Fall planting can give garden a head start

Once a year, organizers of the Maryland Home, Garden & Living Show invite ChesapeakeHome to evaluate the dozen and a half or so gardens designed and installed at the Maryland State Fairgrounds and select a winner. A major draw of the spring show, these elaborate landscapes are carefully crafted to get visitors thinking about the long growing season ahead. And while spring is a natural time to get outside and start gardening, autumn has its own advantages for growing trees and shrubs.

The region's fall weather — balmy days and cool nights — creates perfect conditions for establishing a new landscape or adding to an existing garden. The warm soil helps root systems establish quickly, and unlike spring rains, autumn showers typically don't saturate the soil, so the ground is better for planting.

Because the air is cooling, plants also don't need as much water as they do in the spring when temperatures are on the rise. And since they are nearing the end of their growing season, newly planted trees and shrubs focus on establishing roots instead of pushing out new leaves, flowers and fruit. This gives them several months to absorb water and nutrients before the ground freezes, better preparing the plants and trees for next spring when the growth season begins.

But it's not just the time of year you choose for planting that makes a landscape flourish. Great gardens start with design, and landscape architects are ideally suited to navigate the many aspects of planning a successful landscape. Of course, it's always fun to do a little planning on your own, and the criteria we use to judge the Maryland Home, Garden & Living Show work equally as well for design as evaluation.

When plotting out any garden space consider the following elements: form and design; craftsmanship and materials; ease of implementation and maintenance; and, finally, the plants.

Form and design Before a single plant is purchased, decide on what style and mood you want to achieve. Modern or traditional? Formal, casual, or rustic? Asian, English, Mediterranean or American? The answers to these questions and how your design combines different influences will shape everything from plant selection to the type of stone used to build the water feature.

While you define your style, you should also be considering function. Do you want the gardens to highlight the architecture of your house or hide it? Is your goal to "look at" or "live in" the landscape?

Next, determine which individual elements are must-haves, hope-fors, and don't-needs. Patios, paths, water features, sculptures, outdoor kitchens, pergolas, arbors, specimen plants and more can all be focal points of an overall landscape and are more easily implemented at the planning stage than after the fact.

Craftsmanship and materials Don't skimp. Stonework and pavers, wood structures, landscape lighting, water features, garden architecture and ornamentation all take a beating. Here in Maryland, these elements need to be able to withstand temperatures that range from 10 degrees to more than 100, multiple freezes and thaws, dry seasons, rainy seasons and high humidity. Given the extremes, quality craftsmanship and materials are a must.

Implementation and maintenance Depending on whether or not you plan to do-it-yourself or hire a contractor to "install" your landscape, the design should definitely consider the ease of implementation.

Will heavy equipment be needed for grading, excavating or moving boulders? If so, is there access to your yard without disturbing your neighbors? Want the impact of a "mature" landscape the same season it's planted? Account for the labor required for digging the holes for large trees and moving them into place.

Similarly, consider maintenance in the short and long term. Are the plants you love invasive, fast-growing species that will quickly overtake your landscape? A plan that doesn't consider what a landscape will look like in 10 years isn't much of a plan.

Plants It's OK to start the design process with a plant palette in mind, but the most successful landscapes are typically ones that start with a functional layout and then add in architecture paths, and patios before specifying trees, shrubs, and perennials.

The most important criteria for plant selection are location, climate and environment. One increasingly popular method of specifying a garden palette is to consider only native plants. While maintenance-free landscapes don't exist, native plants require much less upkeep than non-natives because they've had the benefit of evolving over thousands of years. Maryland natives are typically heat-, humidity- and drought-tolerant, resistant to native pests and diseases, and generally inclined to thrive wherever you put them.

Another element that must be considered is the neighborhood wildlife. Attracting birds to the landscape is usually desired, but planting a salad bar for Bambi and friends is not. You might love hostas, but so do deer. Consult experts at local garden centers for advice on what to plant for attracting birds as well as a list of trees, shrubs and perennials that furry critters won't find so delicious.

Also, keep in mind that plants grow at different rates, to different heights and widths at maturity, in different soil and light conditions. To avoid the disappointment of a beautiful garden that quickly becomes an overgrown, out-of-control mess, start with a plan based on good horticultural knowledge and a clear vision for future growth.

Dennis Hockman is editor of ChesapeakeHome magazine. He can be reached at dhockman@chesapeakehome.com.

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