A healthier approach to gardening

  • Discuss Comment, Blog about
  • Print Friendly and PDF

WASHINGTON - Over 40 years doing landscape and design work, I've picked up some valuable lessons. They might be thought of as principles for planning and managing your landscape.

Think ahead: Anticipate growth habits when planting trees and shrubs so they will increase in ornamental value as they mature. Don't install plants for instant gratification. For example, don't plant a two-to-three-foot-tall woody plant, such as a juniper, holly, spruce or cedar, 18 inches from the edge of a walk or wall. In maturity, that plant will spread to eight feet or more, blocking entries, lifting walkways. Site plants far enough apart so sunlight will reach the base of the plants, allowing them to develop to their mHave patience: Gardens grow one day at a time. Groves of magnolias, dogwoods, river birches, sassafrases and staghorn sumacs can become eye-catching art objects growing in groupings. With maturation, their sweeps of colors in spring and fall can be breathtaking. Flora can languish or become dormant, like the shade-tolerant perennial snakeroot (Cimicifuga racemosa). It seemingly died when we planted it one spring. It reappeared a year later and has been vigorous ever since.

Practice stewardship: Sites must be prepared before planting. I mix one part compost with two parts native topsoil to ensure good drainage and air circulation. Gardens require care while plants are establishing. Newly planted trees, shrubs and perennials need water in summer when there is no rainfall for a week, and beds around perennials and the bases of trees need weeding. Other plants might need dividing, deadheading, pruning, or in the case of overly aggressive ornamental plants, hacking back.

Design your landscape: Ideas are best placed on paper as circles to suggest an idea of what you visualize for your garden. Plant with a design in mind, but count on a decade for your garden to mature into what you visualize.

Accept that it's not an exact science: Garden designs often work when you least expect they would and fail when you're certain you chose the perfect plants. Carl Orndorff, the late, award-winning nurseryman, would frequently say to me, "They don't know what they are talking about," referring to academia and textbooks. He did not believe in using fungicide, and instead advocated planting where plants would have room to grow with open habits and good air circulation.

Start with a soil test: Healthy soil is determined by a test, usually accomplished at a state university through your Cooperative Extension Service. Tests reveal pH and nutrient levels and texture. If you request a test for specific plants, suggestions will be provided for amending the soil to meet their needs. To find a Cooperative Extension Service, go to csrees.usda.gov/Extension/index.html.

Plant selectively: Choose plants that you see at garden centers, provided they are healthy and out of the ground in containers or root balls. Never install more than you can maintain. Start with a couple of small trees and a perennial border.

Know your weeds: The most popular request from home gardeners is low maintenance. Unfortunately, this means attention throughout the landscaping season and pulling weeds such as porcelainberry (Ampelopsis), bush honeysuckle, multiflora rose, wisteria, kudzu, mallow, mustard, bittercress, nutsedge, henbit and bog smartweed (Polygonal setaceum) when they are young.

Conserve water: An important component of keeping maintenance needs low is watering. One water-conserving approach is utilizing rain barrels. Another helpful method of water-efficient landscaping is mulching with one to two inches of compost, topping with a veneer of aged shredded hardwood bark. Plant tough, native ornamentals.

Take risks: Try new plants; they will let you know whether they're happy. They didn't read the book that called them "problem free" or stated they grow only two feet high and wide. Accommodate whatever you try. If it doesn't work where you thought it would, try it somewhere else or scrap it for another plant. Sometimes colors clash; plants become invasive or they never flower.

• Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md., and author of "Anyone Can Landscape" (Ball 2001), "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Landscaping Illustrated (Alpha 2003) and other books. Contact him through his Web site, www.gardenlerner.com.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment