Laura Stone (stoney321) wrote,
Laura Stone

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More garden talk. Practical advice for you.

I follow a lot of design blogs. That's primarily what I follow on Tumblr and have on my Reader. (I don't do much fannish stuff on Tumblr, because it makes my head explode from all the spoilers and wank.) But back to gardening. A lot of architects think they know how to be landscape designers. A lot of landscape designers think they know about plants.

They don't. (typically) They know how to mix textures (types of leaf structures) and color to look like a Monet, but so what? In a month, your landscape will be dead. Or you'll have to have extensive work done on a regular basis by a mow and blow (that's what I call those cheesy lawn services that also don't know anything about plants except to cut things and blow them into bags.)

I have seen no less than four times THIS MORNING different design blogs show how wonderfully stark bamboo looks in someone's modernist side yard. Yep, it does. For about three weeks. Then that side yard will become a bamboo forest. Want to know why so many things are made from bamboo? Can you guess? Because it grows like a frickin' weed and you can't get rid of it. Yay for whoever figured out all of the uses for bamboo! (And oh, do I love my bamboo bed sheets. And stir fried bamboo. And my bamboo-fiber sweater. And my bamboo CUTTING BOARDS. Hey, I wonder if that's a sturdy grass... (bamboo is a grass! [rainbow: the more you know!])

  • Oh, do those blogs love bamboo. They loooove it. The ONLY bamboo you should consider (unless you have acres) is the clumping variety. And even that can get unruly after a few years. And don't tell me you're going to put it into a container. Bamboo roots can bust through cement, no lie. (those big black knobs? Those are the roots. They make FURNITURE out of them.) Bamboo *is* pretty, but will be there long after you are gone.

  • ditto with horsetail reed. Oh, how I love how it looks. This is something that can be contained in a cement planter, but it will fill the entire planter - don't bother putting anything else with it, as it will get crowded out ASAP. And it needs to be in afternoon shade because it's a tropical forest plant. If you live in NM, don't line your driveway with it.

  • good thing to know about tropical plants: there is constant moisture in the air in a rainforest. Duh, right? But people forget that when they have tillandsias (air plants) - they grow on the sides of trees in Costa Rica. It is HUMID AS HALE there. You will need to mist them multiple times A DAY. Just sticking them on a log in your back yard in the dry part of California is a sure-fire way to kill it. If it's a tropical plant, you need to mimic its natural habitat. Or admire it at a botanical garden and stick to what you can do at your house. :)

  • one the hardest things I've found through working at the Extension Agency was that people have no idea what full sun, part sun, and shade mean. Full sun is what's on the tin: nothing blocking that spot ALL.DAY. from sunshine. No trees, no walls, no umbrellas, nada y pues nada. I had a neighbor that told me her yard was full sun. The east and west borders to her yard had massive oak trees whose branches arched almost to the point of touching. But there was a three foot space where they didn't, so from 11:00am - 1:00pm, the sun shone down with no shade on her center walk. Full sun! NO. That is not. That is partly sunny (because she had intense mid-day light baking down). That image is partly sunny on the outside edges of the tree branches. Close to the tree is part shade. Part shade is anything from full sun in the morning (sunrise plus, say, two hours) and then dappled sun from overhead trees for the rest of the day. If the only direct sun your plants get is in the afternoon, consider that partly SUNNY, not shady. Because that is more intense light than in the morning. You will burn your plant, otherwise. Part to mostly shady means there is heavier tree coverage, or on the north side of your house/apartment. Absolutely no direct sun, but always filtered through tree canopies. Full shade means there is never direct sun or moderately bright filtered sun on those plants. Dark recesses of your garden, as you can see behind that blue chair (there are some cool shade plants with amazing leaves and color, so don't think you're out of luck on attractive things.)

  • It seems simple, but tall plants in the back, please. Hollyhocks are VERY tall. You don't want tiny Rudebeckias behind them, because you'd never see them. :) Almost every plant comes with a plant guide and it should tell you the final expected size. That matters. (If you're in a southern climate, go ahead and add 20% to that. Most greenhouses are up north.) Example: I have rosemary hedges. It was expected to get 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide. They are over 5 feet tall and EIGHT TEN feet wide. They are very, very happy.

  • KNOW YOUR SOIL. Is it loamy? (Imagine making Devil's Food cake. Crumble that all up. That's loamy. That is also the perfect soil.) Is it clay? There are different types of clay, white (caliche), black (gumbo), and red. They all have loads of nutrients, but they're so tightly locked up that the plants can't get it. You have to add in organic material (compost, clippings, mulch, small children) to break it up. NOTE: YOU TYPICALLY DO NOT HAVE TO ADD NUTRIENTS (fertilizer) TO THIS SOIL except for Nitrogen and Iron for black and white clays. Is your soil sandy? You need to add organic matter to your soil, too, because the grains are so large, nutrients (and water) slip past them and don't stick around long enough for your plants to absorb them. There's a reason there are so few plants that thrive on sandy beaches.

  • Most extension agencies will tell you how to do a soil analysis and where to send your sample off. THIS IS A REALLY GOOD THING TO DO. It's 10 bucks, but the information is priceless. (lol) You dig up three plugs, making the points of a triangle in your yard. Bag them, send them off, in a week or so, you get back the ratio of nutrients that are in your soil with a recommendation for what to add (saving you LOADS of money on fertilizers you probably don't need), if there are diseases in your soil (cotton root rot will kill anything you plant in it. ANYTHING. And in about two days from planting, too.) and how to treat. And most importantly, you'll learn the pH of your soil.

  • pH: one of the most important things to know before planting. So I live in caliche clay land, and caliche is what makes cement. It's essentially compacted fossils and riverbeds, just a step away from limestone. LIME is basic, not acidic. Too basic, and things die. A bar of soap, for example, is about 8.3 on the pH scale. My soil when I moved in? 8.1. That's why things looked like hell when we got here. Things like pine trees, azaleas, blue hydrangeas, raspberries and blueberries all need really acidic soil. Like, 5.5 - 6.7. (7, remember, is neutral. Most plants prefer a little acid it helps their roots absorb nutrients.) If you remember pH from chemistry, a 6 on the scale is 10 times more acidic than 7, and ONE HUNDRED times more acidic than an 8. If you hear someone say they need to "sweeten" their soil, it's because it's highly acidic. You'd add lime. My yard is ALL LIME so I have to add acid in the form of UNUSED COFFEE GROUNDS. Regular coffee grounds are neutral. (Because the acidic brew is in your cup.) Go buy crappy Folgers in bulk and add that. Pine needles are also a super way to break it up, as well. (Ditto citrus peels, and so on.) Long term fixing: sulfur. It takes a while and smells like farts. Be patient and put down mulch. :D (Or work with what you have. Unless it's almost toxic, like mine was.)

  • Know what plants work in the type of soil you have. I love azaleas. LOVE. I cannot grow them because of my soil. Same re: pines. I cannot grow blueberries. These things make me sad. But what would make me sadder is to plant something that is going to die. Instead, I plant things that can tolerate what I'm working with. Much easier and less costly.

  • Know what plants can survive your climate (and if you don't know, ask!). I live in Texas, and it's hot here. (No! You don't say!) Peonies and lilacs are delicate northern plants that absolutely wither. Same with English lavender. But! The coast of Greece is chalky and hot, so rosemary and Spanish lavender loooove it here. Especially when planted near sidewalk. Why? Because rocky white coasts reflect sunshine UP UNDER THE PLANTS. So they get it from all sides. And those plants have adapted to needing that. Sidewalk creates reflected heat (as does flagstone). Think of those aluminum reflectors people used to lay out in. That's what's happening to your plants. Know what can take that type of abuse, especially if you live in a sunny, hot climate like I do.

    (And at the end of summer, look at people's lawns by the sidewalk. Bet you'll see an edge of brown right at the cement line. It gets HOT right there.)

  • I can't tell you how aggravated I get when I see plants in the wrong damn place. LOOK UP. Are there power lines over your sidewalk? Then don't plant a big old oak tree on that strip between the street and the sidewalk. You're going to regret it when a storm comes. Love how those Suessian junipers look flanking someone's front door? ...are you prepared to have a weekend project of trimming it down every Saturday? Then have at it, otherwise, get something that stays compact and doesn't grow taller than 8 feet and 4 feet wide. Don't plant trees that will grow to 75 ft. or more close to your house where it will get tangled under your roof. (This happens all the time.) Don't plant shrubs that are actually small trees (red tip photinia is the #1 abused plant in this respect - it's a 25 foot conical tree, did you know?) under your windows. Ditto with most hollies. You are going to have to cut them all the time, and what a waste! You fertilize, water, and they grow only to cut it away. Just plant something that doesn't grow taller than 4 feet, and you can have your weekends back. :)

  • If your nursery doesn't know how to tell you the answers to these questions, you shouldn't be shopping with them. DO NOT BUY PACKS OF ANNUALS FROM HOME DEPOT/LOWES. Why? They put growth inhibitors on them to keep them manageable while sitting out on their shelves. But...when you finally buy it and plant it, you want it to grow. Too bad. (Isn't that awful? But now you know.) KEEP YOUR RECEIPTS. If something is touted as a perennial in your region and it dies over winter and doesn't come back, you should ask for your money back. Most garden centers will honor your purchase for a year. I've taken dead plants back to my favorite nurseries (and they know I'm a Master Gardener, so it's not dead from neglect) and have gotten replacements or my money back.


  • Just because a plant is attractive, doesn't mean it's the right plant for your landscape. Make sure it can thrive in your soil, with your sunshine (or lack) and that it COMES BACK. Anchor your landscape with perennials, shrubs and trees. Annuals, while lovely and lively with color, shouldn't be the bulk of your garden. Think about three seasons: spring, summer, fall. Perennials bloom in cycles. Have bulbs for spring, heat loving plants inter planted for summer, and fall color as everything goes to bed. (And take the winter off.)

  • If you want a wildflower look, go bananas. If you want it to look cohesive and pulled together, PICK THREE COLORS. Only buy plants in those three color families. I have pink, blue and yellow for spring, bright red, bright blue and orange for summer, reds, oranges and yellow for fall. And of course the green, but you don't even notice that where there are bright red lilies in a 20ft line. :) Draw it out on paper and then stick to your plan when you go shopping. Don't be swayed by a pretty annual that doesn't fit your plan. (Find one that does!)

  • Last rule of garden design: DO THE HARDSCAPE FIRST. Trust me on this one. So much easier to get stones, paths, lighting, structures in place FIRST, then add in the plant material. And you want to do the biggest things first: trees, large shrubs. Then perennials and LAST are the annuals. Last, last, last. Because they don't. (hurr) You don't put on a brooch before your shirt, you know?

  • CALL YOUR EXTENSION AGENCY. They will have a list of plants that are known to thrive in your area. They will know how to eradicate pests and disease. And best of all? They're free.

  • [ETA!] Know the water requirements of what you're planting!! Texas sage is a gorgeous silver plant that turns fuchsia with blossoms. Gorgeous! And it's from El Paso, which means it naturally gets about 13 inches of water per year. I would not plant that with, say, mallow, because that is a swampy plant. Too much water will kill sage. Too much water kills all plants, actually. That is the NUMBER ONE REASON FOR PLANT DEATH: over watering. And the problem is, OVERwatering looks like UNDERwatering: wilted, yellow leaves. Stick your finger in the ground up to your hand. If it's moist to the first two knuckles, that is well-watered. DON'T ADD MORE. And do put similar climate plants together. Dry garden beds are cool looking with sedums and ornamental grasses. Hydrangeas and large-leafed plants need to be where they can get more water. If you have sandy soil, you'll need to water more often than loamy or clay gardens. I have clay, which is tight (small particles). It holds water like crazy. I only water once a week, and only when it's really hot and if we've had no rain. I just turned my sprinklers on in June, for example. And if it has rained, TURN OFF YOUR SPRINKLERS. Water is a precious commodity, no sense in wasting it. (So stop waterboarding your gardens.) /PSA

It makes me sad when I see things die and frustrated wannabe gardeners throwing in the towel after wasting a LOT of money. So here you go.
If I can think of anything else, I'll add it here.

ADDED: DO NOT USE TREE GATORS. You know those green bags people put on their trees and fill with water? Those are terrible. TERRIBLE! You are cutting off an important part of the tree to oxygen (the flare from the trunk to the roots, and speaking of, don't pile mulch there, either!) and you're keeping that area moist, which encourages diseases and pests. Tree (and all plants) need to be watered from the DRIP LINE and out. That's what happens when it rains, correct? The rain rolls off the leaves to the outside of the plant (for the most part) and the ground stays dry close to the trunk.

Figure it like this: if you have a four foot wide plant, you'd water from the edge of the plant and out two feet.


Those thick roots only hold the plant (here, a tree) in place. The tiny fibrous roots (specifically the root hairs) are where food and water are absorbed. Tree gators: nowhere near the ends of the roots, so don't waste your money or the water.

And this is an old post I made about how to care for roses. (General care for the average person, not meant for professional Rosarians, who will already know this. :D)
Stop the crepe murder. This makes my soul sick when I see this. D:

This is a sticky post on my livejournal, so feel free to comment with any questions. I'll do my best to answer you in a timely manner, and then this can be a catch-all for anyone strolling by. :)
Tags: essays, gardening, how2

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