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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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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Holiday Lights: Unique Outdoor Decorating Ideas

While it’s easy to buy a few boxes of lights and frame your porch or drape them over your shrubs, why not -- ahem -- branch out and try these clever decorating ideas with exterior lights? We rounded up our favorite outdoor home décor ideas for the holidays.

Look Up

Get creative with where you hang your holiday lights. Have a garden trellis? Let the bare stems of your climbing plants take center stage for another season by weaving strings of outdoor LEDs through the branches and trellis. Also consider welcoming carolers with a festive garden arch decorated with strings of snowflakes or stars.
Best lights:
Traditional cone-shaped or round C7 or C9 holiday lights rated for outdoor use.

Take New Forms
Usually, once fall comes, sculptures and tuteurs (those teepee-style climbing plant supports) are packed away. Keep them out through the holidays and wrap them in lighted poinsettias or snowflakes. Your garden or pathway will bloom again!
Best lights:
Mini holiday lights rated for outdoor use.


Photo: Pottery Barn

Create a Canopy

This idea is perfect for warmer climates because you can host a holiday party outdoors under the twinkling strings. If you have an arbor, wrap the beams in star lights. Hang a few larger stars too. No arbor? Get the same effect by attaching lights under your home’s soffit, then run the strands to a tree or a support made from fencing or lattice. Anchor the support to a sturdy base or sink them in planter boxes filled with sand or gravel.
Best lights:
Traditional cone-shaped or round C7 or C9 holiday lights rated for outdoor use.

Bring the Vignettes Outside
Let your imagination soar: Hang a lighted Santa and his eight tiny reindeer on your clothesline or string a toy train light set from bare branches. Anything that’s flat is perfect because the straight lines give the illusion of movement through the sky.
Best lights:
Lightweight novelty characters or sculpted lights designed for outdoors.


Photo: Plow and Hearth

Decorate the Pool

If you’re going to entertain outdoors, the pool is the perfect place for floating solar lights. You can even put some around the deck. Even if it’s too cold to entertain outside, if you can see the bobbing lights from indoors it will tie the two spaces together.
Best lights:
Solar waterproof lights designed for pools.

Perfect Your Pathways

Don’t want to electrify? Go natural with votive luminaria to line your driveway and path to the front door. Fill paper bags -- either brown sandwich bags or decorative bags with cutouts -- a quarter full with sandbox sand or kitty litter. Place a votive in and light it. If you prefer no mess, use battery-operated candles that can be recharged during the day.
Best lights:
Either candles or rechargeable versions.


Photo: Pottery Barn

Remember to Stay Safe

No matter what you do with your outdoor home décor for the holidays, always use waterproof or water-resistant lights with an underwriters lab (UL) tag. Always use lights and extension cords rated for outdoor use.

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Main Photo: Corbis Images

Great Fall Gardens: How to Get the Look

Autumn brings spectacular colors to your landscape, whether it’s from the trees turning color, plants blooming in familiar fall colors of yellow and red, ornamental grasses that finish out the season with their feathery tassel-like blooms, or containers planted with frost-tolerant blooms that last well into the end of the year. You can make the most of your fall outdoor home décor with these inspirational ideas and tips.

FIELD OF DREAMS

Nothing sets the tone for fall color quite like drifts of native goldenrod (Solidago). Pair it with natural-looking bristle brush ornamental grasses punctuated with a blue-green-hued cedar tree. Plan ahead to achieve this look by planting a large area with perennial goldenrod (Solidago sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’, a shorter, fuller version of the wild variety) surrounding a cedar tree -- or, similarly, a blue spruce tree planted in the spring. Edge the area with a large swath of ornamental grasses.

·         Get the Look

Prepare a sunny site by amending the soil with a rich layer of compost, tilling it in to the existing topsoil to a depth of about 8 to 12 inches. Plant the tree first, then give it a skirt of the goldenrod. Plant an area of at least 10 to 20 feet around the tree with plants closely spaced to about a foot apart for a lush, full look. Plant a large area with the Pennisetum sataceum “Rubrum” grasses nearby, perhaps in groups on either side or behind the goldenrod.

Water well during dry weather and stand back. By early fall, the goldenrod will start sprouting yellow buds, then burst forth with a wash of blooms as the grasses send up their bristle blooms. Leave the plants in place and they’ll reward you year after year with their spectacular display.















Credit: Peter Walsh

MIXED MESSAGES

Create a mixed border of small trees such as crab apples, Japanese maples or dogwoods, shrubs such as Berberis and boxwoods, plus perennials such as hardy yuccas, catmint and Heuchera. All of these will lend their colorful fall leaves and textures to the autumn display. Fall-blooming Japanese anemones (Anemone x hybrida) sends up its tall stalks topped with creamy white blooms punctuated with bright yellow centers. If conditions are right, the cool fall air will encourage many perennials to send out a second wave of bloom that lasts well into the fall.

·         Get the Look

Select a sunny location in your yard, perhaps backed by a wooded area, a stand of taller evergreens or a fence. In the spring, till in lots of rich compost to the area to a depth of about 12 inches. Plant the trees first, giving them plenty of space to grow. Next, plant the shrubs in groups of three or five (odd numbers of plants will give the area a more natural look). Finally, fill in the spaces with odd numbers of perennials in groups, repeating as you go along the length of the border.

Be sure to include plants that drape, stand upright or can be trimmed into globe shapes for architectural interest. Give the plants plenty of water the first year or two until they are established. As the weather cools, the plants will delight with their changing hues.















Credit: Peter Walsh

INSTANT GRATIFICATION

Colorful pots in autumnal hues filled with frost-tolerant plants will add pops of color to your deck or patio. Scour garden centers in the fall for blooming plants such as asters, Montauk daisies, ornamental kale and chrysanthemums that you can plant now for instant blasts of color. Or pull out annuals that have finished blooming at the end of summer and replace them with plants that can take the cooler weather and still provide colorful interest. Create vignettes using pumpkins and squashes readily available at farm stands and garden centers. Group several pots together, then place the fall bounty nearby for a seasonal display.

·         Get the Look

For this seasonal look, hollow out a large pumpkin that can hold a six- or eight-inch plastic pot. Punch some half-inch wide holes in the bottom of the pumpkin to provide drainage for the plant. Fill the plastic pot with potting soil and plant with frost-tolerant Cool Wave White pansies (wave-rave.com).

Water well and let it drain, then place the pot inside the pumpkin with the top of the pot meeting the top of the pumpkin. You might need to place a brick or some rocks in the bottom of the pumpkin to raise up the pot. Place in a sunny location and keep the pot watered but not wet. Plant yellow pansies in a planter nearby. In the spring, plant the pansies near the edge of your garden beds.















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