Sunday, July 8, 2012

Garden Design on the Cheap

               So you have a new house or you’re looking to replace existing landscaping and are on a budget.  What do you do?  Those shows on HGTV offer lots of great, yet expensive, ideas.  Is it possible to design a garden on the cheap?  Oh, it sure is.  There are many ways to plan out a garden and do it on a budget.  Here are some tips to help you on your way.

1.       Plan, plan, plan.  Figure out which plants are best for your site and narrow down choices in advance.  As I’ve mentioned before, knowing which plants do best in your location is one of the most important factors for success.  Do not make last minute impulse buys.  Take your list and ideas with you when shopping for plants.  Take pictures of the area you want to plant and bring them along as well.  Knowing the site well and choosing plants in advance will help save money in the long run.

2.      Visit as many garden centers and/or supply stores as possible—yes, even big box stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s.  It’s surprising to learn prices and how much they vary from store to store.  At the same time, note the quality of the plant—keep an eye out for diseased leaves, or droopy foliage.  I once worked for a while at a local Home Depot.  Every now and then, tucked into a new plant shipment, were some interesting choices.  During one such delivery there were some rhododendrons I knew were not available locally.  The plants looked great and were really cheap.  Needless to say, a couple plant lovers came in and snapped them up right away.  I wouldn’t buy a specimen tree at a big box store, but certain shrubs and perennials would be fine.  Local garden centers may offer special deals during the summer to entice customers in.  Take advantage of them.  Generally speaking, your local garden center will also be able to offer more in the way of customer service.  However, if you need a trio of lilacs and Home Depot has them at a great price, grab them while you can.

3.      Set aside money for one major specimen plant.  If you truly want a showy tree for the garden, make sure you have funds set aside specifically for it.  Go to local garden centers and do comparison shopping.  This will be your big budget item so it’s best to aim for quality over price.  What should you choose?  Well, aim for a smaller decorative tree such as: Cornus kousa (Korean Dogwood), Cercis canadensis (Redbud), Chionanthus virginicus (Fringe Tree), Syringia reticulata (Japanese Tree Lilac), Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple), Prunus “Hally Jolivette” (Hally Jolivette Cherry), Styrax japonica (Japanese Snowbell Tree).  All of these plants produce flowers except for the Acer griseum.  None of these trees get tremendously huge and work well in a foundation planting.  Still, give them at least 15’ distance from the house to allow for spreading growth.  Please note that I’m avoiding weeping cherries, Japanese maples, and Florida dogwoods.  Weeping cherries become very large fairly quickly and can overpower a house, or come barging into the house to say hello.  Japanese maples are planted all the time and although they’re fairly inexpensive, why not aim for something a little different?  Florida dogwoods have trouble with a fungal disease called Anthracnose and although there are varieties that are less prone to it, I’d skip this plant to be on the safe side.  Another popular specimen tree, frequently planted for decorative bark and summer flowers, is the Stewartia pseudocamellia (Japanese Stewartia).  It tends to grow larger than other trees I’ve listed and its hardiness is somewhat questionable (Zone 5-ish possibly even 4 with protection).  They prefer rich, organic soil and do not tolerate hot, dry, windy locations.  If your yard is protected from scorching sun and you have space to plant it further from your house, then it might make an excellent choice.  I’ve also noted that this tree in particular takes a while to settle in after transplanting.  It may be a few years before it starts to take off and produce a major show of blooms.

4.      Plant perennials.  Many perennials can be purchased inexpensively and some are easily propagated via division.  Hostas, daylilies, Siberian Iris, Monarda (Bee Balm), ornamental grasses, and numerous other perennials grow rapidly and need dividing fairly often.  One pot of Monarda, for example, can probably be divided immediately upon purchase if there are enough runners present (Mondarda is in the mint family and spreads via runner growth).  Perennials extend the bloom time of the garden and can add interesting textures/foliage as well.

5.      Plant perennial herbs.  There are many perennial herbs available and most often I’ve found them to be much less expensive than other perennials.  Sure, they may not be as showy as a cluster of Asiatic Lilies, but they’re frequently difficult to kill and interesting when mixed in with other plants.  Chives, catmint, lemon balm, apple mint, chocolate mint, or garlic chives, would all make excellent garden additions.  The mints will need some roping in, since they can quickly turn invasive, but they’re great plants with a little preparation.  Thyme is also a perennial herb, but has the awful tendency to die unexpectedly after flourishing for a few years.  Although an annual, dill might be a good choice as well since it frequently spreads readily via seeds. 

6.      If you must plant annuals, aim for something showy.  Geraniums, impatiens, marigolds and pansies are commonly planted annuals.  Unfortunately, it frequently takes a number of them to have a decent showing.  Instead of planting these, aim for one of the more unusual annuals that will add some bulk to the garden.  This way, you can plant fewer of them yet still get masses of flower color.  For example, Nicotiana alata, is a great annual that can reach up to 3’ high and produces lots of white trumpet shaped flowers.  There are many annual salvias that produce interesting flowers in shades of rich blue and purple.  You might also consider annual flowering herbs such as Borage officinalis or nasturtiums.  As an aside, one annual to avoid is Verbena bonariensis as it is proving to be invasive in some situations, even here in New England.

7.      Visit plant swaps and garden club sales.  They always offer interesting plants and you can frequently find inexpensive options.

8.      Repurpose.  You’ve found some large interesting rocks while digging in the yard?  Add them to the garden.  There’s an ugly statue in the front yard that you cannot get rid of because it was a gift.  Clematis might look quite nice scampering over it.  Your neighbor is disposing of some hostas to make room for more lawn—adopt them!  Even if the hostas are an uninteresting variety, they can be used to take up space.  Use them as a ground cover beneath your new decorative tree or use them as filler plants on the shady side of the house.  Those bricks from the chimney you had removed?  Use them in the garden to build stepping stones or as a section of wall.  Be creative, there may be many free items in your own yard that just need to be repurposed to find new use.

9.      Mulch everything.  Yes, it is an expense, but you want the plants you’ve spent hard earned money on to survive weed growth and/or summer drought.  Mulch is an important cost to factor in and should be considered essential.  It doesn’t need to be fancy, it just needs to help retain soil moisture and keep things cool.

10.   Think about walkways, water features, structural needs (such as stone walls), house color, roof drip line, and driveway position.  Why?  Well, they’re all expensive additions and/or changes.  Those lovely stone walls you see being built on television are expensive.  Water features are nice, but are hardly essential.  Unless you’re willing to pay to have your house painted, you’re stuck with that color so plan out flower colors in advance.  Walkways are generally needed and can be expensive additions/replacements.  If possible, use what you have.

Recommended Plant:

Borage officinalis or Common Borage.  This fantastic annual herb offers up interesting fuzzy foliage, bright blue flowers, is edible, and attracts lots of honey bees.  What’s not to like?  Well, maybe the bees, but still, it’s a great plant.  It grows rapidly, tolerates full sun and dry conditions, and more or less makes itself at home rapidly.  If you’re looking for an annual herb to add some interesting color and texture to a foundation planting, consider borage as an option.

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