With several decades of watching North Texans garden, I feel like I have a perspective to offer suggestions that I think could make the world's most wonderful hobby just a little more rewarding -- and, a whole lot easier. I hope these tips prove useful.
Start with a plan. You wouldn't build a house without a blueprint, and you shouldn't build a landscape without some measure of forethought. That means putting it down on paper, and drawing it to scale. It's a lot easier to erase and redraw than it is to dig and replant.
Use only adapted plants. The last questions you ought to ask at the nursery, before you check out, are "Am I making any mistakes in my choices? Is there anything you should tell me about the plants in my cart?" Frankly, it shouldn't matter at all whether you've getting "native" plants, because they may not be native to your soils and your climate anyway. "Native" means it grows natively somewhere in Texas. That could be 500 miles from your landscape. Ask your nurseryman, instead, "Is this plant 'adapted?'" That's the question that matters.
Choose plant types that grow to the height and width you can provide for them. If you do your research beforehand, and if you draw it correctly, your landscape plan will protect you. You'll be able to see when you are about to create problems. You will see that you are planting shrubs that will grow to 8 feet in height beneath 3-foot windows. You'll see that your lovely live oak is going to crowd out into the street or up into the power lines. Early changes (as in the planning phases) are the easy changes.
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Avoid formal shearing. If we were supposed to be growing square plants, God would have given them to us. Routine and regular pruning is one of the biggest time-wasters I see. Buy a plant that grows to the height and width that you need, then allow it to develop naturally. Sure, you'll still have to prune it and train it, but you'll do it with hand shears and loppers, not with hedge trimmers. And, more importantly, you'll do it in a few minutes, and only one or two times a year.
Above all, never "top" any tree, at any time, or for any purported reason. Topping is the quickest possible way to ruin the shape and form of a shade tree or crape myrtle -- and to do so forever. What nature has taken decades to grow, you can ruin in just a few minutes. (If you are the owner of a sad crape myrtle that's been whacked, your quickest and easiest recourse is to cut it back completely to the ground and retrain the new shoots that will emerge vigorously come spring. Of course, if it was being butchered because it's a variety that grows too tall, it would be better to move that plant to a larger space.
Plan for a manageable, responsible lawn-care schedule for the new year. Turf was ravaged by the heat and drought last summer, but most lawns can still be saved. Let your local retail garden center manager (hopefully, a Texas Certified, or Master Certified Nursery Professional) identify your weeds and show you the most expedient way to eliminate them. Weed-and-feed products aren't the only answer. In fact, they aren't even the best answer. It's usually best to apply weedkillers specifically where they are needed, and, of course, to do so at the precise time that they are needed. Those timings will rarely dovetail with the best times for feeding.
Get maximum effect from your color beds. Remember that annual flowers may have to be replanted more often than perennials, but any given annual will be colorful for several months, while most perennials stay colorful for two or three weeks. You have to do a lot more planning with perennials, so that you can include a much larger assortment of types that will bloom over many months. Annuals, all things considered, give you a lot more bang for the buck, and for a lot less money and cumulative effort. If you're short on space, grow annuals in large decorative pots, and position them near the entries and out on the patio -- places where you really want to draw visual attention.
Avoid quack products. The Texas marketplace is filled with them. Their claims are extravagant, but they usually offer few if any benefits for the money and effort you spend using them. Read their labels. If you're not seeing specific directions, rates of application, remedies and precautions, you're probably looking at a product that hasn't been sent through real registration via the Texas Department of Agriculture. Look online to see if the product has been researched by a land grant university. These are the ag colleges in each state -- in Texas, they include Texas A&M University and Texas Tech University. "As tested by ..." doesn't cut it. You want to see positive research results, and not layperson testimonials.
None of us is hoping for a repeat of Gardening Season 2011. Hopefully, that was an aberration, and hopefully we're on our way to better days soon. Hang onto these tips. You never know when one might save you big bucks and big blisters.
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.