by Andrea Laine, EMGV
In a short time I will relocate to a place with entirely different land features and growing conditions than I have enjoyed in Durham County. Of all the places I have lived (three states and six dwellings) my current home is where I have had the biggest amount of land on which to garden and ample time each week to spend gardening. It is also where I learned a lot more about gardening: as a volunteer at Sarah P. Duke Gardens, as an Extension master gardener, and through trial and error in my own yard.
Reflecting on my gardening experiences has brought forth a list of recommendations I would like to share. Each recommendation is followed by the reason it made a difference to me and a tip about implementation. Of note, my garden is primarily ornamental and includes two natural areas, the property (1.74 acres) is fenced (so, deer-free but I contend with my share of rabbits and voles), and I have no outdoor pets.
If I knew then what I know now, I would:
Plant on top of the soil. Digging through clay and rock is not fun for anyone and, often enough, not even successful, resulting in improper planting. When I first heard this tip, I dismissed it as cheating. Years later I gave in and tried it, and I haven’t looked back. Yes, I still attempt to dig a proper hole first. But if it proves too difficult, I dig what I can and make up the difference with commercially bagged garden soil or compost piled on top of the hole and mixed with the native soil.
Add a dose of compost every spring. As with planting on top of soil, before laying down compost rough up the soil surface a few inches deep. It will encourage the existing soil and the compost to mingle and improve the soil more effectively. Great gardens begin with great soils (and soil tests)!
Mulch every other year. Did you know that you are supposed to rake off old mulch before applying new mulch? I have too much garden for that chore! Yet not doing it while mulching every year (as I did for a while) does no good; layer upon layer of undisturbed mulch becomes compacted. Compaction causes a barrier where water runs off and air pockets beneath the soil line are compressed. Lately I’ve compromised by giving the mulch an extra year to break down. I poke and turn it with a pitch fork the days before new mulch is applied. This option is easier on my wallet, too.
Lawns … a) Seed fescue grass every other year (alternating with mulch years) unless it really needs it. b) If ornamental beds haven’t been mulched in a while, don’t seed the lawn (see photo). c) Skip fescue entirely and plant zoysia or another warm season grass. It’s too hot here for fescue to thrive, especially without a lot of time and money.
Plant more native shrubs. I’ve come to appreciate native plants for their benefits to native wildlife. I’m no scientist but I’m in my garden a lot and the more natives I’ve added or let be, the greater variety of insects and birds I’ve observed. But frankly, the native plants are more carefree and thus bring me more joy. (Granted I could really make a difference by getting rid of my lawn …)
Be bold about removing things that aren’t “right plant, right place” (apple tree in a shady valley, hostas in too much sun, hydrangeas in a cramped spot). They will struggle to flourish and you’ll be disappointed. Once something un-spectacular is gone from sight you will hardly remember that it was ever there.
Raise a few chickens. I had never lived anywhere that backyard chickens were allowed. So, it’s no surprise that it took me this long to consider raising them myself. There’s a perfect site in my yard (remember that shady valley where the apple tree struggled). And mine is an egg-eating household. Plus, chickens and gardens play well together.
Rejuvenate or replace the hedge sooner. Hedges are high maintenance. At least the really good-looking ones are. I’m always shy about making the first cut but have rarely regretted giving my hedge a confident trim or applying a rejuvenating prune to a shrub in need. Alternatively, plant a loose hedge; one that need not be squared off or rounded to look decent. Fragrant tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans) is a great choice as is the anise tree (Illicium floridanum).
Foundation plantings. Think twice before putting shrubbery up against the house. Mine were present when I moved in; But had I removed them a decade ago, they would not be the nuisance they sometimes are today. Vegetation up against the house is not necessary (in my opinion) and it’s a pain when it comes time to paint the exterior, power wash, or make a repair. It’s also a hassle to trim bushes placed so close to the house!
Focus, Focus, Focus. If I knew then what I know now, I would have heeded the advice to design and landscape one section of my yard at a time. Not strictly adhering to this rule haunts me on dry summer days as I traipse around the garden with a hose or watering can tending newly planted trees, shrubs or perennials.
There’s no time like the present to learn from our mistakes. Ask yourself what you would do differently and then set out to do it.
Extension Resources & Further Reading
Publications and factsheets from NC State Extension
A comprehensive look at soil compaction
A guide to maintaining quality turf in NC
Create your own native landscape, even in an urban landscape
NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox
Pruning shrubs and trees