Now is the time to refresh your garden for the warmer months ahead. For many DIYers, that means making a beautiful show of pastel or vividly colored flowers epitomizing the rebirth of spring, but it also means planning for the summer heat that will follow spring's mild temperatures. Welcome Home asked local landscape designers for their favorite ways to do both. Whether you choose to plant a colorful display of seasonal flowers or simply tend to the plantings you already have, here are 10 tips to help ensure optimum conditions for a garden of delights.
• 1. Out with the old — Just as we perform spring cleaning in our homes, the best place to start in the garden is with a good cleanup. Remove fallen twigs and sticks, cut back dead wood and trim spent blossoms. Trimming will allow you to see things better, visualize new ideas, make room for new growth and help prevent insect problems.
"I like to give everything some elbow room," says landscape designer Kim Alvarez of Alvarez + Basik Design Group. "Give everything a good haircut, except for things about to bloom."
While many people like to clean out the leaf litter left from winter, landscape designer Matthew Ponseti of Ponseti Landscaping calls fallen leaves "nature's free mulch." He likes to use them as a layer of insulation beneath a top-dressing of mulch.
• 2. Take stock of conditions in your garden — Once everything is clean, it's a good time to assess challenging areas. Before planting, you need to know whether your soil is healthy, if your flower beds drain and how much sun exposure there is wherever you plant. Landscape designer Kenny Rabalais of the Plant Gallery advises digging 6 to 8 inches for a handful of soil from below the surface, then taking the sample to a good nursery for advice. (Healthy soil is a loose, dark-brown mixture; clay-like soil, sandy soil and soil that hasn't been touched in years will need some conditioner). Rabalais also recommends checking the amount of sun in the garden at 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m., so you'll know what vegetation will flourish there. Also make sure flower beds are 3 to 6 inches above the lawn line for proper drainage. Rabalais says you always should check the information on plants to determine whether they are sun-loving or shade-loving and how much water they need.
• 3. Make a plan — Whether drawn on paper or simply conceived in your mind, a plan will reduce the chance of costly mistakes and will help you determine what you need to purchase. Ponseti recommends drawing of your yard to scale to avoid unorganized planting that fails to make a statement. Landscape designers emphasize the a plan should go beyond what looks good and include considerations such as the maintenance required, how large plants will grow and any placements that could be problematic. For example, crepe myrtle trees are beloved in New Orleans, but landscape designers don't recommend them near driveways or pools because they shed their blossoms and make a mess. Likewise, trees like magnolias, which have shallow root systems, and oaks, which become huge over time, shouldn't be used around driveways, patios and other areas where roots can cause concrete to crack or shift.
• 4. Mulch flower beds — "Everyone's least favorite thing to do is buying and spreading the needed amount of mulch, but it's the best thing you can do," says Ponseti, who favors processed pine needles over other mulch choices and waits to put down new mulch until the oak trees have have finished dropping their leaves. In addition to keeping weeds at bay and retaining moisture, mulch gives a garden a finished look.
• 5. Look for variety — "There are a hundred different shades of green, and different greens and different textures look good together," Rabalais says. "Different leaf structures, variegated and nonvariegated, different sizes (of leaves) and different colors give character to a garden."
• 6. Work with layers — Using layers in your garden will create a lush look. Rabalais suggests starting with the tallest plants in the rear and moving forward with increasingly smaller plants. As a rear layer, Rabalais usually chooses an evergreen because they never defoliate and can hide a fence, brick wall or raised portion of a house. Ponseti recommends using grasses as one of the layers in a less formal yard and boxwood for a more formal look. Alvarez is fond of the contrasting textures achieved with coarse-leaf plants like fatsia coupled with ferns, which have a softer appearance.
• 7. Group flowers together for impact — Planting a flat of impatiens all together will create a stronger impact than spacing them apart. Groups of single colors also pack a punch. Alvarez suggests planting flowers in groupings to accentuate focal points like areas near a front door or places where you spend time in the backyard.
• 8. Fertilize — Fertilizing during your spring spruce-up will benefit seeds and bulbs that already have come up as well as new plants you're installing now. The right fertilizer will make your flowers more abundant, and they'll last longer. The key is to make sure the fertilizer comes in contact with a plant's root ball.
Rabalais' favorites are a time-released capsule dropped into the soil before putting in a bedding plant, or a liquid fertilizer that requires a little more work but gets into the root system the same day you water your garden.
Ponseti's recommendation for spring is zero-nitrogen fertilizer for the short term and a 15-5-10 blend of fertilizer once your plants begin to grow more aggressively. He also suggests an herbicide for lawns to control clover and dollar weeds.
• 9. Incorporate sounds and scents — Truly spectacular gardens are a feast for the senses. Along with using beautiful displays of springtime color, these landscapers suggest bringing in fragrant plants like gardenia, citrus trees, jasmine and herbs, which lend themselves to side and backyards more than front spaces. The sight and sound of a water feature brings a peaceful, personalized touch to a garden, but landscapers caution that fountains must be regularly maintained. What to look for: a gold filtration system and a base that's large enough to hold an adequate amount of water without it splashing over the side.
For those who want to go maintenance-free, Alvarez recommends a small wall-mountable fountain that can be plugged in and provides instant sound with no hassle.
• 10. Make the most of your gardening dollars — Rabalais suggests dividing a 6-inch or 8-inch English ivy into three sections (use a kitchen knife to slice it apart), then planting the sections around the base of a pot of spring flowers.
Ponseti suggests buying potted plants at least 4 inches tall, because anything smaller doesn't have an adequate root system. He says gardeners also should look for double-seeded plants because they are fuller and have a better survival rate.
Alvarez says you can find good deals on plants at local farmers markets. If you have a green thumb, plant one or two different types of seeds instead of just using plants purchased from garden centers. Two of Alvarez's favorites to start from seed are nasturtiums (they're easy to grow and are edible) and moonflowers (they'll bloom by late spring or early summer, and their white flowers open in the evening).