February 1, 2013

North Texas gardening only requires simplicity

When it all starts to feel overwhelming, pare down and focus on what works

Rants, raves, reviews and resources for Dallas-Fort Worth parents

A lady posted a comment on my Facebook page a week or two ago. She said she had moved here from somewhere up north, and that she'd found Texas conditions almost impossible for gardening. "I'm just going to give up," she lamented.

That made me sad. A lot about being successful lies in feeling comfortable with your surroundings. Knowing them. Being able to anticipate them. Being patient as you adjust to them.

I grew up in College Station. My first gardens were there, alongside my dad. By high school, I had a small landscaping nursery in our back yard. I started at A&M, and I got all of my plant-materials courses there. However, I transferred to Ohio State as a junior, and completed two degrees there. Still, since I was a relative newcomer to the North, I felt uncomfortable with its plants and practices. I knew how this lady felt, only in reverse.

When I landscaped my first home after getting married, I relied on many plants I had known in Texas, and in so doing I bypassed many of the riches of Northern gardening. Our Lake Erie-area landscape looked remotely like it had been transplanted from Texas.

I advised the lady two weeks ago not to give up. I suggested that she keep her gardening endeavors simple and basic as she gained in experience and courage. I mentioned that she ought to find five really reliable gardening authorities, and she ought to bounce her new ideas off them. Those ideas that received consensus approval could be adopted into her plans. Those authorities could be friends and family who have gardened successfully locally, or Texas Certified and Master Certified Nursery Professionals, or they might be respected Texas gardening references. Help abounds, if one just asks for it.

How to start

Some of the best landscapes I have ever seen were also some of the simplest. There's something elegant about a planting that addresses just the basics -- plants that enhance the natural beauty of a house, and that do so in a plain, understated way. You start with the surface, including turf, groundcover and decorative hardscape (stone, gravel or bark). Then you add in the shade trees, one or two for an average front yard, and you choose types whose mature sizes will be in keeping with the space you have available for them. That's where your expert resources can help with the details.

My choices of best large shade trees for North Texas would include live oak, Shumard red oak, chinquapin oak, bur oak, cedar elm, pecan, Chinese pistachio and Southern magnolias. The best tall screening plant is our native eastern red cedar juniper. The best small trees are Little Gem and Teddy Bear Southern magnolias, redbud, golden raintree, Lacey oak, and, for shade, Japanese maples. For yet smaller trees, tree-form crape myrtles, yaupon hollies and vitex are outstanding choices.

Your shrubs should go into defined beds, and those beds ought to be 6 to 12 feet wide (or wider), rather than straight little ribbons of earth. Larger shrubs go to the outsides, and smaller ones are toward the midpoint. That brings viewers' eyes toward the focal point of your plantings: the entryway. That's how you develop a landscape that frames the house like a piece of fine art.

What works

I have done the majority of my own home landscape with hollies. We live on a rural property with more space than urban lots usually have. I have 25 or more types of hollies, ranging in mature size from 2 feet (dwarf yaupons, Carissa and others) to 15 or 20 feet (Nellie R. Stevens, tree-form yaupons, Mary Nell, Oakland and others).

I have several big plantings of compact and standard nandinas, and I always recommend junipers, abelias, elaeagnus, forsythia and bridal wreath for sun, and oakleaf hydrangeas, mahonias and aucubas for shade. Those are all very dependable plants for our area.

A big factor in keeping a landscape modest is in not using too many kinds of plants. The average front yard ought to have only five or six types of shrubs. You want some degree of continuity, yet you don't want to plant in monotonous rows. It's best to plant in clusters of five to seven plants of one specific type, and to repeat that plant type on the opposite side of the yard. Not as a mirror image -- just to have it show up again in your design. That plant becomes the refrain, the landscape's unifying thread.

This is a good time to start the wheels turning. Begin your drawings. Seek information, and talk with your nurseryman. Ask for help in fine-tuning your creation, and do so now, before the spring inventory rush. And, as you get these first steps accomplished, you'll gain confidence in adding embellishments like color and garden art.

Approach vegetable and fruit gardening in the same way. Start small and easy, and each time that you win, try one more new plant the next time around.

You can do it, and it's not as difficult as you might imagine.

Neil Sperry publishes "Gardens" magazine and hosts "Texas Gardening" from 8 to 11 a.m. Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.

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