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Tips from Cindy W, Regular Gardener

Cindy says, "I am a wannabe gardener, hated gardening as a child (both grandfathers and my mother were avid veggie gardeners, but as kids we were relegated to weeding and harvesting). So I spent most of my life concentrating on houseplants, with timid attempts at landscaping until finding the wonderful encouragement and companionship of like-minded folks at first the (since-disbanded) NIH Garden Club and now Takoma Hort."

Gardening tips or things I wish I had known years ago:

  • Weed early and often. One book gives a memorable guideline: think of the weeds as teenagers and you are trying to prevent them from having sex. Don't let that weed get to the flower or seed stage! Don't throw weeds on the compost pile. Some weeds like dandelions will continue to flower and go to seed even as it sits on the compost pile. I now put all weeds that have a thick roots (dandelions, poke weed, wild onions, violets, strawberries), seeds or berries, or vines (like gill over the ground), in the trash. Of course you may have to disguise them by placing them in a bag.
  • Keep track of what's planted where. Especially if you exchange plants, take the time to put some sort of plant label on or near the new plant. Often if it's an unfamiliar plant, I may forget where I put it, not recognize it next spring and think it's a weed.
  • When planting a new acquisition, dig a larger hole than you want to dig. It's hard work, and the temptation is to make the smallest hole you can get away with to get the plant in the ground quickly so it can start growing. But the plant will have a much better chance if you can provide good amended soil to a large area around the plant's roots. In our area be especially careful not to dig a small hole in dense clay. Even if you provide good soil in the hole for the root ball, the dense clay surrounding it will act like a container and can limitwater to the roots or even restrict the roots themselves.
  • If a plant is not thriving, consult several sources to determine why. I find that often one book will mention a requirement that the other books will not. For example, I planted a small Alchemilla mollis (lady's mantle) that does well every spring, then suffers in the middle of summer. Taylor's Guide to Perennials will really make you feel bad. It says it is "very easy to grow in any ordinary garden soil. In hot, dry climates, plant them in moist, humus enriched soil". Another reference, Gardening with Perennials Month by Month by Joseph Hudak says "Vigorous when established in bright sun...Cultivate in a moist, well-drained soil of average fertility". Only one book, Encyclopedia of Perennials, A Gardener's Guide by Christopher Woods, mentions "In areas with high summer temperatures, grow in a shady location, as lady's mantle often reacts to the heat with leaf scorching and thin flowering." Bingo! That's what's going on. I need to move it to the shade. Moist, rich soil was not enough to compensate for our hot Washington summers.
  • Be careful where you throw snow when shoveling. Some shrubs can tolerate being buried under piles of snow, others will break off branches. You don't want to lose half a shrub after years of nurturing it to a nice size and shape. Similarly, if workmen are doing anything near your garden beds, it's wise to warn them not to trample the plants, then move or protect valuable plants anyway.

Working with a landscape designer:

  • Spend the time to do your homework: visit gardens, walk around a neighborhood that appeals to you. What is it about a particular landscape that appeals to you?
  • Read every landscape book you can get your hands on. The library is a great place to start. You'll learn the lingo to help you talk to a landscape designer. You will learn of desirable features you might not otherwise think to ask for (low maintenance, attracting wildlife, four-season interest, etc.).
  • Make a list of your wants - what would you like to change? What do youwish you could have? How much time do you want to spend on maintenance?
  • Collect pictures of landscapes or even single features - a type of walkway, stone wall, fence - and plants or plant groupings that appeal to you.
  • Here are some of the overall features I wanted after doing my research: low maintenance, reduce amount of grass, attract wildlife, especially birds, incorporate a water garden, relocate vegetable garden, screen neighbors, hide AC unit, a cutting garden, a shed/outdoor storage. Plant features: scented, texture - finely divided leaves, like ferns, and round leaves, plants with mounding habit, blue-green or grey-green foliage. Dislike straggly, unruly plants, shrubs and trees with a vase-shape habit. Not fond of yellow foliage or too much varigation.
  • Interview several landscape designers and look at their brag book - is this a style you like? Check references - what do previous customers have to say about working with this person? How much input will you have in the design? Only at the beginning and no changes once the drawings are done?

What I learned at a Brookside Gardens symposium on "Fusion Gardening." This all-day event presented by Horticulture Magazine was rather expensive, but gave me a wealth of ideas. Here are some of the more memorable ideas from the symposium:

  • If you find it too hard to keep all of your garden looking its best, have certain areas that look their best at one time of year, and more or less ignore them the rest of the year.
  • Instead of planting bulbs throughout the garden, have a part of the garden that looks best in spring, and don't worry about making it a showpiece during the other seasons. Another part of the garden could feature fall colors and late-bloomers.
  • Avoid the onesies. For most shrubs and smaller plants, one of the landscape design principles is to fill an area with one type of plant, not have a collection of one of these and one of those. Especially for shrubs, odd numbers are recommended. But it's hard to buy several of a new plant, especially if you're not sure the plant will survive where you plant it or if you're not sure it will grow to be the right height and shape you wanted. It seems safe to buy one, see if it survives and thrives, and then buy more. One problem is finding plants that match the one you got. Even if you've kept the label and it's very specific, you may find that the new and old plants are just different enough that you will always notice they don't quite match.
  • Use naturally occurring materials. In general, you want your garden to fit in with its surroundings. For example, if you plan to use boulders or large rocks in your landscape, it's better to use those that come from or look like ones you'd see in your area, not granite, or sandstone. Boulders should appear to be partially buried, as if they have always been there, not plopped on top of the ground.
  • Another principle of landscape design is repetition. Use the same type of border, the same or similar types of paving, or limit it to a few types, not brick pavers AND slate AND pea gravel AND wood chips. Strive for unifying materials. This goes for plants too. Is there a plant shape, color, or type that could be repeated as a unifying element in your garden? Perhaps pockets of liriope or the same groundcover used in several places.

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