- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2001

The daffodils are coming out, and the first robin is bobbing along. Spring has sprung.

It is hard to keep from rushing to the nearest garden center, filling your car's trunk with new green plants and rushing home to dig holes. But don't do it.

I speak from experience when I say you will save time and money, not to mention lots of work, if you do it right the first time.

Before you dig a single hole, you must do two things: 1) Design your landscaping, preferably with the help of a professional, and 2) Prepare the soil properly so plants will survive and thrive.

I know how it is: You want trees and flowers now. And now is the time to plant trees and shrubs although you should hold off a bit on the flowers. There's a chance of frost in the Washington area until May.

After that, if you planted a few flowers in the wrong place and in the wrong soil, it wouldn't be a great loss should they fail. Trees, however, are expensive, and they get more valuable each year if they are planted in the right place in properly prepared soil. Trees are a significant investment and can increase the value of your property.

Most homeowners are more familiar with the pitfalls of interior design than with the pitfalls of outdoor design. If you buy a tablecloth that clashes with the dining-room wallpaper, that's a relatively inexpensive mistake. It might cost you no more than the time and gasoline it takes to drive back to the store and exchange it. If you knock down a wall and build an addition onto your house without consulting an architect, you could make a $100,000 mistake or worse. It could damage the value of your house, whereas a professionally designed addition increases its value.

If you plant a bed of marigolds in the wrong place, in deep shade, for instance, all it costs you is a few dollars. A major landscaping project, however, could result in a very expensive mistake if it is done incorrectly.

Most of the better garden centers can recommend a landscape designer to advise you. You can request a design sketch and get it relatively inexpensively, rather than having full blueprints done to scale. You should start with a sketch, anyway, to make sure you and your landscape designer are on the same wavelength.

Just as with indoor design, a good designer will want to know before beginning how you plan to use your property. There are certain outdoor "rooms" you want such as a storage space for trash cans maybe, a terrace or deck for dining alfresco and perhaps a play area for the children. You might want an evergreen windbreak on the north, deciduous trees to shade you from the summer sun on the south, a privacy screening at the rear, a perennial border with cutting garden and maybe a kitchen garden of vegetables and herbs.

You will need walks or garden paths for walking around your property. You might need garden walls to stabilize and enhance a sloping topography. You might want a swimming pool, bocce court or horseshoe pit. Depending on the size of your property, you can have all these things and more. Almost anything is possible.

Walks, walls, patios, fish ponds and swimming pools are examples of what is known as hardscaping and what usually should be in place or at least drawn into design plans before landscaping with plants is undertaken. If you are starting from scratch with a piece of property, you have an advantage in that you can design anything you want, but you also have a disadvantage in that there is a lot to be done, and it can be expensive. In that case, or even if you do have some plantings, you might want to have an overall design sketch done but, for financial reasons, to limit the installation of hardscaping and plants to one section of your property at a time.

Generally, your priorities should include trees which you can buy small, but which you should get started as soon as possible and an entry garden at the front foundation. Before you plant anything, or at the same time you are planting, you must amend the soil so it will be fertile and well-drained.

The soil in the D.C. area tends to be heavy with clay, certainly not the ideal topsoil we and our plants would want. At the very least, you must work into the clay soil a good pile of compost, some rich new topsoil and a little organic fertilizer. These can be purchased at a garden center. You can make the compost yourself from a combination of such recyclables as kitchen scraps (but no meat or fat), grass clippings, autumn leaves, shredded newspaper and sawdust, but it is too late to start a compost pile for this spring. Start now for next spring.

Professionals often recommend that you buy soil-test kits to analyze the content of your soil or send samples to the local university's cooperative extensive service to determine what nutrients your soil might need or what plants your property will support. Most good garden centers sell soil test kits, as do farming supply stores. This is not a bad idea, particularly if you are installing large, expensive plants.

Professional contractors familiar with Washington-area soil, however, simply amend the soil with compost, new topsoil and fertilizer when installing modest residential landscaping. They generally select plants that thrive in our slightly acidic soil and plants that tolerate drought conditions. They generally guarantee their plantings for a year. Lawn care companies usually add lime to a lawn because turf grass generally likes sweeter soil, but most plants that thrive in this area like slightly acidic, well-drained soil.

Do not hesitate to ask questions of garden-center personnel where you buy your plants, soil amendments and mulch. The good ones are ready to help you welcome spring. If you're not a gardener but you have read this far anyway, take heart. Baseball season opens in less than a week.

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