For example, 12-8-10 fertilizer has 12-percent nitrogen, 8-percent phosphorous and 10-percent potassium. A higher first number—nitrogen—is used for lawns. A higher middle number—phosphorus—contains fertilizer for flowers. A higher last number—potassium—is used for autumn and winter fertilizing.
If you’re not a numbers person, not to worry—many fertilizers today contain labels that virtually shout what you need—“African violent fertilizer,” and “tomato plant fertilizer” so you may not even have to read the numbers.
Now that you’re in the mode for memorizing, here’s the converse equation: herbicides contain so much of certain chemicals that they will kill the plant. RoundUp, for example, contains an overdose of nitrogen. Many grass killing herbicides contain Fluazifop and sethoxydim, which do not affect broadleaf plants because broadleaf plants don’t contain the type of enzyme that binds these herbicides.
Carefully read all labels when buying a herbicide to understand each herbicide’s selectivity and not accidentally kill off something you want to keep. When applying, wear rubber gloves, rubber boots, long pants and long sleeves. Do not smoke or eat or put anything near your mouth until you have scrubbed thoroughly.
Give your yard a couple of weeks to absorb the chemicals before you start planting.
Why Plant Trees?
Large trees provide windbreaks and shade for your home. Shade keeps your heating costs down. Examine your existing trees and make sure that the branches don’t actually touch your house. Branches can damage shingles and gutters, and provide a fast track for squirrels to set up housekeeping. Stand back from your house and observe the larger trees—oak, pine and maple—to make sure they are not leaning toward your house. If they are leaning more than about 40 degrees, it may be time to take them down as a preventative measure.
Smaller trees create a sense of balance and dimension. They also provide year-round color (as do some larger trees). There’s nothing like spring blooms, summer greenery, fall foliage and winter berries to paint a constant palette in your yard. They also set off your lawn and house, preventing a droll sameness and monotony that can too easily happen when you plunk a vertical rectangle (your house) on top of a horizontal rectangle (your lawn). Bo-ring! Keep it lively and fresh, but don’t overdo it. You want to be able to see most of the house from a distance. Vegetation should accent your home, not dwarf it.
Any type of tree will provide a nature refuge. Squirrels, cardinals, blue jays, crows, sparrows and black capped chickadees are but a few of the wildlife that frequent your yard and provide entertainment as you glance out the window. Larger trees, such as loblolly pine and bald cypress, attract bald eagles, owls, osprey and turkey buzzards. Trees that produce berries and seeds are particular favorites for wildlife. If you are planning to totally landscape your yard from scratch, allow at least two months for installation of hardscapes—pavers, walks, retaining walls, lighting, and driveways. After that, add trees, shrubs, plants, and then sod last, to avoid having to drive or walk over the fresh sod you’ve just laid.
If you live on the water, you’ve got the perfect excuse to create a yard that blends into the environment. That means less lawn and more mulch, natural ground cover, ornamental stone, shrubs and trees. This style is often nearly maintenance free, because the bulk of your time is spent cutting the grass. Create a natural landscape that coexists with the environment and your property can be eco-friendly and gorgeous at the same time.
As Lovely as a Tree
If you’re looking for just one or two large trees to fill in your flat landscape, deciduous Willow Oaks can become massive—over 80 feet tall. Their leaves are elongated like willows, but the trunk and branches spread like a traditional oak.
On the water, traditional Weeping Willows will maintain their flowing tresses for years and provide shade for swimmers. They provide movement and color for otherwise static landscapes. They are water hogs, but once established, they are worry-free.
Sycamore, with their peeling bark and magnificently huge leaves, make great shade trees and can grow to 150 feet tall. Their branches and bark are mottled with smaller spots that grow larger with time, and the bark sheds once the tree has grown, leaving intricate puzzles of gray, tan, brown and white that provide interest in winter after the leaves have been shed.
Bald Cypress can live to be 600 years old, so once you plant a few, you can brag that your tree-scaping is complete! They provide excellent cover and habitat for wildlife, including bald eagles and osprey. Bald Cypress grows in fine sandy loams, as well as brackish tidal waters. Because they send out such a huge, sturdy network of roots that are compatible with bogs and swamps, they have a high survival rate in hurricane prone areas. Their roots are called “knees” which emerge above ground, butting through grass and bogs, creating their own unconventional landscape. Their fine, needle-like, pale green leaves, similar to pine needles, are produced spring through fall, and turn a coppery red before dropping and revealing the trees’ “bald” characteristics.
Japanese cryptomeria, also known as Japanese cedar, is an excellent evergreen border or accent tree, with its curled clusters and leaves that resemble pine but are soft to the touch. The exotic, wavy pattern of the branches sets it apart from other evergreens.
Leyland Cypress are worth noting for the sheer speed with which they grow. When planted close together, their fluff and fullness create wonderfully opaque natural dividers between properties. The fronds appear to be rough like pine needles but are actually flatter and relatively soft to the touch. Because of their wide surface area, they do not weather Nor’easters or hurricanes well.
Smaller, ornamental trees can set off your house and yard or accent a mulch garden. The 25-foot Golden Rain Tree, named for its beautiful cascade of brilliant yellow flowers in midsummer, is a magnificent specimen, as well as the 35-food Eastern Redbud, which produces exquisite purple-pink flowers in spring.
Ornamentals like miniature Weeping Japanese Maples and Dwarf Weeping Pussy Willows lend a sense of fantasy to gardens. To perk up rock gardens even further in spring, edge them with bright spring bulbs like jonquils, hydrangeas and tulips that will emerge and delight year after year.
A common sight that never fails to evoke smiles is the Virginia state tree, the Flowering Dogwood, whose flowers present in a variety of colors including pink, pale yellow and white. Because of its versatility and variety with the change of seasons, it is an excellent landscape choice. The leaves turn red-purple in fall and glossy red fruits attract winter songbirds. A favorite in America for centuries, George Washington planted it at Mt. Vernon and Thomas Jefferson planted it at Monticello. It makes a perfect understory tree, flourishing beneath oak, loblolly and maple, and works well under power lines. If you’re a nature lover, take heart that this tree has great wildlife value. At least 36 species of birds, including ruffed grouse, bobwhite quail and wild turkey like to eat the fruit.
Along with dogwoods, Japanese Cherry Blossoms create a harmonious and work-free landscape for nearly any homeowner. And these trees were destined to be planted together; dogwoods were first introduced to Japan in 1915 by the U.S. government in return for 3,000 cherry trees presented to Washington during the Taft presidency by Tokyo Gov. Yukio Ozaki in 1912. Americans, and in particular, Washingtonians and Virginians have had a love affair with cherry blossoms ever since.
Note: Keep understory trees such as dogwoods, cherry blossoms and redbuds at least 15 feet apart. If you want them to overlap, it is more attractive if you plant two rows and stagger the rows.
Scouting for Shrubbery
Hundreds of plants and shrubs do well in this area but some are hardier than others. Hydrangeas and azaleas do well on hills and uneven areas, providing a root system to prevent soil erosion. After their spring and summer blooms have passed, the greenery lasts well into December. Here are a few easy-to-carefor suggestions to liven up your yard:
Abelias bear delicate, trumpet-shaped flowers and since they can stand hard pruning, they make good edging. Barberry, with its unusual maroon color, is good for contrast. Boxwood, recognizable not only by its rounded, waxy, rich green leaves, but by the hard pruning popular in Colonial Williamsburg, now comes in several varieties and is quite hardy. Evergreen Mahonia Japonica will lend life to your yard all year round, and with it’s spiky leaves and unusual berries, is sometimes mistaken for holly. With 70 species, it’s hard to choose which one you’ll want.
Pieris Formosa, an evergreen, is a dense, bushy shrub from China that bears sprays of small white flowers in spring. Its relative, Pieris Japonica, can grow to six feet and is excellent for rock gardens and to lend interest to a traditional garden. The red leaves (pieris means fire) are pointed and elliptical, and turn green as it matures.
Mountain laurel is sometimes pruned as a small tree, but is actually a bush with eyecatching lush pink or white flowers. With its arched springtime sprays, it lends interest and movement to hillsides. Indian Hawthorn actually comes from southern China. It grows up to eight feed wide and offers clusters of perfumed, star-shaped flowers. The berries are black with a bluish tinge and the leaves are shiny, dark green and slightly elongated. These do well in sun or partial shade, and as an accent in rock gardens.
You can’t live in Virginia without seeing your share of azaleas and rhododendrons. Rhododendrons are a fabulous genus of about 800 evergreen, semi-deciduous and deciduous shrubs and trees. Native to China and the Himalayas, they are woody stemmed plants known for their showy flowers in an almost unlimited variety of colors. The leaves are elliptical, deep green and usually thick, leathery and lustrous. They require a great deal of attention when young, as the roots are fine and hairlike and dry out quickly in drought conditions, and conversely, tend to suffer if waterlogged. Keep the soil loose and airy and you’ll enjoy gorgeous shrubs for years.
If you have trouble keeping track of the difference between azaleas and rhodos, here’s a handy reminder: All azaleas are rhododendrons but not all rhododendrons are azaleas. If you’re into shopping for your own garden plants and reading labels, keep in mind that azaleas have been reclassified and are now in the genus rhododendron. True rhododendrons have 10 or more stamens, or two per lobe. Azaleas usually have five stamens or one per lobe. Azaleas have five lobes in a flower. True rhododendrons are often scaly or have small dots on the underside of the leaf. Azalea leaves are never dotted with scales. Many azaleas are deciduous. True rhododendrons are usually evergreen.
For a showy garden, you can never get your fill of hydrangeas. Typically boasting bright blue puffball flowers, they now come in white and pink (although make sure you buy the pink variety and not just those that require alkaline soil to stay pink). As they fade, you can cut them in bunches and dry them in the house. Just put them in a vase of water and let the water evaporate. Voila! Instant dried flowers.
Gardenias are always fragrant and elegant and do well in any sunny spot. They can fill in bare spots next to the garage or flourish in the middle of the yard next to a curved stone bench. It’s probably wise not to plant them too near a door, as they attract bees.
Camelia is a good choice of evergreen and can be pruned into a variety of shapes, or you can let it grow for a more relaxed look. Flowers come in a myriad of colors, from white to pink to red, and it will bloom several times throughout the year, offering visitors a pleasant unseasonal surprise.
Be sure to read the labels on your new shrubs so that youknow how much room to give them. Your yard will look a bit Spartan for the first year but it doesn’t take long for plants to grow in this area.
Sedum is a popular plant because it is virtually carefree, with its tight rosebud center and thick, succulent leaves. It comesin dozens of varieties of sizes and colors. It works well for its textural variety, say, next to lariope and climbing clematis, and in rock gardens.
Lamb’s ear lends variety to gardens and walkways, and with its soft, pale silver-green “ears,” is certain to elicit comments. It tends to gray and rot in late summer, so pruning is recommended.
Ferns are generally easy to grow and most propagate naturally. Cinnamon fern, Robust Male, Tassel fern, Brilliance Autumn, Maidenhair, Korean Rock fern, and Ghost fern are but a few of the varieties available locally. Most ferns do not like direct sunlight, so tuck them away next to rocks, on dappled hillsides, and in shady backyard areas.
Virginia Mountain Mint and lemon verbena are perfect for natural landscaping or if you’re a truly lazy gardener. They multiply mercilessly and offer a heady fragrance. Both may be used for flower arrangements, and dried for sachets.
Perennials are every homeowner’s dream because they need very little care, and return year after year. Mix perennials and shrubbery for a more natural look. Echinacea, the daisy-like plant with pink petals, a mounded brown center, and medicinal qualities, is a delightful accompaniment to most gardens. It likes full sun.
Hosta, available in broadleaf and variegated varieties, is virtually maintenance free. Happy in shade, partial shade or sun, it is extremely versatile. White or pink shoots add a bit of surprise later in the season.
Coreopsis are sunny, bright flowers that make great borders. Most often found in bright yellow, they also come in white, pink and most recently, red. Because of their long summer bloom time, they make excellent fillers or edging. The yellows pair well with blues and lavenders. Suggested Varieties are grandiflora Early Sunrise; Creme Brulee; C. verticillata Moonbeam; verticillata Zagreb; and rosea Nana. They are perfect for cut flowers.
Mulch and More Mulch
Mulch provides moisture for plants and smaller trees and once installed, saves your back and reduces your water bill. Mulch doesn’t have to be boring. It can create interest with color and texture. Here are just a few examples.
Pinebark is the most common mulch used in this area. It may be purchased by the bag for a few dollars, or you can order truckloads from your local nursery, or pick it up yourself from the city, which mulches trimmed branches left along the roadside. Because it so quickly and easily degrades, it provides a healthy topsoil and helps loosen packed clay you may have underneath. The downside is that, because it degrades so quickly, it must be replaced every year. Decide if you want actual mulch or to use pinebark chips, which are chunkier and lend a more rustic look to your landscape.
Pine needles provide an easy, readymade mulch that you can rake up from your own yard. They work well for acidloving plants and last a long time. And they’re free!
Red mulch is simply a mixture of waste wood that is dyed to a reddish hue. It is considered environmentally friendly. The advantage is high color contrast for an otherwise drab landscape.
Cedar is lighter in color than most pinebark mulch, and is an insect repellant (the same reason you keep cedar chips in your closet), so some homeowners like to place it up against the house around smaller shrubs and plants. It degrades more slowly than pinebark and does not have to be replaced every year. It is highly fragrant and pleasant. Do not layer it as thickly as other mulches as it can tend to build up fungus. Once the smell fades, it begins to lose its insect repellant properties.
Cypress mulch is a hardy alternative to the darker pinebark, and provides several seasons of mulch protection. It is a delightful light golden color and has a wonderful fragrance. It is very lightweight and therefore easier on your back. Be sure to read the label on the bags you buy, since overharvesting of cypress trees in Florida and Louisiana is wreaking havoc with their wetlands and removing a first line of defense against hurricanes.
Cocoa Bean Hulls are a beautiful, rich brown color and have an attractive fragrance. However, cocoa bean mulch should be avoided if pets are allowed in the area because it contains theobromine, which is highly toxic to dogs and cats.
Coffee Beans contain a number of substances that promote healthy plant growth, so they work best in your vegetable garden. Coffeeground mulch can help reduce the ravages of slugs and snails and work well around hostas and on pathways. Their fragrant aroma is unmistakable. (Hint: Starbucks will make spent grounds available, fi rst come, fi rst served.)
Avoid using mulches on vegetable beds. Straw and coffee beans are better alternatives.
To Seed or Not to Seed?
If you’ve already got a lawn, aerate. Hand aerators are available for rent or purchase, but most aeration is done with a machine called a core aerator, with hollow tines mounted on a disk or drum. The holes are typically one to six inches deep and two to six inches apart and leave a plug of grass and dirt behind. Other types of aerators push solid spikes into the ground without removing a plug.
If your lawn is aged or has sustained heavy use from sports activities, vehicle traffi c or parking, your soil can become compacted. Soil compacting is most severe in poorly drained or wet sites. Too-compact soil cannot hold air or water, which roots require to grow.
If you’re in doubt about aeration, remove about a foot of your lawn, at least six inches deep. If grass roots extend only into the fi rst one to two inches, you would benefi t from core aeration. Roots are at their greatest depth in late spring.
Overseeding means sprinkling seed over already-existing grass to fi ll in the sparse areas. This does not require aeration but can benefi t from it. However, if you’ve got huge bare patches, you can choose between aeration and seeding or putting down sod.
Installing sod means measuring. Measure the lawn area and make a sketch with your measurements. Include dimensions of sidewalks, parking areas, shrubs and buildings. Determine how many square feet of sod you will need, and convert it to square yards.
Kill all the existing grass and weeds in the pre-existing lawn with a non-selective herbicide. After all the weeds are dead, roto-till the soil. Then grade the area to eliminate drainage problems. Be sure to check that your lawn slopes away from the house and garage. Remove all rocks, large soil clods, and plant roots. Be sure to keep the soil level about one inch below your sidewalk or driveway.
Do not have your sod delivered until all the preparatory soil work is completed. The longer the grass sits on a pallet the more likely it is to die, and under stress it will take longer to establish.
Begin watering sod within 30 minutes of installation. Keep it moist for several days, and then begin a program to water infrequently, but deeply. Too short of a sprinkle will give you short roots.
What Kind of Grass?
If you want a lawn that stays green all year long, use a cool season grass such as Kentucky bluegrass, rough bluegrass, ryegrass, fine fescue, and turf type fescue. In the southern part of the state Zoysiagrass is used. It is a warm season grass that will go dormant in winter and turn brown. Kentucky bluegrass is persistent and appealing. It has a medium to fine leaf texture and a medium- to dark-green color and produces extensive underground stems, called rhizomes. After a drought it usually recovers quickly from dormancy with cooler temperatures and enough moisture.
Perennial ryegrass is an aggressive, dark-green, fine to medium-textured turf grass that produces a bunch-type growth and does not form rhizomes. Its recuperative potential is not as strong as Kentucky bluegrass. It germinates quickly (in a week). It is very competitive with other turf grasses and is used extensively for overseeding. Because of its aggressive nature, it should not be used in amounts over 20 percent in a mixture with other turfgrasses. It may be used alone or in combination with Kentucky bluegrass or fine fescues. Although it will tolerate cold weather, it is susceptible to ice damage.
Fine fescues are the most common turf-type. They include creeping red fescue (Festuca rubra), Chewings fescue (Festuca rubra var. commutata), hard fescue (Festuca longifolia), and sheep fescue (Festuca ovina). These species work well as low maintenance, low wear turfs. These grasses are medium to dark green, extremely fine-textured and are compatible with most cool-season turf grasses. As a group, the fine fescues tolerate soils of low fertility and low pH, droughty soils, and shade. They are not well adapted to hot, humid conditions. They become semi-dormant under long periods of heat and drought but recover quickly with cooler weather and plenty of moisture.
Tall fescue—Turf Type is durable, bunch-type grass that forms acceptable turf for home lawns and is commonly used in low maintenance areas such as highway medians. Tall fescue is considered incompatible with the finer-textured and darkergreen Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, and fine fescues and may be objectionable in a mixture with fine-textured turf grass species because it clumps in an otherwise uniform area.
Bermuda grass may be used in the southern areas of Piedmont and Tidewater areas. It is the best choice for your highprofile project where you need fast germination, rapid establishment and excellent turf performance required in warm climates.
Zoysiagrass is a warm-season species that grows best during high-temperature periods. It can form an attractive turf for home lawns and is used in the southern areas of Piedmont and Tidewater. It is widely advertised in catalogs and magazines as the end-all and be-all and with its fine leaf texture and light to medium green color, is an attractive lawn cover, but fades and becomes dormant with heavy fall frosts, and plants remain dormant until late spring or early summer. Because of its prolific stolon production, Zoysiagrass has good recuperative potential but it may spread into areas where it is unwanted. It performs best under moderate moisture levels on welllimed soils.
It may sound counterintuitive, but in order to have a healthy spring yard, prepare it in fall and winter. That means when your lariope and fountain grass go dormant, cut them back so you won’t have to deal with ugly dead stragglers between the healthy green shoots. Fertilize your spring bulbs. Prune hedges and shrubs (in fact, you can even do this in late summer, depending upon the species). Save your raked leaves for mulch and bedding.
Take a walk around your property and assess it in the dead of winter. Well designed gardens and yards contain shapes that create interest even when dormant. Boulders, rock gardens, bird baths, benches, and unusually shaped shrubs and handsome tree trunks all create the “bones” of a garden that remind you that you’ve planned well, all year ’round.