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Neil Sperry: Seven things all gardeners should do

01/10/2014 12:00 AM

01/10/2014 4:02 PM

If anyone saw me trying to repair my truck’s engine, they’d probably say, “Poor fellow — how much work he’s making for himself.” And they’d be absolutely correct.

Along a similar random and ill-marked path, I frequently see gardeners doing things that don’t seem logical and I want to say something, but it never feels right, so I usually stay quiet and move on. But I can still wish for them to find an easier way.

If I could wave a magic wand to help gardeners enjoy the world’s greatest hobby to the fullest, there are several things I would recommend.

Find plants for your home, not homes for your plants. That’s an old design axiom I picked up somewhere in childhood (I started early), and it still rings very true. Rather than buying plants that catch your eye and then trying to fit them into your landscape, have a good idea of the voids you need to fill, then find the best plants to fill them.

To think in terms of interior decorating, if you need a chair for the living room, you don’t necessarily buy the flashiest one in the store (brightly striped vinyl beanbag). You buy one that fits in with the rest of your decor. Beyond that, furniture stays the same size year after year, but your new plants will grow, so you also must know what their mature sizes will be. That way you’ll never have to ask the question of “how far back” you can trim any plant.

Buy plants that are adapted to your soils and your climate. That’s where the help of a Texas Master Certified Nursery Professional can guide you to the best choices. It doesn’t matter so much whether a plant is native to Texas or not. I want a plant that’s adapted to my landscape. My heart breaks when I see people buying plants that I know just aren’t going to make it in their North Texas gardens.

Prune with a purpose. This is another axiom I learned early in my career. Many plants really don’t need to be pruned in the first place. Avoid formal pruning whenever possible. Plants don’t have to be square. Or round. Or pom-pom-shaped. If you’ve made a good choice at the outset (in terms of mature plant sizes), all you would normally need would be a little shaping to maintain the plant’s normal forms.

Topping crape myrtles and shade trees is never justifiable. There is no good reason. If the plant is growing too tall or wide for its location, move it during the winter transplanting season and choose something smaller. Topping slows the blooming of crape myrtles, and it leaves ugly and permanent scars in their branching.

Don’t be afraid to “remodel” your gardens. You change things inside your house when they wear out or become stale. You can do the same thing outdoors. In fact, some of our greatest landscaping achievements come when we muster the courage to take out misshapen or overgrown plants and replace them with something fresh and exciting. Take the opportunity to create a new planting plan. Get a new and exciting look for your landscape. You’ll be glad you did.

Use common sense when watering. Texas is always in some stage of water curtailment. Our population has grown at the same time that rainfall has been down for many recent years. That means we must all use water-efficient plants and practices, but it does not mean that we have to give up on our lawns, landscapes and gardens. We just need to scale things back to logical levels.

Know the facts of soil science when you’re out buying fertilizers. Plants don’t differentiate as to whether nutrients came from animal waste or fertilizer when it comes to nutrients entering plants’ roots in water solution. It’s all the same to the plants, so follow your heart, whether your choice be organic or inorganic. But know the facts first.

Read product labels carefully when you’re buying pest-control supplies. Be sure that the label that’s affixed to your product gives all the legal information about amounts to use; timing and rates of application; precautions to protect people, plants and pets; and remedies for misuse. We have a lot of products sold in the Texas gardening market that won’t have that essential information readily at hand. It may be printed on a loose sheet of paper that’s displayed alongside the product, but don’t confuse that with a legal label. The state requires that the label it certifies be affixed to the bag or bottle. You’re looking for authenticity — for proof of claims made for the products. Without it, you may be about to waste a lot of money.

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