Green Scene

Green Scene: The value of a remembrance of things past

Consider elements that stimulate your senses in the garden such as water cascades.
Consider elements that stimulate your senses in the garden such as water cascades. (Photos By Sandra Leavitt Lerner For The Washington Post)
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By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, January 23, 2010

Every growing season offers the potential for rejuvenating your garden, and now is the time to start reflecting on last year's performance and to plan this year's landscape design.

If you didn't keep a garden journal, you probably have vivid memories of the high and low points from previous years. For many avid gardeners, the low points will be the same -- invasions of pests and poor plant performance. High points will be satisfying experiences -- playing host to robins, cardinals and bluebirds, and watching hummingbirds enjoy goldflame honeysuckle (Lonicera X heckrotii) entwined around a fence post or large, purple Jackman clematis blossoms draped on a trellis.

This year you can correct the disappointments and enhance the aesthetically pleasing elements. Do this by developing a plan. First, deal with the problems and then fine-tune your design.

Natural solutions

Most homeowners want to preserve their prized lawns and plantings, but not at the expense of the environment. In the Washington area, responsible gardeners try to do their part to keep harmful chemicals from running off into the Chesapeake Bay. It may take more thought and searching to find environmentally friendly materials, but if you start now and plan properly, your garden can be pest-free and full of thriving, blooming, buzzing and fluttering life.

Natural solutions for gardens are becoming more widely available and can fix such problems as poor soil, weeds, insects and diseases. The environmentally friendly materials include seaweed, soap, sand, gravel, garlic, corn, castor beans, canola oil, marigolds, trees, fish, eggs, coffee, expanded slate and landscape waste. Evaluate products on their own merits or dangers.

They are still chemicals -- in some cases poisons. Don't use any product universally or haphazardly.

For slugs, products containing iron phosphate are replacing metaldehyde products. Old slug baits were very toxic and attracted house pets. Several brands containing iron phosphate are Sluggo, Escar-Go! and Worry Free Slug & Snail Bait.

Neem oil is a versatile natural vegetable oil extracted from the neem tree (Azadirachta indica), a renewable resource native to eastern India and Burma.

It kills insects, mites and fungi, and is said to repel mosquitoes. It's hardly a new product, having been used for medicinal and agricultural applications for more than 4,000 years.

Canola oil is an edible, refined vegetable oil used to control insects on a variety of crops with no adverse effects on humans or the environment.

It is obtained from the seeds of two species of rape plants in the mustard family.

Scientists believe that canola oil repels insects by altering the outer layer of the leaf surface or by acting as an irritant.

A product called Pyola combines canola oil that coats and kills eggs and pyrethrin that kills actively feeding larvae, nymphs and adults. Pyrethrin, an extract from plants of the aster family, is a powerful insecticide. It's organic and leaves no long-term residue. But use it only when a problem is identified, or you might kill beneficial insects.

VoleBloc is an expanded slate aggregate crushed into tiny particles that create a physical barrier protecting roots and stems from gnawing. It will improve soil texture and aerate heavy soils.

Garden hygiene

A healthy environment is the best protection your plants can have. Start with good drainage, aeration and nutrient-rich soil. Keep gardens clean. Cut or pull diseased plants. Don't put them on compost piles. Dispose of debris, such as old lumber, which can harbor disease or provide havens for other pests. Disinfect cutting tools with bleach and light oil before and after using them when pruning diseased wood.

Use soil amendments, especially in heavy clay. Consider making your own compost. It probably has a greater positive effect on plant health than any other single factor. When dug in widely and deeply, it will condition the least-hospitable clay soils and create an environment that delivers nutrients to plants.

Design and plan

There are thousands of plants that grow locally. Identify those you want for your property. The more care and ongoing maintenance they receive, the more chances you can afford to take with the garden. For example, try growing some tropicals in containers or installed as annuals, and plan to bring those plants indoors next winter. Learn about rocks, moss, rain gardens, green roofs and edible gardens.

Once you have determined your plant choices, place them in areas where they will be happiest. A plant that must be shaded from direct sunlight to prevent wilting requires a protected site. Plants also will be healthier when they don't have to compete with weeds for water and nutrients. Mulch, compost and maintenance can help reduce weed problems and greatly boost the aesthetics of your garden. Pull weeds early and often, before they produce seeds. You're never closer to your garden than when you are on hands and knees tearing out weedy intruders. By the way, that's one activity that need not stop in winter. Pull winter weeds whenever the weather is favorable.

Appreciate the view

While you're weeding, check the views from your garden. Look to the horizon; check the vista from every possible angle. Frame aesthetically pleasing views, and screen the unpleasant ones. Consider how you could use sculpture, colors, rocks, fragrance, textures, paving, the spray of a fountain or a plant brushing against your pant leg to enhance your garden experience. What theme do you prefer? Possibilities abound, such as formal fountains, water cascades, geometric plantings and sweeping patios surrounded by planting beds.

Enjoy the garden in winter. And remember that the most important part of installing a garden is that landscape design is an ongoing process that takes at least a decade before it begins to become a work of art.

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md.

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