“I have no plants in my house. They won’t live for me. Some of them don’t even wait to die, they commit suicide.”
– Jerry Seinfeld
I hear people make self-deprecating statements about their gardening abilities all the time. Yet, the reality is that no one is born a gardener. Like all things, people learn to be better gardeners by practicing, and practicing begins with setting goals. This week, the mid-south is bitterly cold, a terrible time to go outside and do yard work, but a great time to write down some of your goals for your landscape in 2018.
But, don’t just write down your goals. Be sure to share them with others! Sharing goals is a way of sharing optimism and a belief in each other.
Accordingly, I encourage homeowners to set goals for improvement in their landscapes and their gardening abilities each year. Then, ask the staff at Urban Earth for help in achieving those goals. If you’re having trouble developing gardening goals for 2018, here are a few I would urge you to consider, tailoring them to your own needs and current abilities:
Learn to identify all the plants in your yard.
If you know the names of your plants, you will be much better situated to take advantage of the many websites and other resources for learning to care for them and learning how to diagnose and solve their problems. Knowing the names of the plants in your yard is the first and most difficult step to knowing how to care for them. Please email me photos at firstname.lastname@example.org if you need any help!
Develop and work a good irrigation strategy for your landscape.
If you can afford it, a professionally installed irrigation system is a good investment for many homeowners. If you want to go this route, and don’t know of anyone who installs them, we’re happy to refer you to one of the irrigation companies we’ve seen do good work.
Alternatively, email me or visit us at Urban Earth to learn how to water without an irrigation system. To give you an idea, I only water 6-8 times per year because of the plants I chose for my yard, the location I chose for them, how I planted them, how I fertilize them, and because I have a good sense of exactly when and how to water them. With practice, you too can develop this expertise.
Develop and implement a fertilization plan for your landscape.
Fertilization, the providing of essential nutrients for plants, can be a very complicated topic but most people can get 70% of the benefits by doing 5-10% of the work. The old adage, “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” is as true for fertilizing as it is for anything.
Thus, my recommendation for the kind of person who simply doesn’t have a lot of time to invest in fertilizing is to do two things:
1. Follow Greg Touliatos’s advice and apply a controlled release 12-6-6 fertilizer to all of your turf and plants, following the application rates on the bag, once in late winter or early spring and again in early fall;
2. Apply soil sulfur to all plants except turf grass and boxwoods every fall at the average rate of a quarter cup per shrub with one or two four pound bags of soil sulfur being perfectly adequate for most yards.
Then, if and when plant problems arise, communicate them to an expert and make slight plant specific adjustments as necessary.
Are there fertilization regimens likely to produce more extraordinary results? Of course! Being or having “the best” is never easy. But, most of our customers are looking for “pretty good” and are not willing to invest the time and money to become true experts at fertilization. If you evolve into one of those people who wants more than our simple suggestion for a fertilization program can provide, we can assist you with that, when the time comes.
Add a water feature to your landscape.
I truly believe that no landscape is complete without a water feature. The presence of water in the landscape is calming to humans and can be attractive to beautiful birds and beneficial insects and pollinators. It can be as simple as a bird bath or as sophisticated as a large ornamental koi pond. And, it can even be somewhere in between, like a fountain or an above ground water garden. Regardless of where you decide you want to be in the continuum, we can help you get there. (I, personally, don’t count swimming pools as a garden feature but some do.)
Develop and implement a plan to control weeds in your landscape.
Digging out weeds is not fun. The best way to approach weeds is to prevent them. You can do this in a few ways:
A. Plant to reduce bare ground in your garden, to keep sunlight from hitting soil, without overplanting;
B. Use a mulch that keeps weed seed dropped by birds, wind, or gravity from touching soil (never use weed fabric);
C. Use a synthetic or organic pre-emergent product to chemically prevent seeds in your soil from germinating without killing living plants.
With care, you can also use a post-emergent herbicide to kill weeds after the seed has germinated. Post-emergent herbicides can be selective or non-selective. Selective herbicides kill some types of plants but not others. For example, there are formulations that kill most broad leaved weeds but not grass and formulations that kill grasses only but not broad leafed plants.
Similarly, herbicides can be contact or systemic in nature. Contact herbicides are those that kill just by touching the plant and usually produce results within a few hours. The advantage of this is that results are quick. The disadvantage is that the results tend to be incomplete, e.g. killing the canopy of a plant but leaving the root system healthy enough to grow a new canopy. In contrast, systemic herbicides are first absorbed into the plant, before killing. They take longer to work, results taking days or even weeks, but are more thorough.
Traditionally, the only organic option for herbicides was diluted vinegar, a contact herbicide. But, in recent years, suppliers are putting in a greater effort at supplying organic herbicides. In my observation, it is not yet clear how effective they are.
Sketch out a long term plan for your landscape.
Few people have the money to completely re-landscape their yard all at once. And, you work hard for the money you choose to devote to landscape. The best way to spend it wisely is to develop a plan first.
I always tell people the way to begin a landscape plan is browsing plants and deciding what you like first; your yard does not care what plants you like. So, what I mean by that is you have to first understand your yard. What direction does your home face? What existing plant material do you have? How many hours of sunlight do the various parts of your yard get? You need to understand the yard you have before you can get the yard you want.
So, your yard is an important partner in choosing plants. And, so are we. Email me to set up an appointment for a free in-store design consultation, if you plan to purchase plants from us and do the work yourself, or ask for a site visit by one of our landscape company’s designers if you would like for us to the work. The fee for the site visit is $100 (as of the publication of this article) but you get a credit of $100 towards the labor portion of any proposal for work that you accept.
For inspiration, you might read Kim Halyak’s informative series of interviews of local garden designers.
Look at ways you can use fewer man-made chemicals in your landscape
If you have a weed or a plant disease problem, we usually have a synthetic or naturally derived chemical solution. But, using chemicals is not without risk to you, to your plants, and the environment. Most of these problems are “cultural,” meaning they relate to how you maintain your plants, whether their water and nutritional needs are being met, and whether the right plant is in the right spot. After you learn to identify all of the plants in your yard, learn to identify their needs so they are less vulnerable to plant disease. Humans have better immune systems when they are physically fit and psychologically healthy and plants are not that different.
Add more native plants to your landscape.
This year, you are likely to hear a lot about the native plant movement in Memphis. The theme for the Cooper-Young Garden Walk this year is native plants, with Doug Tallamy, the author of Bringing Nature Home, as their featured speaker. And, the Memphis Horticultural Society will be hosting a native plant conference later in the year. As part of our Saturday speaker series, we will be hosting Mike Larivee, an expert on the native plant movement, on Saturday, March 24, 2018 at 1pm, part of our Saturday speaker series. Generally, the idea behind the native plant movement is that native plants are less likely to disrupt our native habitats. Yet, they aren’t the plants most people are putting in their yards, instead choosing cultivated plants from other regions of the world, disrupting our eco-system.
Visit public gardens once each season.
Make it a goal to visit the Dixon and the Memphis Botanic Garden once each year. They’re both fun places to go, you’ll learn a lot just walking around and reading the signage, and they could use your support.
Plant at least one thing that will provide interest during each month of the year.
Take a calendar and make sure you have something in your yard each month that looks especially vibrant. For the months you don’t seem to have anything, talk to the staff at Urban Earth about getting
something that will plug those holes. For example, it’s easy to make your yard look extraordinary in May or June, but what about the other 10 months of the year? You should have something that really shines, providing interest in your garden, for each month.
Get an ISA Certified Arborist to inspect your trees.
If you have trees in your yard, especially big shade trees, I think it’s a good idea to have a tree expert you trust examine them once every three years. Although there are people with a lot of expertise in trees who are not certified by the International Society of Arboriculture, ISA Certification is one way of proving expertise. ISA certified arborists have had a number of years of experience, have passed a rigorous exam, and are subject to a strict code of ethics.
Of course, it is also true that some of the most knowledgeable tree experts I have met have never bothered with ISA Certification. So, if you know of someone with a reputation for excellence, don’t rule them out just because they aren’t ISA certified!
Regardless of who does it, getting your trees inspected every three years might save you a lot of money in the long run, heading off problems before they become more expensive. Keep a record of who did the inspection, when they did the inspection, and ask for a written report, in the event a problem comes up down the road, for example, a tree collapsing on a guest’s car.
Expand your planting beds and reduce your turf grass.
Memphians love their turf grass, and, if you have children or grandchildren playing a lot of sports in the yard, it’s really necessary. But it takes a lot of chemicals and a lot of water to maintain a perfectly uniform turf. So, turf grass is not the most environmentally friendly garden element. Because of this, one of the biggest trends in gardening designs is reducing the amount of turf grass you have in your yard, expanding your planting beds.
The simplest way to compost is to come in and buy one of our compost tumblers. Insert your shredded leaves, rinsed out egg shells, vegetable waste (so long as it doesn’t have oils in it), and grass clippings (so long as you have not used any herbicides in your turf grass). Then, when the compost is ready, generally when it has turned to a uniform consistency and is black or nearly black, top-dress your planting beds with it or use it in your back-fill with new plantings.
Attend 3 or More Free Seminars/Classes/Talks at Urban Earth
We are working really hard to expand our Saturday speaker series and there is something sure to interest everyone. Consider setting a goal for yourself to attend at least 3 of our scheduled talks. You’ll meet other people who are also interested in gardening and likely learn a great deal from one of our knowledgeable speakers.
Attend the Cooper-Young Garden Walk
It is not often that total strangers let you into their yard to nose around, but each year, many of the best gardeners in the city who call the Cooper-Young neighborhood their home open their yards up to let you do just that. And, very often, the owners are there to answer questions! The third annual Cooper-Young Garden Walk will be held May 19 and 20, 2018. Be sure to check it out!
The author, John Jennings has been manager of Urban Earth Garden Center since June 1, 2016. Before that he was a self-employed landscaper for 8 years, having previously worked as both a real estate lawyer and a drug counselor in previous lives. He grew up in the South Carolina low country, learning to garden in the fertile soil of Copes Island, a small barrier island near Beaufort, in Jasper County. John is a graduate of the McCallie School, the University of Richmond, and the University of Memphis Law School. If you read this blog entry, please email the author at email@example.com and let him know what you think.