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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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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Lighten Up: 11 Expert Landscape Lighting Tips

We spend so much time and energy on our gardens to create a beautiful, picturesque setting. But once the sun goes down, all that hard work is hidden from view. 

To get more out of your outdoor décor, consider bringing landscape lighting into the equation. Here, landscaping expert Gary Antosh, from and , shares his must-know landscape lighting tips for planning your illuminated spaces.

1. Don’t Be Blinding

Landscape lighting is intended to help you and your family enjoy the beauty of your outdoor décor at night -- so don’t turn it into a daytime view by placing floodlights and spotlights everywhere. That will create a flat, washed-out look. Instead, use a number of smaller fixtures, strategically located to illuminate only the most attractive features. Also adjust fixtures so the bulbs are not in direct view, causing the light to be blinding and distract from the object being illuminated.

2. Create Balance

Position your landscape lighting so you have a balance between areas of light and dark. Correctly illuminated, a flowerbed, tree or cluster of bushes can have a nighttime beauty all its own. These features will be more fascinating when surrounded by an area of darkened shadows, providing an interesting contrast. Plus, unattractive features -- such as plants out of bloom or a distracting background -- can be easily concealed in darkness.

3. Be Inconspicuous

You and your guests should be no more aware of the source of landscape lighting at night than you are of the source of daylight. This can be more difficult with solar lighting fixtures, since solar batteries need to be recharged during the day. Try to find an out-of-the-way place that still gets sunlight, or go with low-voltage lights instead.

4. Look Up

Since natural light almost always comes from above, the bulk of your outdoor lighting should come from the same direction -- the higher the better.

5. Get Low

Wattage, that is. Use comparatively low-wattage floodlights for overhead lighting -- never any bulbs larger than 100 watts. Consider low-voltage lighting as well.

6. Hit the Spot

Use spotlights sparingly and for accent lighting only. Landscape spotlights are good at highlighting an otherwise evenly illuminated scene, or to point out an interesting detail or feature such as a pool.

7. Courtesy First

Besides making certain that your landscape lighting doesn’t shine into your eyes, make sure it doesn’t shining into your neighbor’s eyes too.

8. Smaller is Better

When lighting a large flowerbed or other planting area, use a number of smaller lights rather than a single large unit. This will create a series of softly overlapping pools of light that are free of harsh glare in the center.

9. Stick to the Sides

Very little of your landscape lighting should be front lighting. Regardless of whether the light comes from above or below, most of it should be directed from the sides. Also try to have more light coming from one side than the other, which will result in better modeling and give off an interesting shadow effect. While side lighting is often your best bet, feel free to experiment with back lighting for interesting silhouette effects.

10. Seek the Silhouettes

Choose to light more solid objects, which will be illuminated more effectively than thin, skeleton-like structures. Avoid lighting bare trees, open trellises and the like.

11. Focus, Focus, Focus

Select a focal point or center of attraction for each lit area, and highlight it with additional brightness to point out its most attractive features. Use one or two spotlights, or a light coming from an unusual angle, such as straight up.

12. Get Reflective

Make full use of light-colored reflective surfaces in your landscape lighting scheme. Light-colored walls and fences will often help extend the source of illumination by reflecting and diffusing the rays of light over a

Perennial Buying Guide

Perennials are living plants that continue to bloom and thrive year after year. Because they do not require replanting annually, they save you time, effort and money.

Typically, perennials have a shorter blooming season, ranging from two to three weeks depending on the type. By carefully planning your garden, you can arrange for your perennial flowers to peak at various times throughout the season for a continually changing landscape with a fresh, new environment every few weeks. You can also group early, mid-season and late-blooming perennials together to provide a continual backsplash of color.

Before selecting the right perennials for your garden, consider the following questions:

  • Where do you plan to locate your perennials?
  • Is the area exposed to direct or indirect sunlight? Is it shaded?
  • How much time do you have to devote to gardening tasks?
  • How long is the growing season in your region? What is the climate like?
  • What are the unique characteristics of certain popular perennials?

Planting, Maintenance and Selection

Whether you are the type of gardener who likes to spend a lot of time or only a little in the great outdoors, you're sure to find just what you need with the wide range of available types and varieties of perennials. Before you get started, take some time to think about your layout. You'll want to select specimens that match your climate, soil and growing season. Also consider light, as some perennials will not bloom in shady locations.

Because perennials are planted and left in the same spot for many years, location is important. Familiarize yourself with the types of plants that are best suited to your area. You may even want to observe the plants in your neighborhood, taking note of ones that appear to be growing well.

Planting Tips

Taking time to properly prepare your soil is one of the best things you can do to ensure your perennials continue to thrive over the years. Check for proper soil drainage and test pH levels to ensure that the growing environment is conducive to the plants. Most perennials are planted in the spring, though some bulbs and spring-blooming perennials can be set out late in the summer or early fall.

Avid gardeners and enthusiasts may consider starting perennials from seeds. This method is quite cost effective but requires a bit more effort. Follow the planting directions on the back of the seed packet for best results.

  • It is recommended that you prep your soil in the fall for best results
  • Add fertilizer and rake soil smooth in the spring to prepare for new plants
  • If soil has poor drainage, consider planting items in raised beds
  • Gently untangle roots and place in a hole slightly larger than the root ball
  • Plants should be positioned at the same height they were at in the container
  • Be sure to allow plenty of space between plants to encourage better growth
  • Plant late summer or fall blooming perennials in the spring
  • Plant spring flowering perennials in late summer or early fall

Maintenance and Care

Put frequent and thorough watering at the top of your maintenance checklist. An effective watering strategy hydrates plants and promotes good root development. You may want to add mulch to your garden for its water-retention capabilities. Mulch also provides protection during the harsh winter months and creates an attractive and orderly appearance in flowerbeds.

After blooms have withered, remove dead flower heads and cut stems down to the ground. Fertilize perennials in March, then repeat every six weeks to carry the plants through the summer. Apply another treatment to late-blooming plants at the end of summer. Always water plants after fertilizer has been applied to prevent burn.

When perennials reach their growth threshold, use a sharp implement to divide the mature plant directly down the middle. Place the split sections in their new beds; and replace the soil around the "mother" plant. Rooting or transplant hormone can be added to minimize shock.

  • Plant perennials where light, wind and soil conditions are suited to them (consult information provided when you buy plants or seeds)
  • When watering, moisten the entire plant bed, but not so heavily that the soil becomes soggy
  • If possible, wet only the soil around the plant, not the leaves and bloom, to avoid making the plant susceptible to disease
  • Apply mulch after several frosts have occurred to ensure soil temperature remains low
  • Don't apply mulch too early as the warmth can cause new growth, which may freeze and damage the plant
  • Stake tall perennials to prevent stem damage using stakes that measure 6 to 12 inches shorter than the plant
  • Tie the plant by making a double loop, with one loop around the plant and the other around the stake

Selecting Perennials

When it comes to choosing the right perennials, many factors come into play. You need to consider everything from the look and color of a plant to its peak blooming time and ideal soil conditions. Also, make sure that the plant is compatible with your region's climate.

Location plays an equally important role. Check the height, size and growing preferences of each type, and locate plants to their best advantage. For example, gladiolas provide a tall, colorful backdrop to shorter plants, and hostas may be perfect for ringing a tree in a shady side yard. Most perennials are sold when they are in bloom, allowing you to select the colors you want. Choose plants that are compact and dark green before flowering. Avoid plants with thin, pale, yellow stems and leaves or visible signs of mold or mildew.

Characteristics of Popular Perennials



Bloom once per season

·         Astilbe

·         Baptisia

·         Eupatorium (snakeroot)

Cool temperatures

·         Aconitum (monkshood)

·         Delphinium (larkspur)

·         Lupine

Drought resistant

·         Asclepias (butterfly flower)

·         Gaura (wand flower)

·         Russian sage

Fine foliage

·         Hosta

·         Japanese painted fern

·         Tiarella, "Jeepers Creepers"

Long bloomers

·         Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan)

·         Salvia (meadow sage)

·         Shasta daisy

Long-lived perennials

·         Hosta

·         Iris

·         Peony

Short-lived perennials

·         Columbine

·         Foxglove

·         Hollyhock


Live Plants: Live plants are usually grown in 1- or 5-gallon containers, although some plants are sold in smaller containers. These plants are already matured and are ready to be placed into your garden for immediate aesthetic enhancement.

Seeds: Seeds are less expensive than buying live plants but require more time and maintenance. For best results, follow the planting instructions included on the back of the seed packet.

Bulbs: Some perennials are sold as bulbs, such as daylilies. Follow the instructions included with your bulbs to ensure proper planting and maintenance. Many bulbs are planted in the fall and bloom the following spring and summer.

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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.


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.


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.


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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