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'Instant' flowers and a backyard makeover

  • Story Highlights
  • Placing hanging garden baskets on the ground will fill up bare spaces
  • Deadheading is the way to keeping flowers blooming longer
  • Red twig dogwood bush looks good in all seasons and is low maintenance
  • "Gardening for Dummies" is a good beginner's book
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Real Simple

(Real Simple) -- These gardening and decorating tips can transform your space -- giving your backyard a complete makeover.

Daisies, scaevolas and geraniums are hearty options that are widely available throughout the season.

Daisies, scaevolas and geraniums are hearty options that are widely available throughout the season.

How to cover bare patches in your garden in an instant

No matter how strategically you plan your garden, there's always that sad stretch of time when there isn't a blossom in sight. The peonies have come and gone, the black-eyed Susans haven't opened yet, and the guests are due for on-the-deck dinner in just a couple of hours.

Not to worry: Instant flowers are possible without divine intervention.

Here's what you do: When you're at the grocery store or the garden center, pick up four to six hanging plastic baskets of bright, non-cascading perennials or annuals in full bloom (or buy one to two per 10 square feet of space).

Daisies, scaevolas and geraniums are hearty options that are widely available throughout the season. Remove the hangers and nestle the flowers -- baskets and all -- among the foliage of plants not in bloom (the plastic containers are usually shallow enough to be hidden in leafy, mulched beds). The baskets can pinch-hit all summer: Just move them around to fill in other barren patches as needed. Real Simple: 5 double-duty garden items

Create an outdoor water garden

Water has a calming effect, and you can set up a water garden in a few minutes. Fill a metal pail or washtub with floating candles; low-maintenance aquatic plants, such as water lettuce, or delicate glass baubles.

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Use plants for backyard privacy

Gather potted plants from around the garden to create a living screen. Experiment with tall varieties, such as ornamental grasses, and flowering plants, such as bacopa and begonia. You'll be rewarded with privacy, shelter from wind, and the beautiful aroma of blooms and foliage around you.

How to make flowers last longer

You know you should water and weed, but you may not know that deadheading is the way to keeping flowers blooming. A favorite task of serious gardeners, deadheading means removing dead or faded flowers, which encourages many perennials and annuals to flower longer and grow fuller.

Here's how to snip every type of stem:

1. Removing the flower

Best for: The majority of plants that have both spent flowers and new buds or leaves on the same stem, such as delphinium, daisy, yarrow, purple cone-flower, cosmos, and petunia.

How: Pinch or use pruners to cut off the dead flower stem above the first new flower or bud. If no buds exist, snip above the highest leaf.

2. Removing the stem

Best for: Plants with a single flower stem, such as bleeding heart, hosta, coralbell, lady's mantle, and peony.

How: When all flowering is finished, cut the stalk off close to the ground. If you want to thin re-growth of wide-growing plants, carefully pull the stems out by the root.

3. Shearing back a cluster

Best for: Compact mounds or clumps of flowering plants that would be too tedious to prune at each individual stem or bud, such as catmint, dianthus, Johnny-jump-up, and sweet alyssum.

How: If the mound is compact but many of the flowers are wilted, use garden shears to cut back the entire mound only at the top. If the plant has thinned or become leggy due to a lack of leaves on the lower stems, cut to the ground and then coddle the plant back to lushness with plenty of water and liquid fertilizer.

The all-season, no-fuss shrub

The low-maintenance variegated red twig dogwood bush (Cornus alba) has papery white blossoms from May to July, branches that turn a striking crimson in winter, and dark green leaves throughout much of the year.

It matures to six or more feet in height and up to six feet in width, and it can stand alone or form a hedge when planted in a row. The red twig dogwood thrives in most U.S. climates, except those that are tropical or arid. Real Simple: Easy step-by-step flower arrangements

To plant: Dig a hole that is the same depth as the shrub's container but twice the diameter; this will allow the roots to spread. Place the shrub in the hole and fill in with the dirt, adding compost if the soil is poor. Water thoroughly.

To maintain: After planting, water once a week until the ground freezes. Pruning is simple -- remove dead branches once a year at the beginning of spring.

To buy: One- to five-gallon pots from Monrovia nurseries retail for $11 to $40; go to www.monrovia.com to locate nurseries near you.

Gardening books for everyone

Sometime between the last blizzard and the first bulb, gardeners get antsy. Whether you plan to tend a single potted geranium or train a climbing heirloom rose, you like to do your homework. This year stay limber by thumbing through the gardening guide that best reflects your expertise. Real Simple: Easy backyard entertaining for summer evenings

Beginner: "Gardening for Dummies"

Turn a black thumb into a green one. Terms as basic as mulch are defined without so much as a shred of judgment. Best features: checklists for what to stock in your shed and diagrams showing how to design a bed.

Intermediate: "Reader's Digest New Illustrated Guide to Gardening"

For gardeners who know the difference between an annual and a perennial, this revised edition of the classic best-seller covers all the bases -- from how and when to prune shrubs and trees to planting a small orchard. It has a particularly thorough section on pest and disease control.

Advanced intermediate: "Taylor's Master Guide to Gardening"

You know your hardiness zone, and you're looking for design inspiration and how-to guidance. This beautifully photographed reference from a horticultural authority covers the six regions of North America, the 1,000 best plants for every zone, and garden planning and design.

Expert: "The Well-Designed Mixed Garden"

Both your thumbs are dark green, and you're a connoisseur of plants, but you want detailed information about specific cultivars and the rules for combining them. This book is written by an expert for those who aspire to become experts in design fundamentals.

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