When I was a young horticulturist, I said to a nurseryman friend, “I’ll bet you love it when a late freeze means people have to come back and buy more transplants from you.” He bristled as he put his old arm around me. “Neil, I want my customers to succeed. I want them to love gardening and to have the best results they can possibly have. That’s what will bring them back to my nursery. And they’ll come in the door smiling.”
I never forgot that lesson. It was one of many I learned watching him work. From those, and from the list I’ve accumulated through my own experiences, here are my suggestions on ways you can get the most happiness for the time, money and effort you put into gardening this year.
• Choose only the best plants — trees, shrubs, turfgrass, flowers, fruit trees and vegetables. Buy the healthiest specimens of the most-recommended types. Do your homework ahead of time.
• If you’re concentrating on native plants, be sure it’s native to your locale. Just because it grows natively somewhere in Texas doesn’t give it blessed status in an entirely different set of circumstances (colder, wetter, drier, more alkaline soils, etc.).
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• Buy where you can get accurate nursery advice. Texas certified (and master certified…) nursery professionals have taken coursework and tests to prove they know what they’re talking about. You can trust their advice. They are most likely found at local independent garden centers and nurseries.
• Have a plan for your plantings. Know each plant’s mature size (height and width). Crowding kills. This is a good time to work with a landscape architect (college-degreed and licensed) or landscape designer (professional with experience in planning urban landscapes). Ask friends whose gardens are appealing whom they have used. Ask your nursery owner for referrals.
• Don’t scrimp on bed preparation. The smaller the plant type (annual and perennial flowers, vegetables, groundcovers and small shrubs), the more heroic the soil preparation should be. With larger plants, choose only types that are adapted to your soils. You won’t be able to amend soils sufficiently to meet the needs of their much larger root systems.
• Plant at the proper time. Most annual flowers and vegetables have a two- to four-week window of prime planting time. Know it, and be sure you’re within it. If you’re too early, cold weather will catch your plantings. If you’re too late, the crops will run into the heat. Warm-season lawns are planted April through early September. Trees and shrubs can be planted anytime.
• Stake and guy new trees to keep them vertical (plumb). Wrap trunks of new oaks and Chinese pistachios to protect them from sunscald and borer invasion. This is non-negotiable for Shumard red oaks and the pistachios, and it’s a good idea for any new tree. Surprisingly, many nurseries don’t do this as a part of their “plant-and-guarantee” package. Ask for it.
• Water carefully. New trees and shrubs should be watered by hand every two or three days for their first year or two. Sprinkler irrigation alone will not be adequate until their roots grow out into adjacent soils. Those watering bags up around the trunks are, forgive a personal opinion, highly overrated. Buy a water breaker, or better yet, a water bubbler for the end of your hose, and commit to doing the job right.
• Avoid quack products. They come in all forms. Soil amendments that make big claims with no university tests to back them up. Miracle grasses that are purported to grow in shade where even St. Augustine has failed. Fast-growing shade trees that are claimed to be the very answers to all of your prayers. (You may want to rethink those prayers.)
• Don’t follow the herd. Just because others around you do silly things with their plants, that doesn’t mean that you have to, too. Be the courageous one who does not top the crape myrtles. Be the one who does not plant in long, boring rows and then trim all the shrubs square. Set a new pace at your place.
• Learn to recognize early symptoms of problems. Mothers look at their children. “I just don’t think her eyes look right,” Mom may say. Along a similar line, learn to see signs of drought or early insect or disease issues and step to your plants’ rescue quickly, while the solutions are easy.
• Know that landscapes are always works in progress. They’re never finished. Just as you periodically remodel the inside of your house and redecorate its interior, so you will want to do with the landscape. Plants wear out their usefulness and need to be changed. Sometimes it’s a hard thing to do, but once you commit to the major remodel, you will wonder why you didn’t do it years earlier. Maybe this is your year.