We are reminded time and again you are never too old, never too young to try your hand at gardening. Inclusive to all age, ethnic, gender, race, creed, political affiliation or any other demographic you can think of, plants are not judgemental or political. They respond equally well or badly to anyone if properly or improperly tended. It has always been that way and always will. Gardening reinforces healthy behaviors. Researchers have suggested the level of emotional well-being, or happiness, while gardening was similar to what people reported while biking, walking or dining out. And if you vegetable garden it takes it to yet another level when it comes to purposeful activity and quality of life.
So when Wilma Plantsgrow asks me how do I become a green thumb? How can I be a gardener? I have my list ready for her.
1 First and foremost kill some plants. If you haven’t killed any plants you’re not trying hard enough. Remember the goal is not to never fail. The goal is to fail better each time in the quest to better skills and results. You’re going to get better in life if you can fail in the following manner:
- Fail at first
- Fail repeatedly
- Fail judiciously (Don’t buy the farm. In other words if you fail but don’t end up in jail or dead you can consider it a success)
2 Garden in October and November when few others are. Get some bargains and try them out. It may become a beautiful focal point on your plot. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then. Use weed controls in October and November. The most effective time of the year.
3 Buy some plants that work 3 to 4 seasons for you. They work even if you’re not working.
4 Work some low maintenance plants into your landscape. Accept compliments on their robust growth while all the while knowing you’re not doing a thing.
5 A landscape, an epic garden like most great changes were preceded by chaos. Pace yourself. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
6 The artist Vincent Van Gogh, who I prefer to call Vincent Van “Grow” because that guy obviously had a green thumb, said “Normality is a paved road…It’s comfortable to walk on but no flowers grow on it.” Be willing to experiment. Don’t be a cookie cutter neighbor.
7 Look down not up. Start with the planting area and soil. Don’t put bald tires on a $50,000 car.
8 Get a houseplant before you get a pet. Practice. Learn to nurture. Understand most houseplants are killed with kindness. Water (too much) is the number one killer of houseplants. Learning to care for houseplants teaches us a lot about ourselves.
9 Remember gardening is a 4 season activity. Spring is just a holiday on the calendar. A lot of important pruning takes place in winter as an example. Don’t be afraid to prune and use the rule of green thumb, prune after bloom. Whether a Rhododendron, Lilac, Forsythia, Azalea or Althea use the standard “prune after bloom” approach. If you prune deciduous plants in winter you get a good look at a plant’s shape, disease and insect activity and it’s better than watching re-runs on TV. Dress warmly and remember landscaping is not just an activity for the month of May.
10 Think exposure. You wouldn’t leave the house in the morning undressed. Think of sun and shade as a four season thing. A rhododendron can thrive in the summer sun but will wilt like an actor who forgot his lines in winter sun.
Plants will always be inspiring and after years of walking around with a plant in one hand and a shovel in the other trying to find a place to plant it, I have learned 10 easy to follow rules to a better home landscape design. Walking and running through neighborhoods it is easy to see who had a plan, who had a concept, and who was operating by the seat of their plants.
- If you “over do” it you will have a do over on your hands. Use the look around rule. Avoid what we call monoculture. Too much of one thing can be a problem. Diversity is important in the landscape. If you plant too much of one type of plant and a problem crops up like an insect or disease, it will spread like wildfire without a proper amount of diversity in your yard. Look around your yard, your neighbors yard, is there a plant that is let’s say, over done? Approach your landscape in bite size pieces. It’s more fun that way and gives you opportunity to change your mind as you go.
It is possible that opposites initially attract in relationships but over time they will drive each other nuts. People tend to gravitate toward those of similar tastes and characteristics. Unlike people plants don’t walk or talk so they have a natural understanding of their differences in the landscape. I know that in the landscape, opposites do attract and make for a better look. Use opposites in color, texture and form. For example the colors blue and yellow are opposites on the color wheel. Together in the landscape they make for stunning partners. Another example would be form. If every plant had small leaves the look would quickly become confusing and cluttered. Use of large leafed plants with small leafed plants allows the plants to show off their unique characteristics as part of the whole presentation. The landscape will be less busy to the eye and more focused. Each character gets to play a role. Ornamental grasses are perfect for adding foliage differentiation to deciduous flowering shrubs or large leafed perennials.
The law of similarity would imply that similar things tend to be grouped together. The individuals become a group visually as opposed to a collection of individuals. To show off a focal point for the wow factor the supporting group needs to complement the star of the show by NOT having similar form or size and texture. It’s like the supporting cast showing up in the same dress as the diva in the performance. Not a good idea and it’s going to ruffle some feathers. In the landscape the focal point “diva” is usually the plant you shelled out a lot of money for at the garden center.
2. View your landscape as though you are taking a picture. Visual composition understands “Positive space” the main focus and “Negative space” the background. Negative space is not meaningless. Negative space supports the foreground or positive space in the picture. Positive and negative space together tell a story just like your landscape. Each with a role to play, focal point or wow plants are supported by foundation plantings often evergreens that provide the bones and structure of a well designed landscape. Plants like people consist of movie stars and those that are content to play a supporting role. It’s just the way it is in life.
3. Use unequal, not measured spacing. Use your tape measure for building stud walls or installing cabinets. In most cases plants in a row with equal measured spacing do not look natural.
4. After you apply rule 3 above; add the rule of planting in odd numbers. Generally plants in groupings of 1,3,5,7 etc. look better than even numbered groupings. A good example would be the ubiquitous practice of two identical plants on either side of the front entrance steps or opposite corners of the house. I think the person who started this was the same person who started the ill advised “volcano mulching” around trees. A misdirected practice that for some reason was copied by others as a generally accepted practice. How boring.
5. Use curved borders or edging and tie it all together with a continuous border. A recent study I read suggested that curved beds alone could add to the value of your house by 1% to 2%. If you are talking about a $200,000 home, that’s $2,000 to $4,000 dollars! Once you’ve established the curved borders, consider a plant material that can tie it all together. The law of continuity proves that points connected by curving lines are seen in a way that follows the smoothest path. The flow is seen as belonging together. Remember point 1 above where we strive for diversity in plant material in the landscape? Now that you have a diverse group of plants, pick one type of low growing plant for the border to tie it all together……it works!
6. Ask yourself (on paper) a lot of questions before you start as it regards to your intentions for the landscape. What is the purpose of my landscape or this area of my landscape? What is my favorite garden use? Entertaining? Tanning? Bird Refuge? Bocce ball? Impress the neighbors? What is my favorite garden mood? Seclusion? Natural and unkempt? Bright and happy? Shady and mysterious? What is my favorite sensory effect, sight, and smell, hearing, taste or touch? How about favorite garden feature? Fountain? Pond? Path? Statue? Furniture or favorite chair? Specimen plant? By asking these questions and putting them on paper you can do some goal setting for your landscape.
7. In the midwest and northeast of the country, the side of the house you plant on and the winter exposure to the plants is an important consideration. I find the east side of the house to be a great area for planting. Plants like roses and hydrangeas seem to do well on the east side. The south and west side of the house provide plenty of light in summer but can be harsh, especially in winter to evergreens and broadleaf evergreens. The unforgiving structural shade of the north side of the house can be difficult for plants that need a little more light. Take all four seasons including winter into consideration when selecting the exposure for your plants. Plants susceptible to winter sun and wind like broadleaf evergreens (Rhododendrons) or susceptible deciduous (Hydrangea macrophylla or Japanese Maple) may prefer the cover of a north or east exposure. Be attentive to natural microclimates in your landscape and plant species accordingly. Some plants thrive in my landscape with the protection of the north side of a structure (when the sun is low in the south in winter) or the east side of the home where the snow piles in winter (natural insulation) due to prevailing winds from the west.
8. Put a shovel in the ground! Working in organic material for good drainage and a good ratio of oxygen to moisture retention capability is so important. Mix amendments in with the parent or existing soil 50/50. Dig a hole in the soil where you intend to plant and fill the hole with water. Observe what happens. Does it drain quickly? Slowly? Doesn’t drain at all? This simple test will tell you a lot about what you need to do to make the planting area a good habitat for the plant. Composted manure, compost, leaves, peat moss and other organic material worked in liberally with the existing soil in the planting area will allow your landscape to thrive. What was it the presidential candidate Ross Perot always said in his campaign? “Measure twice cut once”. A famous Abraham Lincoln quote was, “If given 6 hours to cut down a tree I will spend the first 4 hours sharpening the axe. When working with plants look down first not up. A good foundation is a recipe for success.
9. Consider the eventual plant size. Don’t put a plant within 2 feet of another that will eventually grow to 5 feet! Do your homework. Take the mature estimated size of both plants and divide by 2. This will give you proper spacing between the plants for future growth. If you don’t, soon you’ll be moving or pruning one or both of the plants! It is less important with perennials as most of my perennials are eligible for frequent “flower” miles they travel so often. That’s half the fun of perennials, being able to bend over and split your plants. With trees, evergreens and shrubs however a bad placement can create dilemmas down the road. Don’t let a poor placement eventually “shrub” you the wrong way.
10. Design the garden to be viewed from the inside as well as the outside. Grow a diverse group of plants as well as plants that tend to give 3 to 4 seasons of interest. This will give you something to enjoy year round from your vantagepoint whether inside or outside the home. Look at your landscape from inside the house before putting a shovel in the ground. A landscape should not be installed simply for curb appeal. Enjoy it from that favorite window in your home. Select some plants that work hard for you providing 3 to 4 seasons of interest. As an example I have always tried to incorporate an Oak leaf Hydrangea. Pretty oak leaf shaped foliage in spring, gorgeous panicles of bloom in summer, stunning dark burgundy color in fall, and cinnamon exfoliating bark in winter.
You’ve got it made in the shade
When managing a shady area here is my top ten list of things to do
- Don’t lose your composture. Some of the most beautiful gardens are in shady areas. Don’t throw in the trowel just because you have shade or root competition from trees.
- Understand the type of shade (seasonal, structural, filtered)
- Use shade tolerant plants. Foliage is usually larger on shade plants to absorb available light and shade the roots.
- Amend the soil with lots of organic material. Think woodland floor. Soil should have moisture and nutrient retention capability but be well drained with drainage capability. For example Rhododendrons can get quite large but have small root systems proportionately. If they sit in water the plant will suffer and die.
- Don’t overwater low light plants.
- Modify shade conditions with winter pruning. Take an in-season picture and then get out there in winter to do some maintenance pruning.
- Account for root competition from trees….tree roots do not go to China and compete for moisture and nutrients at the surface. Again add lots of organic matter thinking woodland floor.
- Use groundcovers or mulch where possible surrounding trees.…turf and trees are not compatible not just because of shade but also because of root competition.
- Use containers in shade gardens. Containers can be moved to improve light conditions. The containers provide interest, color, character in the shade. Also stone and natural concrete statue weathers well with the occasional lichens and moss.
- See #1 above. There are many great plants to grow in the shade.
Failures are truly good teachers. At the time you think you’re being buried when in reality you are being planted for future growth. I like to think the word future is a verb not a noun and that growth is an action. Sometimes messy, sometimes chaotic, judicious failures help ground you and move you towards better every time.
Some plants instead of being planted are buried alive. Proper planting depth is a key to future growth. Roots need oxygen just like they need water, minerals and room to grow. I learned from those clay landscapes I worked in that you need to amend the surrounding soil with organic material for success. I learned that depth and a plant’s surroundings are key to it more than surviving, it is essential to thriving. In clay soil people will often dig a hole and put some “good” soil in it. In essence they have created a bathtub and the plant is doomed to struggle. Water collects in the hole and the roots reaching out horizontally make an abrupt turn back towards the plant when they hit the walls of clay. If planted too deep or mounded with mulch the foundation and environment chokes out growth and vigor. An excellent metaphor on life. When I worked the entire surrounding area improving the environment by working in organic matter with the parent soil in a 50/50 mix the roots dared to venture into the soil profile. They could breathe and stretch into the soil with the end result happier healthier plants in their setting.
Soil is something we often take for granted but it is vital to health. It seems not only plant health but people health too. I continue to read of scientists revealing that soil can have both antidepressant qualities as well as antibiotic characteristics. It seems dirt naturally has an understanding of antibiotic competition because it is teeming with bacteria. We continue to learn there is good bacteria and there is infectious or bad bacteria. In their quest for new therapeutic compounds it’s only natural one resource would be dirt.
Natural fungal partners in the dirt also play a role in the success of plants. We know that the texture of soil is important to plant success and incorporating lots of organic matter will usually make the homeowner successful. But in addition to organic matter it helps to have a “fun guy” around. Many people are not aware of a natural beneficial fungi called mycorrhizae, a thread-like fungal partner to plant roots. Mycorrhizae is in love with your plants and helps roots extend into the soil, increasing root area while providing a conduit for moisture and nutrients. Nothing new, mycorrhizae has been around through the ages doing it’s thing. It’s like extending the rabbit ear antenna on our old TV sets from the 60’s and wrapping them in aluminum foil for better reception. You can buy mycorrhizae to add to your soil as an amendment for better performance.
Root extension into the soil profile to forage for moisture and nutrients significantly enhances a plants adaptability to its environment. If you’re well grounded both plants and people can weather changes to the environment or periods of duress, the goal is to thrive not just survive. It’s no fun to be stuck in the mud.
This has been understood through the ages. The Greek philosopher Plato is credited with the quote, “People are like dirt. They can either nourish you and help you grow as a person or they can stunt your growth and make you wilt and die.” That’s really deep Plato, real deep.
Stick in the mud people slow everything down. Because they have made up their mind their rut becomes a risk averse situation. Their roots circle their small space choking out progress and inhibiting a flourishing existence. Spending time in their environment drags you in and slows your growth too. The key is to identify the current reality, then identify what is causing the stick in the mud fixation and take it out, finally liberally adding in the amendments that allow for healthy growth.
- Some ground rules for life
- Keep moving. Exercise. Staying active at any age provides ample benefits and that includes the ultimate natural exercise…..gardening.
- Dig in. Go out there and kill some plants. If you haven’t killed any plants you’re not trying hard enough.
- Tell stories. The most useful stories are learned in the valley and not at the top of the hill. Be a “sonder” listening and sharing the stories of our amassed experiences and complex lives.
- Don’t be a stick in the mud. If you insist, your lot in life may be chairman of the “bored”.
- Be a Gibberellin. Stretch yourself.
- Remember grace and unconditional love are like the water from a garden hose, it always flows to the lowest point. Find those at a low point and extend some grace. “No one is useless in this world that lightens the burden of another” -Charles Dickens
- Solid as a rock is not always good. Show some vulnerability and be a little “bolder”.
- Entropy is a reality, you can’t escape it so learn to embrace it in a positive way to help others in the journey. Change is inevitable. You are either moving forward or backwards, but nothing ever stays the same.
- Ground rules for the weekend gardener
In order to establish lawn and order you need some ground rules as a weekend gardener and home owner. These general principles or rules will go a “lawn” way to helping you apply well grounded basics around the home.
Here is my top ten list:
- If you want to establish a great lawn and landscape be out there in the fall season working on it. September to November the soil is still warm, we generally get sufficient rainfall and the air temperature cools. Plants put their effort into root establishment instead of top growth followed by the resting dormancy of winter. It’s a great time of year to plant, move plants or split your plants. When you feed landscape plants in fall even though air temperatures are dropping, soil temperatures remain warm enough for roots to benefit from nutrients giving them a jump start on next year’s growing season.
- Take me to your Weeder. Most people focus attention on weed killing in spring and summer. It is a good time of year for control of weed SEED and applications of corn gluten as an example can help suppress weed seed hoping to germinate. Weeds however that are vegetative and visual can be very effectively controlled in fall. Winter annual weeds like Henbit that germinate and establish in fall and then appear and bloom seemingly out of nowhere in spring are best controlled in fall. By the time they bloom in spring it’s too late, they are going to die anyhow making your application a revenge spraying and having at that point produced copious amounts of seed to ensure you go have to deal with it again next year. My arch nemesis Hairy Bittercress does this posing as a nondescript innocent enough neighbor in fall and under the snow until spring arrives popping up everywhere with its multitudinous little white blooms. Perennial weeds like dandelions or broadleaf plantain are more vulnerable in fall than spring because they like the trees are sending food reserves to the root system shutting down for winter. If you apply weed controls at that time of the year they translocate well into the root system giving better control than the top kill we often get in spring. It’s either that or accepting compliments on their robust growth and weeding by example by utilizing them for foraging and medicinal reasons
- When it comes to the lawn if you do nothing else at least raise the deck on your lawn mower. Longer grass leaf blades shade the crown of the plant reducing stress, provide more surface area for healthy photosynthesis and naturally help shade out weeds giving the lawn a thicker more competitive edge.
- Grow some vegetables in containers and eat more plants. Think sunshine, watering at the base when possible, and importantly healthy organic matter soil because remember you are what you eat. That’s why I avoid rump roast.
- Pruning. If it blooms in spring prune right after pruning. Prune in June for evergreens. If it blooms in fall (August to October) prune in spring. Deadhead herbaceous perennials and leave the foliage on if it looks nice as long as possible. Pinch Mums and tall sedums until July 1. Non flowering woody plants and trees prune in winter. With no leaves, insect or disease activity the dead of winter is the perfect time. Don’t be afraid to rejuvenate prune or prune to allow more sunlight penetration and air movement. Pruning produces outward growth and can often stimulate more aggressive blooming (remember chapter 15?) With all that said….all rules have exceptions including the rule that says all rules have exceptions. In other words pruning will always cause duress and confusion for many homeowners and be the cause of marital disputes. So the final word is this. Pruning questions provide job security for someone like me.
- Mulch. Mulch is a good thing but like your Mom always told you, you can overdo a good thing. Mulch reduces soil temperature in summer and helps maintain a more steady temperature the rest of the year. Mulch helps hold some moisture in the soil and suppresses light to weed seeds. Don’t allow mulch to become hydrophobic, stir it occasionally. Don’t pile it on year after year until you have a thick spongy surface. 1 to 2 inches is sufficient. Gases develop under “overpiled” mulch that can be toxic to your plants. Don’t mound mulch against tree and woody plant trunks accustomed to being dry. Mulch “volcanoes” will cause girdling roots and crown rot at the base of the plant or tree. If you ordered too much mulch piled in your driveway in spring share with your neighbors. Your dogwood will say thank you very mulch.
- Houseplants. Every home needs foliage plants, they improve our indoor air and mood. First you need some bright lit window areas. Don’t kill with kindness, water is the number one killer of houseplants. Too much water rots roots, brings on decline and annoying fungus gnats. Where practical lift a pot and tell by its weight if the plant needs water. Dust them and give an occasional quarter turn. Watch for bugs and honeydew a sticky substance that is the tell tale sign a pest is sucking the life out of your plants. Move them outside to a protected area in summer for a little vacation. Talk to your plants. They like the carbon dioxide. They even would enjoy some time in the bathroom from time to time if a shower is present. This of course if it isn’t too embarrassing for you. Don’t worry, Phil-O-Dendron has seen it all. Tropical plants like humidity not dry indoor air. Move them away from heat registers or drafty doorways. Houseplants don’t like cold drafts and we’re not talking beer here. Grouping houseplants together helps too.
- Water. There is NOT a one size fits all watering schedule. (see all rules have exceptions rule in point 5 above again ensuring my job security). Most plants like a moist well drained soil which sounds like an oxymoron but it’s true. Exposure and species is a factor. Time of year is a factor. Soil type is a factor. Invest in the foundation of a good quality soil and it will pay for itself. Liberally work in organic matter 50/50 with the parent soil for outdoor plantings. Sprinklers are good for lawns, not for landscape plants. Trees and woody plants should have a hose trickle deep soaking at the base from time to time dependent on weather conditions. If you’re really stressed about it invest in a moisture meter. For hanging baskets press against the base of the basket lifting to feel the weight. Learn to tell by the weight of the basket if it needs water then water thoroughly. If soil dries it contracts from the sides of the basket and water flows across the top and down the sides. Take the basket down from time to time to drench the core. Water soluble polymer crystals are a good idea for container plantings. Moisture manager granules are available for landscape materials and lawns. Mycorrhizae is a wonderful natural way to colonize roots and enhance their reach into the soil.
- Exposure. Think wind and sun. What can the species handle? Think of sun and wind exposure for all times of the year especially winter. If the ground freezes, evergreens like broadleaf evergreens will desiccate in the winter sun and wind. Because of the sun’s position in winter when it is low in the south with prevailing winds from the west the north or east side of the house in northern and Midwest states provides structural protection. Anti desiccant sprays of pine resin are also useful.
- Above all else my friends maintain your “composture” and your sense of “humus”.
We instinctively and naturally realize wherever you live on this planet, plants, soil, cultivation and nurture in our lives is more than essential. It is quintessential.
20 reasons Plants, Gardens, Landscapes are even more than essential….they are quintessential.
1 First, foremost and most obvious….Plants are food. And we should have more of them in our diet. Eat more plants. We can boost the immune system with healthy vegetables, fruits and herb plants.
2 Plants improve air quality. And as we’ve learned we all want to breathe a little easier. And that’s both outdoors and indoors as indoor plants or “jungalows” improve our air at home and work too.
3 Gardens and landscapes reduce community crime and provide a common space for community cohesion. Residents feel greater pride in the beauty of where they live and rally together to maintain it. Plants bring people together.
4 Time outdoors in the landscape improves human performance and energy. Spending time in nature gives people an increased feeling of vitality, increasing their energy levels and making them feel more animated.
5 Reduce stress. Participation in gardening and landscaping activities is an effective way to reduce levels of stress.
6 The garden, landscape and natural environments can improve mental health. People who spend more time outside in nature have a significantly more positive outlook on life than people who spend a great deal of time indoors.
7 Therapeutic effects of gardening. Gardening can have therapeutic effects on people who have undergone either mental or physical trauma. I would go so far to say that flowers improve relationships and build compassion. Plants and flowers affect the level of compassion that people feel towards others. Studies have shown that people who spend more time around plants are much more likely to try and help others, and often have more advanced social relationships.
8 Plant roots reduce soil erosion. And bare soil is not a natural condition, something is going to grow there so be proactive. It may as well be beneficial.
9 We can reduce stormwater runoff and improve water quality with plant material. Green spaces absorb water in two ways: above the surface through the leaves and below ground through the root system.
10 How about your wallet? Energy savings anyone? Planting trees and other ornamental plants around a building can significantly reduce the sun’s radiation effect on the temperature of the outer walls and lower the associated cost of energy for heating and cooling. Plants provide insulating windbreaks in winter.
11 Health and recreation. Plants reduce health care costs. Residents of an area with urban green spaces benefit from improved physical fitness and exercise outdoors.
12 Most cities are largely composed of cement and asphalt, which absorb heat from the sun’s rays during the daylight hours. These “heat islands” can be offset with a balance of plant material.
13 Plants reduce noise pollution.
14 Flowers generate happiness.
15 Concentration and memory. The calming influence of natural environments is conducive to positive work environments by increasing a person’s ability to concentrate on the task at hand.
16 Plants are like many other topics….we never stop learning and that’s a good activity to promote.
17 Plants can accelerate the healing process. Trees, plants and flowers have a practical application in hospitals: the presence of plants in patient recovery rooms or outside the window have been shown to reduce the time necessary to heal.
18 Plant material attracts wildlife. As an example, consider the protective cover plant material provides wild birds visiting our yards.
19 We are always looking for ways to celebrate. To acknowledge others. Plants and flowers make the perfect gift or atmosphere for celebration.
20 Plants provide materials to harvest. To build. For construction. Shelter. Agriculture, trees and plants always have and always will be an important part of both our local community, state and national economic health and commerce creating jobs for many people across our nation.