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How Does Her Garden Grow? Patiently.

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 14, 2007

Readers of washingtonpost.com have come to know our Budding Gardener, Lauren Wiseman, as a young, enthusiastic novice who is quickly coming to see the magic and some of the tricks of gard ening.

Over the past several months we have shopped for herbs, waited for the garden to show itself through the spring and checked the general health of the soil around her two-story home in Chevy Chase.

Then we settled on a project that would have near-instant impact, to inspire this first-time homeowner, to anchor the long-term development of the yard and -- oh, yes -- to be cheap. Cheap is a relative term in any landscape project. In a world where a single perennial can cost $12 or more, planting projects can quickly become expensive, so we found ways to keep the costs down for our late-spring makeover.

Choosing the project became the first task. We considered tidying up the exposed sides of the rear deck and placing a sunny flower or vegetable garden at the base. This stalled, for two reasons. First, the deck-post trelliswork would need the hand of a carpenter if it were to look good, and that proved too expensive right away. Second, that area is far less sunny in leafy spring than it appeared in winter, making the plant choices there more limited. But we still like the idea of tidying up the deck, and Lauren plans to get back to that.

We also considered converting a sloping side yard into a rain garden, essentially a place where moisture-loving plants grow in beds that trap and absorb storm water. The dry spring made this less alluring, for now. Again, we'll develop this later.

I felt the most effective initial makeover would be in the raised bed between the street and the front door. Bounded by the driveway on one side and a winding brick path on the other, it is the most prominent landscape element in the front yard and one that, transformed, would bring pleasure every day as Lauren and her husband, Dave, went to and fro.

There was one huge snag, however. The bed, approximately 250 square feet, is dominated by a shade tree. In winter, it did a good imitation of a red oak, complete with shriveled, fallen oak leaves at the base of its trunk. But in April, it revealed itself to be a silver maple. This is one of the worst species to establish plantings beneath. The canopy is dense, blocking light. Worse, the root system on old trees is thick and greedy. The only bonus was that the limbs were high enough to give more light than we might have deserved, and the tree is old but relatively small, perhaps stunted because the soil beneath it is so free-draining.

A previous owner had nursed along some pachysandra and liriope, but the ground covers were feeble and intertwined. I told Lauren that we had a shot at replacing them with other ground covers that would take conditions of dry shade if certain steps were followed.

Lauren spent time lifting the clumps of liriope and removing as much of the pachysandra as the dry soil would yield, though we found a network of remnant rhizomes that will no doubt haunt us for a while. A large but spindly Japanese holly shrub dominated the end of the front path and stuck out into the street. Out it came, to be replaced with a line of three summersweet shrubs positioned to stay in bounds.

As we worked the bed, it became clear that in addition to the pachysandra runners, the maple's root system was pervasive. I used an ax on the worst parts but otherwise dug the planting holes with a picklike tool called a mattock, knowing that a shovel or a garden fork would be inadequate. Such root abuse can harm lesser trees, and particularly younger ones (one thinks of dogwoods or deciduous magnolias), but it would take a maniac to kill a silver maple with hand tools.

The ground covers then were planted in blocks that would grow together to form foliage and textural interest with their neighbors. Next to the summersweet, we put in leadwort, or plumbago, a spreading deciduous ground cover with pretty blue flowers from June to September. Next to that we put in hardy geranium or cranesbill, specifically a variety named Rozanne, bred for its long flowering season and blue flowers.

Closer to the house, we planted a dozen epimedium plants, a mounding perennial that keeps its pointed leaves through the winter, at which point they are cut back for the display of dainty flowers in February. We chose a popular hybrid named rubrum.

On the driveway side of the bed, we installed a grouping of blue fescue grass whose fine, blue-gray leaves form a low tuft. At the base of the tree, we installed sweet box, a running evergreen shrub that gets to about 15 inches high. We put in 64 plants, a chore that took most of the day if you include final weeding, soil preparation and chopping through root-ridden soil. We still have holes to fill, namely a large patch at the corner of the drive and the street, and an area next to the path between the plumbago and the epimedium.

Fortunately, the beds in the rear yard are stuffed with a surplus of big-leafed hostas, and we plan to lift some of them and place them in the gaps in the front bed. The hostas need more water than the other plants -- though they will all need watering until they get established -- and it will be incumbent on Lauren to drench them two or three times a week for the first month or so, and then once a week afterward. Weeds will love the bare soil and will have to be hoed regularly, and Lauren will have to pull any lingering pachysandra as it appears. In time, the feeder roots of the maple will fight back, but the new plants will have grown their own larger root systems by then. We hope.

In addition to the hostas brought from the back yard, some of the plumbago and all of the sweet box came from my garden. I had plenty to spare, and clumps that needed thinning. I hope this is one of the lessons that Lauren gets from this: that plants are not just gathered at the nursery. Thrifty gardeners find ways to raise new plants from divisions, cuttings and seeds. Sharing them with others who will care for them is what true gardening is all about.

Still, some of the plants came from the garden center, which can be pricey. The three summersweet shrubs together cost almost $100. They will need regular watering to get established but should take drier conditions after a year or two.

After we include the $32 for a cubic yard of compost, the cost of the project was $312. A professionally installed bed could cost four times that or more. The key to keeping the cost down is to buy the smallest plants you can find (and be patient), transplant surplus ones from elsewhere, and do the work yourself. The project was laborious but satisfying, and the results, with care, will last for years.

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