3 backyard makeovers that will inspire you to create a river friendly garden

In this article for the Potomac Conservancy, Backyard Bounty helps local homeowners find solutions for their gardens and clean water

Backyard Bounty’s Guide to Terrific Tomatoes

Use our 6 P’s to help you achieve Tomato Bliss this summer:

  • Picking
  • Placing
  • Planting
  • Pruning
  • Pairing
  • Protecting

If you follow these steps carefully, you’ll be able to really enjoy the 7th and best “P”: Plate!


There are 2 major types of tomatoes to choose from; select the one that best fits your space

  • Indeterminate: Vining type that needs physical support – such as trellises or stakes. These are grown in beds
  • Determinate: best type for containers as they are not a vining tomato and grow more like a bush
    Heirloom or cultivated varieties? We love our heirlooms, but recommend that you also purchase disease resistant cultivars,- Verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, and nematode resistance are bred into tomatoes labeled ‘VFN’


  • All Tomatoes require at least six hours of sunlight
  • Vegetables should not be planted in a spot where any of the same plant family has grown the previous season. Rotate where you plant your tomatoes each year when you can; tomatoes are in the Solanaceae family. Do not plant following other tomatoes, potatoes, peppers or eggplant
  • Optimal soil pH for tomatoes is between 6 and 6.8. Perform a soil test every three years if possible to understand the soil you are planting in. Backyard Bounty can perform and interpret soil tests for you and help with interpreting them


  • Plant after last frost date for your area (http://extension.umd.edu/growit/beyond-basics/spring-frostfreeze-dates-maryland)
  • Spacing: Indeterminate and Determinate varieties need an average spacing of 15” apart, so long as they are supported by stakes. Unsupported determinates need to be 24” apart
  • Prepping the tomato bed: Don’t stand directly on your tomato bed or you will compact the soil, reducing air pockets in the soil where roots grow
  • Loosen the sub-soil at a depth of 12-18” by pushing the tines of a garden fork back and forth across the planting area
  • Amend the top 12” of soil with a third compost and turn it into the soil underneath. If this is a new vegetable bed or one that has not been amended with organic matter in a long time, spread a layer of compost 6” deep over the top of the bed and turn it in to the soil underneath to a depth of 12”
  • Plant deep, deep, deep!! Dig a hole deep enough that only 4” of the tomato plant is showing above the soil
  • You do not need to remove any lower leaves that are being buried. New roots are going to grow from both the main stem and from the leaf branches
  • Place plant in the hole and fill hole with a mix of 1/3 compost and 2/3 soil
  • Place the stake or tomato cage in the hole at the same time. If you leave this until later you will kill roots when placing the support system near the tomato plant
  • Plan on routinely adding 1-2” of compost to your vegetable garden in spring and fall each year. A good compost should be dark, crumbly and have an earthy smell to it. ‘Leafgro’ is a reliable form of compost that you can purchase in bags in most nurseries. Keep “side-dressing” plants with compost throughout the growing season to increase nutrient availability and to add further water-holding material to the soil


  • Not so necessary for Determinate varieties, but essential for Indeterminates.
  • Pinch the tip off of tomato plants that are long and leggy when you purchase them. Pinching the tip will create a bushier plant. You can also pinch off the tip of an established plant once the plant reaches the top of its stake or trellis
  • Once the plant is in the ground a couple of weeks or so, start pruning out the suckers as soon as they appear. These are the shoots produced in between the main stem and a leaf (in the “leaf crotch”), that will become further main stems- you’ll sacrifice some tomatoes with this pruning, but the fruit you get will be bigger and tastier


You can plant smaller plants around tomatoes to shade the soil and to keep down weeds and prevent the soil from drying out

  • On the north side of tomatoes plant either salad greens or peas (up a trellis which will also protect young tomato plants from the drying effects of wind)
  • Attract beneficial insects by plantings nearby that have flowers attractive to pollinators (including basil, cilantro, hyssop), as well as native perennials that attract pollinators such as milk weed, asters, goldenrod, and Black Eyed Susans
    Some folks believe African Marigolds and Nasturtiums help repel pests from tomato plants, but the research is inconclusive. However, they make the vegetable garden prettier so go for it

Protecting – Water and Mulch

Watering:  An average of 1” of rainfall is needed per week for most vegetables to grow well. Measure rainfall with a rain gauge

  • Hand watering is the most common source of additional water
    Avoid watering tomatoes from overhead so that leaves don’t get too wet. Wet leaves spread fungal diseases such as Early or Late Blight and bacterial diseases or viruses such as various kinds of wilt (e.g. verticillium and fusarium
  • Water in the morning when possible so that the sun can help dry leaves that get wet. It is best to water deep and long; frequent, shallow watering encourages shallow roots and weaker plants
  • Decrease amount of water for tomatoes once you start to harvest the fruits.
  • Mulch tomatoes well. The best organic mulches for tomatoes include: shredded leaves, compost and grass clippings from a non chemically-treated lawn

90% of our water comes from where???

The Potomac.  Yes, that’s right- the Potomac provides 90% of the water we drink.

Please join us in the effort to keep our drinking water clean by reducing the pollution and chemicals that enter the river from our yards.  (New Pollutants in the Potomac and Beyond).

Here’s how:

  • Avoid using chemicals in your garden and on your lawn; these often wash into our the streams during storms, which then send the chemicals and fertilizers into the Potomac
  • Improve the way your yard handles storm water runoff; rain gardens and conservation landscaping help keep pollution from our driveways and roofs from running into our streams. Check out the resources on the newly redesigned Backyard Bounty website including a video on how to design and install a stormwater management facility in your garden.
  • Join us in supporting organizations that work to improve the cleanliness of the water in the Potomac- this year, a portion of BB’s sales will go directly to the Potomac Conservancy to help them advocate for clean water

Backyard Bounty is committed to helping our environment by helping customers and communities design, build and maintain sustainable, clean water landscapes.

We were honored to recently receive the Carol Carter Excellence Award from Montgomery County for our work on environmentally-friendly yards.

Now more than ever, it’s up to all of us to do what we can at home to take care of our natural resources.

Backyard Bounty’s Pruning Primer for early season plant care.

Believe it or not, the snow in our region will be gone at some point. When the first warm Saturday comes around, you’ll probably notice some broken branches and a garden eager to be cleaned up for spring. Pruning is the first chore for this prep. (Earlier information about pruning here:).

No matter which type of tree, shrub or bush you wish to prune, there are a few simple rules to use as your guide and four basic cuts that are useful year-round.

Simple Rules for Pruning

• How to know what to prune? at Backyard Bounty, we always start by determining which cuts will maintain the health of the plant. We follow the rule of the “Four D’s” in determining what these cuts are, looking for Dead, Diseased, Damaged or Displaced (crossing) branches.
• How much can I cut out from a tree or shrub? Remove no more than one-fourth of most plants at one time and no more than one-third in one year
o FYI: In general, the harder a plant is cut back, the more vigorous the re-growth.
• Where do I start on an overgrown shrub:
o It is generally healthier for plants to remove older stems and branches over a 3–4 year period.
o Never just randomly trim or shear the ends of branches on an overgrown woody plant (unless it’s a hedge-like plant), in order to reduce its size. This will stimulate a lot of increased growth over the whole plant, which prevents light from entering the inside of the plant causing dieback. This will often then lead to pest and disease problems.

The Four Types of Cut
There are four basic pruning cuts, each aimed at producing a different effect.
• Pinch-pruning
• Thinning
• Heading back
• Shearing

1. Pinch-Pruning (Pinching) of the shoot tips

Where: Used for some Ornamental Shrubs (such as Fuschia and Chrysanthemum) and many herbaceous plants (including some vegetables).

Why: To produce a bushy plant.

How: Use the thumb and forefinger to pinch at the tip for cutting.

2. Thinning

Where: All woody plants

Why: Selective thinning reduces the density of a woody plant without stimulating a lot of new growth.
Thinning also opens up the plant, allowing light in and helping maintain the plant’s natural shape. New growth occurs only on the remaining stems and branches.

A thinning cut removes a lateral stem, limb or branch back to its point of origin on the main branch, trunk or back to the ground (see diagram below)

How: Use hand-held pruners, loppers, or a pruning saw to make thinning cuts, depending on the thickness of the branch/stem being cut.

(from the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s website http://www.ext.vt.edu)

3. Heading Back

Where: Woody plants (as with thinning), but to produce a different effect

Why: A proper heading cut is made to reduce the height or length of just a few branches at a time. (See diagram above)

How: The cut is made farther back from the end of a shoot than you would for pinching, but always just above a lateral bud or shoot that is heading in the right direction for the new growth to go (normally an outward-facing bud).

Note: A common mistake of inexperienced gardeners is to make an indiscriminate heading cut (by cutting anywhere on a branch or stem to shorten it), when what’s needed is a thinning cut.
This is incorrect pruning (unless shearing a hedge), because heading cuts stimulate vigorous new clustered growth from lateral buds below the cut (and even more so if the cut is made just randomly anywhere on the stem). This makes a plant denser and not smaller.

Therefore, to reduce the density of a shrub, use thinning cuts, because you remove a number of lateral buds along with the stem or branch, making it less likely for you to end up with clusters of unwanted shoots than you are when you make heading cuts.

4. Shearing

Where: On hedging plants or when cutting some herbaceous plants back after blooming.
Since this method cuts right through leaves, it’s best done on small-leafed plants, where damage is less noticeable.

Why: This causes vigorous new growth just below the cuts. Therefore for hedging plants, it needs to be done regularly in order to maintain a desired shape.
For some herbaceous plants, it is done to promote further flowering (Threadleaved Tickseed – Coreopsis verticillata for example)

How: These are random heading cuts that are made with shears or electric hedge trimmers.

Waiting for spring

You would never know that Amsonia will be blooming under this Serviceberry in a few months…all the more reason I love coming home to Hellebores right now. This one, a Hellebores niger cultivar, has upright flowers and it’s foilage looks good even after winter

Don’t chip it, RE-CYCLE the tree

Taking down a tree? Don’t let the wood go to waste. 2 local woodworkers specialize in building furniture, arbors, etc. from trees that would otherwise be chipped.

Tree Incarnation http://www.treincarnation.com/index.html

Seneca Creek Joinery: http://www.woodsurgeon.com/

Keep the honey flowing: More flowers in your garden = more bees


Reasons #1 and #2 not to plant a Leland Cypress

I shouldn’t have been surprised to find this leaning, dying Leland when I walked around assessing how plants had weathered the winter in my garden. Yes, I know better than to plant a Leland (poor root structure, gets too big and topples in snow), and yes, I planted it anyway. Too impatient to wait for a better screening plant to grow in? Hubris? Either way, taking it down is now on the spring punch list. Anyone else have a plant failure story?

Seed Shopping

Malabar Spinach: Thrives in summer heat, beautiful on a fence or trellis. Visualizing it in the garden on this cold wet Saturday. Southern Exposure Seed Catalogue is sold out, but Johnny’s Selected Seeds has ’em.

Grateful for some ornamental grass

Tempting as it is to cut down ornamental grasses in the fall, the birds are happy when we don’t do so.

© Copyright Backyard Bounty - Backyard Bounty is a registered trademark of Edamarie Mattei LLC. Photos (c) Regis Lefebure