for the spot where it’s planted, such as near the house or power lines. So plant a semi-dwarf crepe myrtle that won’t grow taller than 10 feet and doesn’t need pruning. Choices include ‘Acoma’ (white), ‘Delta Jazz’ (lavender), ‘Early Bird’ (lavender or white), ‘Red Rooster’ (red), ‘Siren Red’ (red), and ‘Velma’s Royal Delight’ (purple).

Pearl #8 — Don’t Cut Your Grass Too Short

Grumpy's top 10

Grass cut at least 2 inches tall needs less water, fertilizer, and weed control. Photo by Steve Bender.

No matter what kind of grass you have, cut it no shorter than two inches. That’s how high Grumpy cuts his Bermuda lawn (above) and it looks great. Three inches tall is even better for bluegrass, tall fescue, St. Augustine, and buffalograss. Grass mown tall reduces weeds by quickly fills up empty spots where weeds would otherwise grow. And by shading the soil surface, it prevents weed seeds that need sunlight to sprout from doing so. Three more benefits:

1. Tall grass needs less water. It stays green even in droughts.
2. Tall grass needs less fertilizer, because tall grass blades make more food.
3. Tall grass is easier to mow (with a power mower) and produces less clippings.

Pearl #9 — Ripen Those Green Tomatoes

Grumpy's top 10

Are you going to throw away green tomatoes? Surely not! Photo: hair-squared

At the end of the growing season, pick, wash, and dry any green tomatoes. Then lay them on a counter top in a cool, dry place (I prefer granite, because of my superb taste). Make sure they don’t touch. Watch them ripen over the next few weeks. If they don’t, make yourself some fried green tomatoes.

Pearl #10 — Don’t Assume Beginners Know What You Mean 

Grumpy's top 10

Associate Garden Editor Rebecca Reed (left) hands Erin Street (right) a planting plan. Erin thinks it’s a menu. Photo: Ralph Anderson

Editor of the Daily South, travel editor, and pop culture aficionado, Erin Street (above) is a veritable font of knowledge when it comes to shoes, South Beach, Cuban sandwiches, and Broadway shows. But when it comes to gardening, she is a waif in the wilderness. Ask her to bring you a spade and she’ll come back with a playing card. If there’s someone like this in your family or neighborhood, remember two things. Don’t lose patience. And don’t leave them alone with a rototiller.


  1. SV

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    October 19, 2014 at 9:45 pm
  2. Steve Bender

    If you chop up the leaves into fine pieces, they will pack down easily around plants and not blow away. GG

    December 2, 2013 at 2:29 pm
  3. Karen

    How do you keep your leaf mulch, either full size or chopped up, from blowing away? We must live in a windy place, because leaf mulch does not stay put and ends up right back on the grass. Very disheartening!

    November 22, 2013 at 3:39 pm
  4. Wendy Smith

    They do indeed provide shade, and I’m grateful for that as well as for the plentiful straw mulch. Have to admit I’m less grateful for the pinecones, but the tree rats (squirrels) love them and are really stocking up on the pine seeds this fall. Hey, this is the South. Gotta love the loblollies!

    November 15, 2013 at 5:44 am
  5. Steve Bender


    I consider pine trees to be shade trees, as they grow tall and provide lots of shade.

    November 14, 2013 at 2:22 pm
  6. Jessica B.

    The power company has thoroughly won the war in my hometown, which used to be populated with large, beautiful maples. After the power company finally succeeded in convincing or forcing everyone to let them cut them down, they replaced them with Bradford pears, which most people religiously chop every single limb off of every year or two.

    November 13, 2013 at 9:13 am
  7. Wendy Smith

    Pearl #2: It’s not just shade trees. My hometown has thousands of pine trees planted under and near power lines and they look every bit as bad after power company attacks. Furthermore, I think they may be more dangerous in windstorms–they seem to blow over more easily than the shade trees.

    Our house is a long way from the street, and the power company blithely trespassed on our property every year to wreck the trees in our front yard. Our fix was to have them bury all the utilities at our own expense. May not have been a great solution–they trenched through major tree roots–but that was 15 years ago and we haven’t lost a tree yet. Keeping my fingers crossed.

    November 12, 2013 at 6:13 am
  8. Steve Bender

    Pine straw is different than bark mulch. It doesn’t pack down the way bark does. Therefore it’s OK if it touches the tree. So, sorry, but you’ll have to come up with another reason. Maybe you should tell them it’s a fire hazard!

    November 11, 2013 at 2:41 pm
  9. Judy Hooks

    Re: Pearl #3.
    Several homes in my neighborhood have long leaf pines that produce beautiful straw. The lawn service at an unoccupied home rakes this straw up to the base of the trees. Can I tell him, in all honesty, that this is not good for the trees? I would love to get my hands on that straw.

    November 10, 2013 at 12:31 pm

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