Would you like to have better results from your landscape and garden? Would it help if it came at a more affordable price? Here are a few random tips to head you that direction, just in time for your late-summer planning before fall plantings begin.
Invest in quality tools. The days of the old wood-handled spades and hoes are pretty well gone. Buy reinforced tools that feel comfortable to your hands. If you do your own mowing, invest in a better machine. It will offer more options of comfort, safety and performance. It may cost a bit more at the outset, but it will be money well spent. Mini-tillers are great in working soil in small spaces, and a power pole pruner lets you reach limbs 10 or 12 feet off the ground without climbing.
Have a plan that's been drawn to scale, either by you or by a veteran landscape designer. It becomes the outline of your project, and it guides you through all the steps like an old family recipe. All the plants are shown at their mature sizes, so you can get a better feeling for how things will look once the landscape is finished. It's a lot easier to move plants around on a piece of design paper than it is to transplant them physically five or 10 years down the road. This process alone may save you hundreds, even thousands of dollars.
Stick to the best plants for the places. If you need a 4-foot shrub, there's no point in buying a type that matures at 15 feet tall and wide. You'll just make your life (and the life of the shrub) miserable. When it comes to shade trees, choose species that will fit their surroundings. Be aware of roof lines, power lines, adjacent concrete that could be damaged by roots, and visibility requirements along roads.
"Adapted" plants should be your goal. Forget whether a plant is native or not. What you want is a plant that's happy to have a chance to perform. Crape myrtles are from China. Nandinas are from Japan. Hackberries and cottonwoods are native locally. You make the call. In my garden, "adapted" rules.
Watch for stock reduction sales from now almost until frost. Fall is the best time to plant, since it gives the new plantings seven or eight months to establish their root systems before the next summer settles in. Nurseries have outstanding selections now, and the plants are full and are vigorous.
Larger plants may actually be your better investments. They will have better root systems that are deeper in the soil. That gives them a greater margin of error should you let the plants get too dry. The plants will also show up a lot better, and that will let you space them at the appropriate distances. You would be more tempted to crowd smaller plants together. Midsized (5-, 7- and 10-gallon) shrubs work really well.
Fine gardens begin with great soil. We don't have that soil locally, so we have to haul it in or work with what we do have to create it. You can amend and improve any type of native soil by adding organic matter. To loosen a tight clay soil, add 4 to 6 inches of organic matter. It's best to use a combination of sphagnum peat moss, compost, rotted manure and pine bark mulch, and add one inch of expanded shale.
Water carefully to get your plants established. That advice applies 12 months a year, especially with young, recently planted trees and shrubs whose roots are still in their original soil balls. Sprinkler irrigation doesn't provide enough water to soak these new plants thoroughly, so water them by hand every two or three days in the heat of midsummer and every week or two in the winter. Of all the new plantings I see go downhill, probably 99 percent are due to the plants' getting too dry one or more times in their first year. Many people will suspect insects or diseases, or they'll wrongly assume that they might have over-watered the plants. A "smart" controller can make watering easier and save you money.
Feed your new babies. A dollar's worth of fertilizer can supply all the nutrients that 10 to 20 new shrubs would need for a year. In most cases, use a high-nitrogen (or even an all-nitrogen) plant food at half the recommended rate, and repeat the application every six weeks, to help plants stay vigorous through it all.
Watch for any problems that might happen by. Each plant species has its own characteristic set of pest and environmental stresses. Good plants have fewer of them, but you'll still need to keep your eyes open. Should they show up, step to your plants' rescue at once.
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts Texas Gardening noon-1 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m.-noon Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.