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Independent Garden Center Review: Homestead Gardens

20 Sep

Homestead Gardens is beautiful.  The plants are all excellently maintained, inventory is kept up to day, the grounds are gorgeous, the different areas of the interior shop make you drool, and everything about it seems to shimmer.

The employees are helpful and reasonably knowledgeable.  (No one here knows what a loropetalum is, though!)

The garden center is simply huge, so they have room not only for more of everything but for more different kinds of things.  They even have a small section of very dwarf conifers, which will come in handy if I ever do get the train garden I’ve been promising my son built!  Their promotional sales are pretty good, too, bringing the prices down considerably.

The downsides are simple:  price and guarantee.  Homestead has a pathetic 30-day guarantee on their plants–even trees, which pretty much means I’d far rather get a tree fresh off the truck from Lowe’s.  It’s a matter of common sense.  The prices, too, are at the upper end of the spectrum for the area for most plants.  All that glitter has to be paid for somehow!  I wouldn’t mind the premium price if only a guarantee to match came with it.  As it is, while the plants appear to be in great shape, I’ve been burned elsewhere before.

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Independent Garden Center review: Frank’s Garden Center, Bowie, MD

17 Sep

Frank’s is an interesting place.  The owner stocks what he likes, and to hell with the rest. Many of the plants are well cared for.  However, the owner does not often mark down plants that have seen better days.

He’s a bit of a crotchety fellow, and if he takes a shine to you, you’re all set.  If he doesn’t, well, he can make the experience very uncomfortable.  Fortunately for me, I’m shiny!

The selection of perennials and annuals is on the small side, but there are lots of shrubs and trees.  The price is moderate for an independent garden center in the region.  Perennials, as they so often are, are in the astronomical range–$15 each is a typical price.  They may be gallon containers, but really?  A $15 echinacea?

Some of the trees and shrubs are a little less “expected,” which is nice, and the price is lower than some.  I forgot to check the guarantee on the plants, though I will next time.  It’s worth it to poke around the far reaches of the center, but wear your mud boots!  The paths are not well kept.

And no, there’s no website.

All in all, it’s a place to keep in mind, but not my favorite for the area.

Blocking out a bed

16 Sep

Here’s my fantasy:  a garden bed that looks fabulous and interesting year-round, without necessarily tons of flowers all the time but with handsome foliage, contrasting shapes,  and well-graded sizes creating a sense of balance and an ineffable beauty even in the depths of winter.

How hard can it be?

I’m far from an expert.  Those are the folks who can conjure up a beautiful planting with the mere bat of an eyelash.  Most gardening books are utterly maddening to me because they’re written by people who know their plants so well that they can hardly remember what it’s like to struggle to put something attractive together.  This isn’t advice from a sage.  It’s advice from someone who sat, dazed and confused, in front of plant lists and catalogs many a time, unable to process exactly how all these pictures are supposed to come together to make a garden.

I used to sit down with lists of plants that I like and start planning from spring.  My the time I got to mid-summer, I was always out of room, and I would end up with a few odd flowers tucked here and there for late summer and fall color.  And hate it.

It was only after several years and much frustration that I realized my problem:  Like 95% of gardeners, I was doing it backwards!

Spring is the easiest season to plan for in any zone up to 8a, particularly, because of the ephemerals that obligingly blossom and disappear before the first big heatwave.  Any idiot with bag full of bulbs can make a spring garden pop.  Naturally, then, spring is the last season to plan–something to slip in between the other flowers while relying on bulbs planted under perennials that haven’t leafed out yet for the big punch.

So instead, I started with winter.  Winter interest consists of evergreens, interesting twigs and bark, and plants that keep interesting shapes after they die to the ground, like may grasses and Sedum “Autumn Joy.”

I’ve done this for everything I’ve designed over the past year and have been terrifically encouraged.  For now, I’ll stick with my streetside bed, which is my newest (not yet implemented) design, as my example.  It is 28′ wide and 8′ deep, and it’s the only full-sun space in my entire front yard, so I really want to get some bang for my buck.  On one side, it’s bordered by the driveway; on the other, by the property line.  The front touches the street, and at the back is a cement culvert to drain off rainwater.

The purpose of this bed is to screen the house and yard from the street.  We live at the end of a cul-de-sac, and about twice an hour, someone will drive down to the end, circle slowly, and drive away again.  A few people are probably lost.  The others are likely perusing the neighborhood; very few people know we’re back here, and when they discover our neighborhood, most visitors seem obsessed with the need to drive up and down the streets.  (Hey, so were we!  It’s a beautiful neighborhood, with houses that are very different from one another.)  These drive-bys at night get annoying, as headlights of turning cars can shine into the house.  I’m also hoping to discourage Bambi and his punk deer pals from raiding further into the yard.  Plus, my larger plans for the front yard involves a serious of garden rooms–and I can’t stand to see my only full sun space remain unplanted.

Over the next several days, I’m going to use this as an example of a straightforward way to design a bed–one that you can apply to almost any situation.

Today, I’m going to start at the beginning:  blocking out a bed the way I do it.

To block out a bed, first you determine its size and shape.  (Done!  See above.  This was easy; it was pretty much determined by the property shape here.)

Then, you decide on the general shape of the plantings.  This means the places for tall, rounded plants, evergreens, short plants, that sort of thing.  There are no details here.  It’s only a rough idea.

Because I wanted high screening behind and yet it came all the way up to the street, I decided to have four layers of heights of plants:  low, meaning a foot or less, near the road; medium, meaning 15″ to two feet; taller perennials, meaning two to three and a half feet; and finally a backbone of shrubs, from three to eight feet.  The only reason I can do this is because I can plant the shrubs near the edge of the bed, so that they grow over the concrete culvert that delineates the back of the bed.

To keep this from looking like a mishmash of plant “samples,” I need to make wide and narrow swaths of plants, the narrowest no less than 3′ wide.  This echoes the long line of the bed and makes the most of each planting.  Roughly, like this:

This is a really important point, one that’s easy to forget.  (I’ve forgotten it often enough to my sorrow!)  Impact from smaller plants comes from repetition.  If if something doesn’t cover at least five square feet, it’s going to have little weight in a mixed border of this type.  Every plant needs enough visual space to make an impact.  This means that either you should plant in swaths or you should leave blank area around specimen plantings for adequate appreciation.  If there are too many things competing for attention in a combined space, the result is chaos.

Now, for more preliminary work:

I didn’t what to my garden to be a sacrificial altar to the ravenous devils popularly called “deer,” and so I started with a list of deer-resistant plants.  I relied mainly on a list compiled by the master gardeners of Williamsburg, Virginia, since it’s near enough, and I supplemented that list with one from White Flower Farm.  Local lists are best:  Deer’s tastes appear to be regional, as I found to my woe when planting earlier things that no deer would touch in, say, Ohio, that they all thought was the finest gourmet food imaginable here.

I started out with a basic color plan for my bed.  I wanted as much of an emphasis on (evergreen, when possible) foliage color and texture as bloom, and for foliage, I wanted every major color–green, silver, chartreuse, and blue–in either brilliant contrast or complement.  For bloom color, I chose purple, pink, and white/cream, with punches of orange and yellow only very early in the season.

I decided I wanted a lot of evergreens (because of the border’s front-and-center place in my yard), and if much space was given to things I was growing for foliage, not bloom, then long bloom time on the plants I did choose for flowers would be crucial.  So I hunted down lists of plants that bloomed a long time, too.  I didn’t care if the plants were unusual or cool so much as bountiful and reliable!

Where do I begin (gardening!)?

13 Sep

*summons Love Story theme song*

So you buy a house.  It has a yard.  You have visions of year-round glory, brought to a fever pitch by glossy plant catalogs and trips to local nurseries.  Excitedly, you begin planting–and the next year, you realize that everything looks like a mess.

You’re not alone!  I’ve been there–more than once.  I grew up in Texas, Zone 8b, which has highly alkaline heavy clay despite the generous rainfall much of the year.  What worked there were the plants of my childhood, the ones I knew.  Then I moved to a high altitude, near-desert area of New Mexico–6a.  And let me tell you, there’s a world of difference between 8b and 6a, and an even bigger difference between a place that’s so muggy you can wring water from the air and somewhere that my house was actually air conditioned by something called a “swamp cooler,” with winds that would suck the moisture from a prickly pear.

Exactly one of the plants from my childhood did well there–one particular kind of yucca–and planting a flower meant dedicated trice-weekly watering for the next three months until it established.  The semi-wild character of the mountains was different, too, and I had to adapt my gardening style to match the environment.  In New Mexico, I planted plenty of full-sun perennials under the shade of large trees.  In the high desert, even four hours of sun is too much for many plants to handle.

This began my firmly Darwinian gardening stance–I water to establish plants, and I’ll toss a bit of iron about twice a year and I’ll fertilize once if I absolutely must, but for the most part, I just mulch and water when things are horribly dry and otherwise let the plants do their thing.

Then I moved to Maryland, zone 7, with a yard dominated by high shade, where I had to memorize a whole new set of plants and culture requirements.

You may be starting out because you just moved to a new area, or you may have lived in a similar region your entire life but have never gardened before.  In either case, the steps are the same.

Assess what you have.

Figure out the names of everything and what you should do to keep the plants in tip-top condition–or restore them to their former glory.

Note your cultural conditions.  How much sun do various areas of your yard get?  Are there particularly low or wet places?  Places where erosion is a problem?  What kind of soil do you have?  Do you have ravaging monsters deer to worry about?

Find inspiration.

Beyond the glossy catalogs, look closely at landscaping that you love, and take the opportunity to see other people’s gardens up close and personal when you can.  Magazine pictures can be inspirational, certainly, but for the finer details, local is better.

Figure out what you want in the broadest sense.

Do you want a play area for the kids?  An outdoor dining area?  A bird garden?  How much grass do you want to keep?

What kind of aesthetic do you want?  Formal clipped hedges?  The riot of color of an English garden?  A quiet, informal woodland space?

Draw a general plan.

Don’t draw what plant goes where–just figure out where your beds are going to be and how your yard is going to be divided into different spaces.

Tackle one space at a time.

Diffusing your attention diffuses the results, too.  Pick one area and go for it.  When it’s done, pick another.  Keep your unifying ideas clear in your mind as you move from area to another and make sure they flow one into the next.

The bug spray diet

12 Sep

I’ve lost two inches in my waist since July, and the reason is simple:

I once lived in New Mexico, a part of the country not known for its no-see-ums.  In fact, I believe I was bitten, on average, by perhaps one mosquito every year.  My oldest kiddo, Danger Boy, was about three when he was standing in the doorway of the house and watched with a kind of mild interest as a mosquito leisurely floated down to land on his arm.  Then it bit him, and he set up such a howl that I thought one of the mountain lions was trying to carry him away.

It took two years for him to get over his terror of anything that flew.  Carpenter bees would send him into sobbing hysterics.  Mud daubers elicited shrieks of terror.  There was even a brief moment of panic over a butterfly.  It was only slowly that he recovered the happy-go-lucky attitude of his toddlerhood when it came to things that buzzed as they flew.

We live in Maryland now, and, more specifically, we live near a swamp in Maryland.  Oh, some call it a river, but I am not fooled.  It is a swamp, plain and simple, and though it flows sluggishly between its banks most of the year, even at the best of times, there are many feet of stagnant water and mud near the banks.

Needless to say, we have mosquitoes.  We have the kind of mosquitoes that make people chain down small dogs so that they will not be kidnapped by swarms of bloodsuckers.  I have worked out a heirarchy of deliciousness when it comes to my family and that of our nearest neighbors, based upon who gets bitten when options are available.  I am thankful–if somewhat guiltily–that I seem to be the least delicious of all, but that doesn’t save me when I’m alone or when I’ve dutifully sprayed the kids (while quashing doubts about all the pesticides making them grow extra toes) and am the sole unexposed person.  So just about every day, unless it’s actively raining or windy, I have to put on bug spray, too.  Not the Family Care stuff, the perfumed imitation of real mosquito repellent.  At this time of the year, not even the Advanced stuff works–it’s just a tease.  No, it’s Deep Woods, or the best you can hope for is just delaying them down a bit.  Sort of like Death by a Thousand Bites in slow motion.

So I spray myself all over with Deep Woods (Off or Cutter, not that I care), and then until I take a shower, I don’t eat.  Everything around me seems to smell like the spray, which makes me queasy.  Worse, if I eat, everything I eat tastes like the spray.  Which makes my stomach even queasier.

So, until I get a shower, I don’t eat.  Which means that I’m losing the mom-chub that I’ve picked up since last November.  Which wouldn’t be a bad thing…except that being hungry and slightly queasy all the time is not my preferred method of weight loss.

But given the crazy things  many people try, I can imagine there might be a market for it.  I can see it now:  The Bug Spray Diet.  The Mosquito Repellent Cleanse.

Back off the idea, Hollywood.  I was here first.