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Gardening: Making Amends and Adding Amendments 

It's a new year: time to lose those bad gardening habits.

Don't plant too deep! You should be able to see the crown of the plant above the level of the garden soil. If birds are nesting in branches at knee-level, it's way too low.

Don't mulch too high! Mulch isn't made of magic, after all. As Willis says, "Mulch out, not up," meaning stay away from the crown of the plant. A 2-3 inch layer is good for insulation, but won't encourage fungal growth.

Avoid "crape murder"! Richmonders are fond of pruning crape myrtles with the eye of a Marine barber to get what Willis calls a "commercial look." She says to just cut off seed heads for a healthy plant.

Don't fertilize when you plant trees and shrubs! Wait until they get established, into the second year, before fertilizing, to avoid overdeveloped branches and underdeveloped roots. It's fine to mix in an organic amendment like dry cow manure on planting, though.

Don't overstake trees! Willis says trees rarely if ever need staking, but overprotective gardeners lash down their trees like the Lilliputians did Gulliver. Staking can stunt or warp tree growth, so it should be removed within 6-12 months.

Don't water foolishly! If someone could invent a formula for perfect watering habits, that person would be swarmed by groupies in gardening gloves. There isn't one, but there is advice: Willis recommends long, slow watering, a thorough saturation that penetrates 6-8 inches down. Broadleaf evergreens can be watered when dry and the temperature is more than 35 degrees.

Don't crowd the plants! Like sullen teenagers, plants need space for roots, branches and posters of boy bands. Crowded plants are more prone to disease, and in a town as humid as Richmond, fungi can spread like an odor in a packed theater. Ask a horticulturalist or just read the label to figure out spacing. As Willis says, "Buy the right plant for the right location."

That's asking a lot, maybe. But this ain't smoking you're quitting. Just lay off the mulch a little. And there's plenty of opportunity to practice your newfound self-control. One of the advantages of living in this town (even if it does have a high crape-murder rate) is its warmth, making planting practically a yearlong activity. "If you can dig in the soil," Willis says, "you can plant."

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