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Landscaping Tips for the Gardening Impaired

Almost every homeowner dreams of having that luscious lawn, bordered with vibrant flowerbeds, with a splattering of shrubs, bushes and shade-providing trees. Unfortunately what we want and what we are able to do are often two different things. It’s a fact that not all of us were blessed with Great Aunt Sally’s miraculous green thumb. Most of us probably count ourselves lucky if we have enough green in our thumbs to keep a few house plants alive and growing.
Maybe you’ve thought of taking a shovel and hoe to the yard or maybe you’ve been thinking about hiring a landscaper to head out there and create the yard of your dreams for you. Either way, you’re going to need a little bit of information before you pick up Aunt Sally’s gold plated shovel and that’s what we’re here to help with. Read on and by the end your thumb is guaranteed to be green enough to get you started.

To Dig or Not to Dig…

The first thing you’re going to have to decide is whether you want to do this yourself, or hire someone to do it for you. It comes down to money, time, and appeal. If this is something you want to do because you are a looking for a hobby and gardening suits your interest, then great. If you just want the yard of your dreams and could care less how it gets there, guaranteed there are a ton of landscapers out there looking to help you with your project. Perhaps you want the yard, but are unable to afford an expensive landscaper, well, that’s okay too. You can do the small stuff yourself and hire someone to do the big projects (tree planting/removal etc.).
No matter what your choice, landscaping is something that every homeowner should consider. A properly landscaped house can cut down on heat costs in the winter and air-conditioning bills in the summer.
Not to mention that if you ever plan on selling your house, landscaping will increase your home’s curb appeal, which is critical to getting the prospective buyer out of the car and to the front door to see what is inside. Landscaping is a relatively inexpensive, yet cost-effective way to create a home which is warm, inviting and appealing.

It All Starts with the Dirt
The first thing you’ll need to learn about to get that great garden is the dirt. So before you head down and start picking out bulbs and plants, look at the stuff that they spend their lives in.
Basically there are three things you’ll have to know about your soil: its texture (type), its pH level, and what fertilizers, additives and organic matter your soil will need to give you a healthy and robust garden.

Texture:
It’s important to become familiar with the texture of your soil, which is established by the amounts of clay, silt or sand particles that exist in the soil. Clay is on one end of the spectrum. It can hold water and nutrients sufficiently, but it’s tough for the roots to grow through. Sand is on the other end of the spectrum. It drains well, but in the process nutrients get pulled away – and it dries quickly.
The ideal soil for gardening is loam, which has the best amounts of silt, clay and sand. If you squeeze it lightly, it should hold its shape.

pH Balance
Another factor that contributes to the success or demise of your garden is the pH level – a 1-14 scale that measures the acidity of the soil. A score of 7 is neutral; below 7 is acidic, above 7 is alkaline.
Most plants prefer neutral soil, which allows plants to successfully draw nutrients from the soil. Acidic soil is more common in areas with heavy rainfall like the Northwest. Alkaline soil is more common in drier areas. If your soil is only slightly alkaline, it will still be productive for many common plants.
Many nurseries and some local agricultural government agencies provide soil tests to determine your soil’s pH.

Fertilizers Additives
Most soil will benefit from additives, which can improve drainage, retain moisture, provide aeration, and supply organic matter. Organic matter, the decaying of once living plants and animals, is fundamental to the fertility of your soil. When organic matter decomposes it releases nutrients, which of course is vital to plant growth.
One popular additive is mulch, a loose organic material that is generally anything from bark or sawdust to straw or leaves. Mulch serves a variety of purposes – it reduces evaporation, thwarts weed growth, insulates the soil, and can be aesthetically pleasing.
Another option is compost – decomposed organic material. This works best if you have a steady supply of plant waste like grass clippings and leaves, as well as vegetable scraps from your kitchen use. You allow these items to decompose together, usually for 6 weeks to 6 months.
Other additive options include composted manure, humus, peat moss, and top soil.
Once you have your additive ready, it’s important to mix it in properly with the ground soil by digging the depth of at least one spade and incorporating the additive deeply and uniformly. Add a volume equal to 25 to 50 percent of the total soil volume in the cultivated area.
Also remember that your fertilizers and additive are always being decomposed, so it’s beneficial to add to your garden on a periodic basis. There are six nutrients, commonly called macronutrients, which are essential to the lives of plants. The nutrient that is most often lacking is nitrogen. In addition, phosphorus and potassium are generally needed for annuals, bulbs, and perennials with shallow roots, and turf.

Lawn-care for Dummies
Maintaining a lawn isn’t as easy as it looks, nor is it as hard as some people make it out to be. So what do you need to keep the lawn thriving?
A great relationship with your local lawn-care center sure helps. Whether it’s a big chain or a local garden shop, befriend the regular employees and milk them for all the information they’ll give you. Most gardeners are happy to share their knowledge.
The understanding that a yard does not take care of itself. Even if you xeriscape your entire lawn (using native plants and grasses that need little watering), you’ll still have some work to do. Maybe not weekly mowing, but some trimming, raking and occasional weeding. Keep an eye on your lawn at least weekly, and take care of problems promptly. Ignore a brown spot in your lawn for too long, and you may end up having to re-sod or re-seed your entire yard.

Water. If your yard didn’t come with an automatic sprinkler system, head outside right now and locate the hose bibs (outdoor taps).
While you’re not looking to drain the oceans, you do want to give your lawn enough water to keep it from dying. Check with your local utility company to see how much water is recommended how often for your specific area. Then make sure you have enough hoses and sprinklers to do the job. (You can make do with one hose and one sprinkler, moving it every 30 or 45 minutes so you eventually cover your whole lawn.) Plan to water in the early morning hours, rather than at night or in the afternoon, for the best absorption and least likely chance for fungus development.

A lawn mower. Yes, you really do have to mow the lawn. For the healthiest lawn, you should never cut off more than a third of a grass blade’s height at a time. If your mower (mulching or not) leaves clumps of cut grass scattered across your lawn, be sure to rake them up, or at least disperse them, to avoid creating places for fungus to grow. If you’re following these guidelines and your grass is looking ratty, you probably need to sharpen your mower blade.

A string trimmer. Most mowers can’t get close enough to trees, garden borders and walkways to do a thorough job. A string trimmer — one that can swivel to be used as an edger, too — is ideal way to conquer this job.

Lawn and garden fertilizers, pesticides and weed killer. Whether to use organic products or not is a personal choice. Obviously, organic products are better for the environment and healthier for people and pets who enjoy your yard. But sometimes, chemicals get the job done faster. Talk to the pros at your garden center about your specific needs and problems, and they’ll point you in the right direction.

On to the Garden
Most people’s yards consist of dirt and grass, but now that those are out of the way we can move on to the garden. Whether you’ve just moved into your new home or you settled in several months ago, the one sure trick to a lived-in look is greenery and flowers. Here are just a few tricks for keeping the green going throughout the spring, summer and beyond.
One of the best tips is to get organized. Keep a 3-ring notebook for your garden and in it include the plants and flowers that are in your yard. You can simply keep the empty seed packets and attach them to a piece of paper or photocopy them. It’s also a good idea to take pictures of your yard and put them in your notebook. This way you can track the progress. This also makes it easy for you to remember what colors are where. For instance, if you take pictures of your bulb beds in the spring, by fall when you want to add other colors you’ll know exactly which spots to fill.

Set the stage. Few houses look good without some “foundation planting” — plants set around the bottom edge, or foundation, of the home. Ideally, choose a no-fuss evergreen (your local gardening store can help you choose what’s best for your part of the country). If it’s slow-growing, you won’t have to trim it back often, and you won’t have to worry about it covering your windows.
If you’re doing container planting, leaving the plants potted instead of rooting them, size does matter.
Bring on the borders. Use other simple greenery to accent the dark green foundation plantings or to soften “hard” areas of your landscape, such as the edges of patios, decks or driveways.

Spotlight Areas with Color. It’s fairly easy to plant annuals — those once-a-year plants that you pull up in the late fall — in areas where you want to add just a bit of brightness. Just be sure to leave some space in front of your other plants but inside your brick, plastic or fence-like border. If you’re not sure if you’ll keep up the annuals, don’t leave too much space at first; you don’t want it to look barren if you decide to scale back or skip annuals one year.
Don’t over-water. This tip gets mentioned in practically every gardening article because so many people still do the opposite. The rule of thumb is to put your finger into the soil; if it is still fairly moist, resist the urge to water and check again in a couple of days.
Also, remember to check your garden regularly for those pesky aphids that love to take residence on all of your plants (especially in the spring). Ward off aphids with ladybugs; they eat the aphids. Or try insecticidal soaps or Neem oil derived from a tree in India.

Planting Money Trees
Here’s one final note about trees. In the days before air conditioning, houses were designed to take the fullest advantage of natural heating and cooling: wide eaves, deep porches often screened in and used for night-time sleeping; thick walls to give insulation; metal roofs that reflect sunlight; and attics and high ceilings.
Landscaping was also designed in this way. Trees were placed to maximize summer shade and breezes. Deciduous trees around the house would keep the house cooler in summer, then shed their leaves in the fall to maximize available sunlight in winter to keep the house warmer.
This was something that builders past the 50’s just didn’t get. Today’s houses are stripped of trees in favour of vast stretches of lawn, concrete, and asphalt. If there are trees, they are usually easy-to-maintain evergreens that, of course, don’t shed leaves in the winter, creating spots in houses that never get warm, no matter how high you raise the thermostat.
If you want to maximize your energy savings talk to a landscaper about putting some of those deciduous trees back in. Sure they can be a pain when they shed all their leaves, but if the natural temperature regulation isn’t a good enough reason to consider it, how about the joy all those piles of leaves will bring for the kids—if not yours then at least the neighbours.

This paper is intended for informational purposes only. Nothing contained herein constitutes legal, financial or other professional advice. Transmission of these materials is not intended to create, and receipt does not constitute, any relationship of any kind between the provider and the recipient. Some of these points may not apply in your area. Different term and conditions may vary from state to state and province to province. All articles, text and photographic material presented here is for the use and pleasure of the recipient only. Download PDF

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