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Strategies for coaching a championship landscape

We're hearing the number "45" around town a lot these past several weeks, and there are those among us who remember that very first Super Bowl. It wasn't much of an event that initial year, but, oh my, look what it has become. It has developed real staying power, each year outdoing the previous one.

Shade trees work about the same way. They start out as saplings, and if they're tended and nurtured, they grow into fine long-term assets.

To help with your game odds, let's go back to the beginning. You're in the landscaping lottery. You're standing in the nursery, about to draft your very first player. You say to yourself, "I'm new to this game. Do I want a speed burner that's likely to give me six or eight really good years, or do I want to choose for longevity for a stalwart performer that can be the rock of my team?" And so you choose the Bob Lilly or Roger Staubach of shade trees. Perhaps it's an oak (live oak, Shumard red oak, chinquapin oak or bur oak), or it might be a pecan, cedar elm or Chinese pistachio. Whichever you choose, you know it's going to be a long-term performer at a high level of quality.

You work your way through the rest of your team: the second and third shade trees, your large accenting shrubs, the smaller shrubs and screens, vines and groundcovers, and finally, annuals and perennials. Every time you're called on to make a choice, you ask the nurseryman, "Is this going to be my very best plant for the place that I'm planting it?" Those nurserymen, hopefully Texas certified nursery professionals, are your "scouts." They've seen all the players, and they know all their strengths and weaknesses. You follow their guidance. You let them "own" a part of your decision, and that further improves your odds of landscaping success.

You're the "trainer" of your team. You have to know enough physiology and biology to keep things going and growing. After all, if you want maximum performance out of your landscaping team, you'll need to know how it operates. Feed it at the appropriate times, and make sure it is always adequately hydrated. If an illness moves in, step in quickly to solve it. You need to learn what your plant-players look like when they're healthy, and you need to watch closely for slight variances. Changes can be subtle, but they can indicate problems to follow.

Great landscapes, like winning football teams, are works in progress. They're never finished. There's always a star that's about to retire (in gardening, we compost our fallen stars) and there's always a new award-winner awaiting its chance to perform.

Since you're also the owner, general manager and head coach of your team, you pay attention to all types of details. When something works well, you figure out ways to use it more often, and when something falls flat, you move on to a new game plan. And, every once in a while, you decide to make wholesale substitutions. In football, it's called "rebuilding the team." In gardening, it's called "remodeling the landscape." In both, it's a tough decision that occasionally has to be made, but you usually feel better for having made it.

Great landscapes don't develop overnight. They begin with a plan, and they're implemented with a dedication to quality and performance. Along the way, you make changes, always with an eye on fulfilling that original plan. It works well for football, and it can work well for your gardens.

Happy Super Bowl weekend, North Texas. Be kind to our guests!

Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts Texas Gardening on WBAP AM/FM noon-1 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m.-noon Sundays. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.

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