How to Grow a Designer Garden for Less

If you admire beautifully designed gardens but don’t have the budget to hire an expert, there are plenty of ways to get a professional-looking garden on your own. Just follow these simple gardening tips.

“The key to a beautiful garden is to choose two or three [easy-to-care-for] plants like ferns or grasses and repeat them throughout your garden,” says Vickie Cardaro, principal of Buttercup Design Group, a landscape design firm that creates gardens on the east end of New York’s Long Island, New York City and Connecticut. “Create drifts of three or four plants, each of the same kind, anchored by a shrub such as boxwood.”

Aesthetics aside, how can you get the designer look for less? Consider these easy garden décor and maintenance tips for creating an outdoor space that will be the envy of the neighborhood -- without emptying your wallet.

Start Plants From Seed
Packets of seed from your local garden store cost just a few dollars. Choose easy-to-grow annuals such as zinnias, cosmos, marigolds, morning glories, nasturtiums and sunflowers. Opt for these tried-and-true annuals first, especially if you are a newbie gardener. On the back of the seed packets, you’ll find easy-to-follow directions for how to plant and care for your new seeds.

Exchange Garden Plants
Join a garden club, volunteer at a local community garden, or ask your neighbors and friends to share any extra plants they may have. Perennials -- such as daylilies, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, phlox and hostas -- grow better and produce more blooms if they are divided every three or so years. Dividing is a simple process: Just dig up the plant, exposing the root, and gently pull apart individual plants with your hands, keeping their attached roots in place.

Water Your Plants on the Cheap
To create a beautiful garden, you’ll need lots of water. But instead of running your hose and raising your water bill, consider installing a rain barrel at the end of your gutters. Kits from Fiskars, for example, allow you to easily erect a barrel that will collect rainwater that would normally run off and be wasted. A spout on the bottom of the barrel hooks up to your garden hose, and gravity helps the water flow out and water your plants, courtesy of Mother Nature.

Remember: Compost is King
The best way to feed your plants is to pamper them with rich compost you make yourself. Simply select a spot in your yard (preferably a sunny corner, but a shady spot works as well), pile up your garden and compostable kitchen refuse, and let nature take its course.

To keep things tidy, contain your compost in a circle of wire fencing, a box made of cinder blocks, or a plastic compost bin with a cover. Fill it with grass clippings, fallen leaves and organic kitchen scraps such as peelings, coffee grounds and eggshells. Do not put meat products or bones in your compost, as these might attract animals looking for a meal.

Keep adding to your pile, hose it down when it’s dry and turn it over with a shovel or pitchfork from time to time to help speed up the decaying process. In as little as three months, you’ll be able to dig underneath the compost pile and extract nutrient-rich “black gold” (as gardeners like to call it). This is perfect to till into the soil around your plants. You’ll know it’s ready when it resembles dark chocolate cake. This soil not only feeds your plants, but also keep weeds at bay and helps the soil retain moisture so you don’t have to water your garden as often.

Harvest Seeds
In the fall, when your annuals and perennials turn brown for the winter, collect the seeds from spent flower heads. Put the seeds in envelopes that are clearly marked with the plant name, then store the envelopes in a cool, dry place.

The following year -- about six weeks before your last estimated frost date -- plant the seeds in soil blocks you buy from a garden center (or make DIY blocks from cleaned-out yogurt containers). Water them lightly but keep the soil moist, not wet. Cover them with a plastic bag to create a greenhouse effect, still letting air in through the sides. Lastly, give them plenty of light -- at least 14 hours a day. When your plants get a second set of leaves or are about two inches in height, plant them in your garden when all danger of frost is past.

Pay Attention to the Edging and Paths
Good garden design is defined not only by trees, shrubs and flowers but also by the “bones” of the garden -- such as edging and pathways. Harvest fieldstone from your yard for edging, or contact a tree trimming company and ask them for birch, cedar or oak logs with the bark still intact to use for a natural edging, Cardaro suggests. To fill in pathways on the cheap, ask the tree trimmer for some chipped mulch and lay that in the path, or buy inexpensive bagged pine nuggets.

“Put down layers of newspapers [in the path] first and lay the mulch on top of that,” Cardaro says. The newspaper will decay over time but it will help stop weeds from popping up in your pathways.

Shop Wisely
End-of-summer clearance sales are a great place to find discounted trees, shrubs and perennials for your designer-inspired garden décor. Most nurseries and garden centers slash prices on plants and garden accessories, such as containers and statuary. And fall is the perfect time to plant: The soil is still warm while the air is cooling down, which plants love. Just select healthy plants, get them in the ground quickly and water well through the fall to help promote root growth before winter sets in.

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How to Paint Outdoor Pots

Potted flowers add interest and life both indoors and out, but you make them pop even more with this easy DIY paint idea. Here’s how to paint outdoor pots and add some extra charm to your flower displays.

Skill Level: Novice

Time: 24-48 hours (including primer, paint and polyurethane drying times)

Cost: Less than $50

TOOLS AND MATERIALS

  • Norcal 10-inch terracotta flower pot
  • Primer made for terracotta (or another appropriate primer, depending on the material of your pot)
  • Measuring tape
  • Pencil
  • 1-inch painter’s tape
  • Hobby knife
  • Paint brush
  • Artist’s brush
  • Exterior paint or project paint
  • Exterior water-based polyurethane (if using your pot outside)

Step No. 1
Prime the pot with a primer that is appropriate for the material of your pot. Follow the instructions on the primer container. Once the primer has dried, create a harlequin pattern on your pot. Draw the pattern in pencil using measuring tape, or you can purchase ready-made stencils in the paint department of your local home improvement or paint store.

Step No. 2
Tape off the lines with painter’s tape. Trim off the excess tape with a hobby knife.

Step No. 3
With a paintbrush, paint over the tape to create your diamond pattern. Don’t use too much paint, though, or it will bleed through the tape.

Step No. 4
Once the paint is dry, switch the tape to the outside of the pattern, and then fill it in with an artist’s brush.

Step No. 5
Simply remove the tape, touch up any imperfections and enjoy! If you plan to set the pot outside, seal it with water-based, exterior-grade polyurethane. Use two or three coats for extra protection.

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5 Great Ways to Kill Your Houseplants

Poor, innocent houseplants. African violets brighten our tabletops, English ivies freshen the air in our living rooms. And Peace lilies (Spathiphyllums) decorate dark corners.

What do we do in return for the beauty and pleasure they give us? We kill them.

Not intentionally, of course. Sometimes we neglect them. Other times we’re guilty of loving them to death, giving them more attention (usually water) than they require. Still others starve to death from lack of fertilizer, or slowly strangle in outgrown pots.

Death by brown thumb is never a pretty sight. Here are the top five most common way to commit planticide -- and how to avoid it in the future.

Step 1: Overwater.
We mean well when we water that new cactus every single day and twice on Saturdays. Overwatering is an easy trap to fall into, and it’s probably the No. 1 cause of houseplant murder. Few plants can survive constantly soggy roots, so wait until the soil in the pot feels slightly dry before you give your plant a refreshing drink. After the water drains through the pot, dump any excess from the plant’s saucer. If you can’t get the hang of how often you should water, it’s worth investing in an automatic indoor watering system. Bonus: The system will pinch-hit for you while you’re on vacation, so you won’t come home to find a desert landscape on your windowsill. Tumbleweeds aren’t a good look for anyone.

Step 2: Keep Your Plants In Their Original Pots. Forever.
Remember how you kept outgrowing your shoes when you were young? You’re not wearing the same tennis shoes you had in high school, so remember that plants are also living, growing things. After a while, they’ll outgrow the pots they came in. Don’t let them become root bound. Once a year, lift your plants out of their pots and check their roots. Have the roots grown into a tightly wound ball? If so, gently knock off the soil and unwind them. Then replant, using a slightly larger pot and fresh soil. 

Step 3: Give Your Plants Direct Sun.
Plants need light to grow, so the more the better, right? Not quite. It’s not healthy for people to be exposed to direct sunlight all day every day, and it’s not good for most houseplants either. Read the tags that come with your plants. If they need a southern exposure, give them a sunny window, but don’t place them close to the glass, where soaring temperatures can burn them. If your plant likes low light, try a north-facing window. Many other houseplants will enjoy an eastern exposure, where the light is typically bright but cool.

Step 4: Put Up With a Few Pests.
You might have to put up with a pest in the office cubicle next to you, but don’t let things get out of hand at home. A few bugs can multiply quickly and spread to the rest of your indoor plant collection, so go ahead and treat a problem when you spot it. Try knocking the pests off with a gentle spray of water from the kitchen faucet, or check with your local nursery for the right plant spray for your problem.

Step 5: Never Fertilize.
While it’s true that houseplants grow more slowly than most outdoor plants, watering will eventually cause the nutrients to leech out of the soil. Replace them with a houseplant fertilizer made especially for indoor growing conditions. You can use a diluted, water-soluble fertilizer, applied each time you water, or convenient fertilizer stakes that you insert into the soil (check your local plant store).

Spring Garden Preparation 101

As spring approaches, avid gardeners begin to get that familiar urge to get their green thumbs outside and into the dirt. But if this spring will be your first foray into the world of perennials and pruning, the many garden tasks at hand can feel daunting. Ease into it by following these simple spring garden preparation tips.

1. Stock the Tool Shed
Every gardener needs the right tools to get the job done. Here’s your basic spring garden list (which will of course depend on the type of gardening you plan to tackle):

  • Standard shovel and spade
  • Metal rake
  • Hoe
  • Trowel (a mini-spade)
  • Spading fork
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Watering can or garden hose with adjustable nozzles
  • Tool caddy 

2. Prepare
If you’ve inherited a yard, you’ll want to ensure it’s ready for planting. First, remove any of last year’s perennial plantings. Then rake plant beds, taking care to see if any contain bulbs hidden beneath the surface. Refresh the mulch in your planting areas to ensure a nice, warm planting zone. 

3. Prune
Dead and damaged branches need be removed in order to promote new growth. Also be on the lookout for plants that may be diseased, and prune those areas too.

4. Make Your Beds
As soon as your soil is soft enough to work with (frozen ground is no one’s friend!), remove weeds and other debris. If you don’t yet have a compost bin, spring is a great time to start one. Spread a thick layer of compost on your plant beds and work it about a foot into the soil with your spading fork -- the compost will help enrich the soil to promote healthy plants.

5. Shop and Plant
Visit your local garden center to find seasonal plants that catch your eye. Ask an on-hand expert to help guide you with the perfect plantings for your yard, taking into consideration the amount of sunlight each plant bed receives. Once you have your plants in tow, choose a cool, cloudy day to begin planting -- or aim for early in the morning before the sun is too warm. Before planting, though, be sure that all threat of frost is gone. You may need to wait a few weeks.

6. Feed Your New Friends
When new growth appears, fertilize all plant beds with a quality balanced fertilizer. If you have fruit trees, now is a good time to fertilize them as well. Acid-loving shrubs, such as azaleas and camellias, should get a dose of high-acid fertilizer and pine-needle mulch. 

7. Begin to Sow
If you have an interest in growing a garden from those adorable little seed packets at your local garden center, now is when you should begin sowing cool-season veggies such as lettuce, spinach and parsley, as well as flowers such as sweet peas, calendula and poppies.

8. Take the Lay of the Lawn
If you don’t have one already, now is the best time to start a new lawn from seeds. Check with your local garden center on the best grass for your area. If you already have a lawn, you’ll want to start mowing in early spring to encourage growth -- but don’t cut the grass too short at first. Make sure it’s growing in a healthy way before mowing at your preferred height.

9. Remember the Birds
Consider adding a little something extra to your yard for your feathered friends, who begin to make an appearance around this time of year. Check your local garden center for pretty bird baths and feeders to attract birds that are native to your area.

 

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Window Weather Proofing

Windows contribute enormously to the beauty and personality of our homes. Yet they can also be the single largest source of energy loss. 

Today’s modern windows are extremely efficient when compared to those installed in homes just a decade or two ago, but even if you can’t afford to replace old windows, there are things you can do to help save money on your heating and cooling bill. Follow the steps below to eliminate drafts from the most common areas of a typical single- or double-hung window.

Skill Level: Medium

Time Required: Variable

Tools:

Tack hammer

Caulk gun

Stapler

Materials:

Adhesive-backed V-Channel

High-quality neoprene strips

Metal tension strips

Reinforced felt

Tubular gasket

Clear silicone caulk

Shrink-wrap product

Step One:

Cut metal or vinyl v-strips to fit in the sash channels. Cut them long enough to extend at least one inch beyond the sash ends when the window is closed. Cut vinyl with scissors; cut metal with tin snips.

Step Two:

Remove the adhesive backing and stick the vinyl in place. Tack metal strips in place, driving the tacks flush so that the window sash will not snag on them. Flare out the open ends of the metal V-channels with a putty knife to create a tight seal with the sash.

Step Three:

Wipe down the underside of the bottom sash with a damp rag and wait for it to dry; then attach self-adhesive closed-cell vinyl foam to the edges of the underside. The surface must be at least 50 degrees for self-adhesive strips to stick.

Step Four:

Seal the gap where the top sash meets the bottom sash. For double-hung windows, raise the bottom sash completely to the top, and then lower the upper sash a couple of inches. This reveals the lower rail, which is normally hidden. Seal with V-channel weather stripping. If the top sash is stationary, tack tubular gasket to the outside of the lower sash so that it compresses slightly against the top sash when the window is locked shut.

 

Step Five:

Apply paintable caulk around both the interior and exterior window trim. Smooth the caulk -- a craft stick or even a spoon will get the job done! Once the caulk has dried, paint over it to hide your job well done.