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Landscaping with a Green Thumb: The Ornamental Garden

by Nancy Witting

Gardening with your family can be fun, and it can be a great way to teach your kids about nature and the environment. If you'd like to see green plants, flowers, shrubs, and trees in your yard instead of just a broad expanse of lawn, you're on your way to an environmentally friendly landscape. Just be sure to follow "green" practices and opt for a low-maintenance garden. The low-maintenance garden benefits the environment in part because it requires much less water and fertilizer. But it also benefits you, the gardener, because there is far less weeding and dividing of plants to be done.

Plant Shrubs and Small Trees

Shrubs and trees are the major structural elements in an ornamental garden, so purchase and plant them first. Flowering trees such as weeping cherry, dogwood, and redbud provide height and visual interest. In the first year after planting, they should get regular, deep watering. But once they are established, there is little you need to do other than provide mulch at their base.

Shrubs can fill a space nicely, provide privacy, and mark your property lines. They also provide year-round interest. There is a shrub for every situation, from deep shade to full sun. There are evergreens, including flowering evergreens like rhododendron, and there are shrubs with seasonal interest-flowers in the spring, berries and yellow or red leaves in the fall.

Attract Wildlife

Create a yard or garden that will attract a variety of birds and butterflies, and you'll benefit in two ways: You'll have the pleasure of watching them, and the birds will take care of many insect pests, including mosquitoes. To encourage birds to nest and raise their young, your yard will need to provide cover, water, and a varied, long-term food supply.

Deciduous trees and shrubs generally bear fruit, nuts, and seeds, and they offer leafy nesting sites in the warm months. Evergreens tend to be a good source of berries and seed-filled cones. They also offer year-round shelter and protection.

Use Mulch

Mulch is a major time-saver in the landscape. It helps reduce water evaporation from the soil around plants, so less watering is required. It also discourages the growth of weeds. You can buy bags of shredded bark, bark chips, and chunk bark mulch at nurseries. To limit the amount of mulch you need to buy, try covering the bare earth with several sheets of newspaper, then hide the newspaper with bark mulch. The newspaper provides a good barrier, but lets water pass through and breaks down over time. You can save yourself money by using natural mulches that may already be available on your property, such as pine needles and leaves. However, you will need to shred these materials to prevent matting, and you may find them less attractive than bark mulch.

The best organic mulch of all is compost, which you can create from kitchen and yard waste. It benefits soil in many ways, and costs you little or nothing.

Organic mulches will decompose over time, adding nutrients and organic matter to the soil. That means they will require some renewing each year, early in the season. Apply the mulch when the soil is reasonably moist, and water it well to help it settle into the bed. Note that you don't need more than two or three inches of mulch, and that you should leave a couple of inches free of mulch at the base of each plant or tree.

Inert mulches such as gravel and pebbles have the advantage of never needing renewal, but they will let weeds through unless you lay down a weed-barrier fabric first. These mulches may also have the effect of heating the soil too much for some plants, especially in direct sun.

Plant Ground Covers

Noninvasive ground covers are another effective and attractive way to prevent weeds. These small plants also provide color and help to hold in moisture, many people plant them at the base of trees and shrubs. They are also excellent for planting on slopes or areas that are difficult to mow, since they require little or no tending once they are established. You can help them get established by mulching them at planting time with a good shredded bark or compost. Good choices are sweet woodruff, ajuga, lilyturf, pachysandra, and lamium.

There are also popular ground covers that will tolerate some foot traffic, called "steppables," which can be planted near pathways or among stepping stones. These plants include sedums, dwarf mondo grass, creeping jenny, and thyme.

Flowering Plants: Bulbs and Perennials

If you long for a garden filled with flowers, choose dependable bulbs such as crocuses, daffodils, Asian lilies, and allium, and hardy perennials that need very little division or deadheading.

Division is called for when a perennial has grown into a wide clump and its center begins to die. For a number of perennials, that's about every three years. Division keeps the plants vigorous and blooming, with the bonus that you end up with more plants. However, division also takes time and physical effort. Deadheading is another time-consuming task you may want to avoid. It refers to the practice of removing spent flowers from a plant to keep it from putting its energy into producing seeds—which causes flowering to decline.

Perennials such as ornamental grasses, fringed bleeding heart, echinacea, lady's mantle, peonies, hostas, daylilies, and astilbe need minimal attention and can even withstand the occasional drought. Think in terms of native plants, and you'll save yourself a ton of work and keep your water usage low.

Many people feel that their garden is incomplete without roses. Unfortunately, most roses are extremely labor-intensive, requiring pruning, deadheading, and lots of water and fertilizer to bloom properly. They also can be a magnet for pests and diseases, jeopardizing other plants that share the same bed. If you can't live without roses, try ultra-hardy rugosa roses. Rugosas are very fragrant, disease-resistant, drought-tolerant, and winter hardy. They do not like or need to be sprayed with chemicals, so they are the perfect addition to the organic garden.

When you plant, group similar species together, and try to plant multiples of three. As the blooming season progresses, you will have sequential blocks of color, rather than spotty blooming here and there in the garden.

The best thing you can do for your perennial plants is give them compost—create it yourself or buy it bagged from a nursery. Mix it into the soil well when planting; lightly mix it into the top of the soil around established plants yearly, and make a compost tea to use as a liquid fertilizer. Mulch the bare areas of garden beds well to keep the soil moist and discourage weeds.

A number of natural fertilizers will encourage more blooms, including seaweed, manure, guano, and fish extract. These types of fertilizers are usually applied to the soil in the form of "tea."

Flowering Plants: Annuals and Container Gardening

Plant a dependable perennial, and it will return bigger and better every year. But perennials only bloom for a short time each season. Many annuals bloom from spring to the first frost—and that is their main appeal. The drawback is that they must be purchased as seedlings or started from seed each year and then planted, making them fairly labor- and energy-intensive.

Rather than planting entire beds with annuals, take the low-maintenance approach. Use them in only a few prominent spots, where they can be seen frequently and up close, and will be most appreciated. For example, plant them near your front door or deck, or in a couple of window boxes. Or consider planting annuals in a few large, decorative planters. Container gardening has a number of advantages. You have full control over the soil content, and watering and fertilizing a planter is far easier than an entire bed. The container itself can be ornamental, and it raises the flowers up closer to the eye. You can move containers around as you like—clustering them in an area temporarily for an outdoor party, or moving them around the yard to perennial beds that are no longer blooming.

If you want to try container gardening, use the largest pots you can manage. The smaller the pot, the more quickly the soil dries out and needs watering. You may want to look for the new resin pots that are on the market—they're much lighter than clay pots and the soil doesn't dry out as quickly. It's best to purchase a container mix instead of using soil from your garden. The mix will be free of pests and weed seeds, and won't compact the way garden soil does. Before planting, mix some polymer crystals (available at most nurseries and home supply centers) into the potting medium. These crystals absorb several hundred times their weight in water and release the moisture as the soil dries out.

Entire books have been written about the art of container gardening, but the classic, basic planting method calls for one or more tall plants in the center, surrounded by colorful flowering plants, and a trailing plant at the edges.

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