It's Not Easy Being Green 

A busy woman's guide to fall planting

A busy woman's guide to fall planting

Let’s call a spade a spade—I don’t have time to landscape. Being a friend, daughter, server, writer, volunteer, sister, party girl, semi-responsible American citizen, homeowner, and all-around nutball leaves little to no time for digging in the dirt. Sure, when I bought my house a little over a year ago, I had grand plans for renovation: a tall wooden privacy fence, six-person hot tub, and extensive landscaping. But the demands of work, living, and lack of cash prevented most of my designs from becoming reality. Still, the fact is that sometimes you just need a good kick in the ass. That came recently, when I had a friend in from out of town who had never seen my house. After surveying the salad of wild vegetation that is my front yard, he said, “Not many people can grow weeds like that.” I figured it was time to do something.

I should admit one thing: My lack of landscaping isn’t due solely to the fact that I don’t have the time. The truth is that I don’t know anything about it. Martha Stewart makes it look all easy breezy in her khaki pants and chambray shirt, but I don’t even know the basics: What to plant? When to plant it? Where to buy plants? How to get them in the ground and then keep them alive?

“Having a garden is a lot like having a house,” says local landscape designer Steve Sirls. “You have to keep it clean.” I can see the logic in that, but I also know my bathroom needed scrubbing three months ago. I need low-maintenance plants that can accommodate my high-maintenance lifestyle. So if you’re brave enough to admit that you don’t know what you’re doing in your yard, then this is the guide for you.

Let’s start at the beginning—in the dirt.

According to Sirls—who was generous enough to guide hapless me through this process—soil preparation is one of the most important things about planting, because “it develops a spot for a plant in an environment where the roots can get happy.” Once you’ve chosen where exactly you’re going to plant your plants and you’ve dug your plant bed, the next step is to treat it with soil conditioner. Basically recycled pine bark, and high in acidic value, soil conditioner enriches the soil. It comes in 2-cubic-liter bags, so it’s easy to carry. Spread it all over the top of your plant bed and work it into the soil with a shovel, hoe, or trowel. How much you need depends on the size of your plant bed. Who knew? Everyone except me.

Another method of soil preparation is to use compost. Compost is organic material comprised of decomposing shrubbery, yard waste, and vegetable waste (i.e. eggshells, orange peels, coffee grounds). Keep in mind that compost is nothing that’s ever walked or swam, and for those of you on-the-go types interested in starting your own compost pile, trust me: It’s way too labor intensive, and since it does not include Chinese to-go boxes, chopsticks, or Taco Bell mild sauce packets, it isn’t worth investigating. Luckily, you can purchase variations of compost at your local nursery. Spread the compost all over your bed before planting and work it into the soil. Who said this was difficult? Trust me, this is the easy part.

Peat moss is a top-of-ground cover. It provides acidic quality to a plant bed, as well as moisture retention. After you have conditioned your soil and planted your plants, spread the peat moss on top of the entire bed. Mulch, our fourth component for soil conditioning, is a combination of hard wood, soil conditioner, pine straw, and cypress. Much like peat moss—but with a different consistency—mulch helps to prevent weeds and also retains moisture. Many people use it because it’s attractive and dresses up the flower or plant beds. Me, I do what I’m told by Sirls.

So now it’s time to plant. You’ve got your plant beds conditioned and a date at 7:30, so what do you put in them? Well, it’s fall, of course, and the key word for fall planting is “perennial.” A perennial, explains Sirls, is “a plant that regenerates consistently in the spring every year. In most cases they get larger and are used to promote color.” Some examples are perennial hibiscus, geranium, salvia, peonies, poppies, and bearded irises. And I’ll tell you—a great place to learn as much as you can about what to buy is on the Internet. I went to http://www.whiteflowerfarm.com, and not only do they have information and inventory, they have corresponding pictures to give you a better visual to match what you want. Not that I’m getting into this.

When it came time to stock my garden, I went to Bates Nursery on Whites Creek Pike. Not only is David Bates a third-generation nursery owner possessed of remarkable knowledge, a wide and healthy selection of plants, and a friendly demeanor—he’s also one hell of an expert packer. With four boxwoods, two Holly Berry Magic trees (small side note: Holly Berry Magics have their own built-in pollinator, which means you don’t have to concern yourself with the cross-pollinating sex lives of plants), four Garden mums (two purple, two scarlet), two Husker Red Penstemons, four pots of Blue Switch Grass, and too many bags of peat moss and soil conditioner to mention, I was on my way in my two-door hatchback, ready to make the front yard beautiful. It’s a good thing.

Sirls met me at my house to assist as a designer. The way he puts it, “a designer really just helps you and your landscaping move in the right direction and guides you away from mistakes you’ve already made.” Right away, he pulled out this neato rolling spray paint can and cordoned off beds I should dig out. (Again, for all you on-the-go types, the way to save time before you start digging is to map out your plant bed beforehand.) Then he pointed out where everything should go, surveyed the enormous weeds growing over everything, asked who was going to help me with the hard labor of this project, chuckled when I said “I’m going to do it alone,” suggested renting a tiller, and left.

Which brings me to the next step for the new landscaper. When it comes to gardening tools, don’t skimp. You need a wheelbarrow for the unused dirt, gloves that come at least halfway up your arm so the dirt doesn’t get in them, a watering bucket so you can water the plant’s roots directly, a shovel that doesn’t hurt your back, and, if you’re lucky enough to have one, a hardworking Dad—who I called in tears after an hour.

So you’ve dug, shoveled, busted up clumps of dirt, raked, pulled weeds, fertilized, heaved, hoed, planted, watered, almost killed your father from overexertion, watered again, got in screaming fights with your overworked Dad, hissed into the receiver when friends called, then gone back outside and dug some more, realizing, in retrospect, that Sirls was right—the tiller would have come in handy. (Of course he was right.)

The easiest part was the actual planting, and you’ll need to know how, so here’s the basics: Dig a hole so that, when you put the plant in it, the top of the root bowl is even with the surface of the bed. Otherwise, the roots will suffocate. Take the shrub or plant out of the container and put it in the hole, fill the hole back up with soil and tamp it down firmly, then build a small basin around the plant so that when you water the plant, the water goes directly to the roots.

Honestly, the end result is a beautiful thing. I’m excited every day to walk up the front sidewalk and see the fruits of my labors—or plants of my pains. I will not let my garden get overrun with weeds because I’m too busy with the other aspects of my life. Anyone, no matter how busy, can at least do what I’ve done. Last week I had zero knowledge and a weed garden; this week I know enough to get by and have a front yard to be proud of. My thumb is black and blue, red and blistered. Not green yet, but closer than it was before.

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