- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Americans are growing increasingly interested in gardening, but only if the activity is low-maintenance, say local and national gardening specialists.
"So many people say they want low-maintenance gardens, but I keep reminding them that low-maintenance does not mean maintenance-free," says Tom Tyler, horticulturist at the Arlington County Extension Service.
However, Mr. Tyler says, there are several effective ways to minimize the time spent watering, planting and pruning while maximizing the time enjoying a cup of coffee while delighting in the thriving flora.
Among those methods are making sure the soil has the right nutrient and acidity levels, choosing plants that do well in the gardener's specific climate zone, focusing on perennials instead of annuals, using plants that have been bred to stay small (thus requiring less pruning) and, last, adding container gardening.
So, it takes a little preparation and research before the garden is ready for a makeover with annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees. Every gardener especially one who doesn't want to spend every weekend correcting mistakes made in the garden needs a plan, says Bruce Butterfield, director of research at the National Gardening Association in Burlington, Vt.
"You can design and build a garden area that won't take all day Saturday to take care of," Mr. Butterfield says.
In fact, American hobby gardeners spend an average of just about four hours a week in the garden, he says.
"Four out of five Americans do some sort of gardening, but many of them are time-poor and can't spend a whole weekend gardening. They want to play golf and go to soccer games, too."
Along with studying books and magazines on gardening and asking questions at local garden centers, simply taking a stroll in the neighborhood can be helpful in making decisions about plant selection, says John Traunfeld, a horticulturist with the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service. "Just walk around and look at the neighborhood and ask your neighbors about their experience," Mr. Traunfeld says. "Find out what goes well and what doesn't. Find out what the fussy plants are and avoid them."
Preparing soil
Before any planting begins, it's important to make sure the soil contains the right amount of nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and the right level of acidity, which generally should be in the 6.2 to 6.8 pH range.
How does a gardener find out what the soil conditions are?
"We recommend doing a soil test," Mr. Traunfeld says.
The test costs as little as $8, but analysis can take up to two weeks. Finding out what the soil needs to be conducive to good plant growth is worth the wait, he says.
A common mistake people make is to overlook the importance of good soil and instead spend all their time and money on plants, Mr. Tyler says.
"What people tend to do is to plant a $100 tree in $10 worth of soil," he says. "If anything, it should be the other way around."
If the test shows that the soil needs more nutrients, horticulturists recommend blending in organic matter or compost to achieve the right phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium levels. In addition to blending it into existing soil, a 4- to 8-inch layer of organic material on top of the soil can be advisable, depending on the soil's clay level, Mr. Traunfeld says.
Chemical fertilizers, which may not be necessary if the gardener applies enough compost, also can be used to change the nutrients in the soil, while lime can be used to change the soil's acidity.
Other considerations include making sure the soil isn't too moist when planting because any digging will compact the soil and create concretelike areas in the garden. Mr. Traunfeld offers a trick of the trade to check the moisture level of the soil and whether it's ripe for planting.
"Grab a handful of soil and squeeze it in your hand. If it breaks apart when you let go of it, it's ready for planting," he says, "but if it stays together, it's too hard."
If the designated planting area has poor drainage and stays wet all the time, the gardener might want to consider a raised bed to improve drainage.
"Otherwise the plants will basically drown," Mr. Tyler says.
Another soil-preparation effort is weeding: It's important to get roots and all when pulling them. Adding a landscape fabric also can help reduce their spreading.
Mulching Mr. Tyler prefers shredded bark mulch (he says it provides the best coverage and is the most esthetically pleasing) is another weapon against weeds. A 2-inch layer on the surface of the soil keeps moisture in the soil, shades it in the summer and keeps weeds at bay.
Mulch can be replenished every two or three years. If more is added every year, the gardener risks suffocating the plants because the mulch layer might be too deep for sun, air and water to get through.
What, where and when to plant
As important as soil preparation is knowing what plants to choose for certain conditions.
Vegetables, for example, need a lot of sun, and if a gardener doesn't have a sunny spot in the garden, vegetables probably should be avoided, Mr. Traunfeld says.
"Vegetables and certain flowers should get at least six to eight hours of sun each day," he says.
Among vegetables that gardeners can plant in April are green beans, broccoli, potatoes, spinach and cabbage.
They also require the most maintenance, he says. They need a lot of care and must be watered at least three times a week, which, if it doesn't rain, can be a time-consuming chore.
However, there are plenty of plants that love shade, including viburnums, hollies and ground covers such as sweet box and periwinkle. Many horticulturists recommend growing plants native to the area, such as black-eyed Susan, purple coneflowers and asters.
Smaller, more compact growing plants also need less maintenance, says David Yost, horticulturist at Merrifield Garden Center in Fair Oaks. Mr. Yost is referring to all the plants that have been bred recently to remain small. Among them is the nandina, an evergreen, which is available in many varieties.
"There used to be only one kind a few years ago," Mr. Yost says. "Now I think there are seven different kinds, and the smallest one is no more than two feet."
All this may not sound "low-maintenance," but a well-executed plan can allow a gardener to install a full-fledged garden in just one weekend, Mr. Tyler says.
"It won't look mature, but it will still look good," he says.
Of course, the quickest way and actually the way that is catching on most quickly across the nation is container or permanently potted gardens. They can be moved to follow the sun or closer to the house for enjoyment. "Prefab" container gardens even are available. They start at about $20, Mr. Yost says.
"You build on success. If people overextend and start having problems, they lose interest," Mr. Yost says. "That's why containers are so good. It focuses your attention."
Container gardening has grown by about 20 percent in the past few years, Mr. Butterfield says.
"They are the simplest to plant and maintain, and they are instant," Mr. Butterfield says. "They are a clear indication that people want to enjoy their gardens while not taking much time to establish them or take care of them."

Extension offices in the area:
District: 202/274-7166
Arlington: 703/228-6400
Fairfax: 703/324-8556
Alexandria: 703/519-3325
Maryland: 800/342-2507

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