New homeowners often envision a perfectly landscaped property with a weedless lawn and gardens blooming throughout the season. The reality is that perfection is seldom achieved and that a beautiful landscape takes time, patience and some knowledge about the plants you grow. Although cultural requirements of specific plants should control their use, some general rules apply to the care of all outdoor plants and flowers.
Outdoor plants and flowers grow in place; they are not taken in for the winter. There are three types of plants: annuals, biennials and perennials. Annuals grow, set seed and die within one season; biennials within two seasons; perennials return each year. Perennial plants are evergreen or deciduous; deciduous plants lose their leaves each season.
Perennials and biennials grow best in areas where they are “hardy," meaning they can survive winter temperatures. The United States is divided into hardiness zones. Each zone contains areas with similar rainfall patterns, average summer high temperatures and winter low temperatures. Many annuals are actually perennials that are not hardy in northern zones. Native trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses require fewer nutrients and water; they are less difficult to care for because they are completely adapted to a geographic area and hardiness zone.
Locate plants where they will receive sunshine according to their needs. Plants use sunlight to generate nutrients in a process called photosynthesis, so locate plants where they get as much sunlight as they require; full sun and light or partial shade are the most common exposure needs. If a plant will live in partial shade, the shaded part of the day should be during the hottest hours in the middle or early afternoon. Avoid overhanging roofs that create total shade; shaded plants flower less freely.
Most plants, including grasses, grow best in well-drained, loamy soils. Lighten clay or heavy soils with compost, well-rotted manure, sand or humus to “condition” the soil before planting. Many gardeners have their local state university agricultural extension perform a simple soil test when they move to a new area. These inexpensive tests measure and make recommendations about soil texture, acidity, nitrogen content and nutrient needs.
Well-drained, or friable, soil is important but most plant roots need moisture to process nutrients, so soil must also retain moisture. Most lawn grass, shrubs and other plants need about an inch of water a week to live and grow properly. A soil test will measure water retention potential; clay soils retain more water and need less water and sandy soils retain little water and require more than an inch of water, especially during hot, dry spells. Build water retention into soil with humus and well-rotted compost.
Weeds and Pests
Space plants far enough apart for good air circulation and access. Pull weeds and check frequently for pests. If weeds become a problem, use only herbicides labeled for use on plants in the area; not all herbicides are strictly selective. Invest in fencing for vegetable gardens and netting for vegetable seedlings and fruit trees. Treat insect pests with the least toxic methods first; pick some pests off by hand and use insecticidal soaps whenever possible.