Landscaping a new home is usually a challenge. But for new Howard County homeowners the task is complicated by difficult soil conditions and hot, humid, summer conditions.

Bob and Chris Barnard of Ellicott City have learned a lot during the last year about our soil conditions. They live in a development of beautiful large homes built on one-third acre portions of a former cornfield. Although the land would be termed rolling, it has been graded and filled to accommodate foundations, driveways, utilities and roads.

The Barnards' soil is typical, clay-like with a rocky base that tends to drain well and dry out quickly. If the earlier farming practices left any good topsoil, that dirt has been for the most part scraped away or covered by subsoil.

The couple's experiences with home ownership in Massachusetts and Texas gave them an advantage over many of their neighbors: They had some strong ideas about their new landscaping. Starting from scratch, they knew that they wanted a better quality lawn than the routine builder's obligation of something green that keeps the soil from eroding. Bob Barnard was not encouraged by the look of his light orange soil flecked with silvery mica or by the builder's rejection of his request for several inches of top soil.

Although he knew it would take more care, he asked that a bluegrass lawn be seeded. When the new lawn did not meet his expectations, he visited the local Maryland State Cooperative Extension Service office for help. A soil test revealed that additional phosphorus was needed to boost root growth and establishment of his lawn. Now, 1 years later, the Barnards are pleased with their choice. The lawn has filled in well and is free of weeds.

Daughters Jessica and Amanda especially like its wonderful "barefoot" feel, and 13-year-old son Bobby helps keep it mowed. The lawn creates a good setting for their home and its new landscaping.

The Barnards also worked with the builder to choose more suitable foundation plants. The couple wanted the entrance to be attractive to visitors and offer a welcome for the family after a long day. The modified builder's landscaping includes several azaleas, ground cover junipers, and Japanese holly for the front.

Chris Barnard has added low-growing flowers for color, and what Bob terms "curb appeal." A few pink geraniums, pink and blue double petunias, and multihued coleus add a nice accent to the two-story, gray house. A few more geraniums flow over the sides of hanging baskets. Small yellow marigolds fill attractive terra-cotta planters on the wide front step.

The only tree in their front yard -- a small, weeping, Yoschino cherry (from which Bob Barnard collected Japanese beetles by the hundreds every day this summer) -- will be magnificent in a few years. Three white pines, put in by the builder, grow between the driveway and the adjacent property.

On the other side, they have planted arborvitae and Bradford pear trees to help screen immediate views from the neighboring house. A group of red-twig dogwoods is clustered near one corner of the house for accent, and winged-euonymus, sometimes called burning bushes for their bright fall leaf color, grow around the side and deck in the backyard.

One sunny corner is reserved for the family's only vegetable gardening venture, Jessica's "space tomato" plant. Her class at St. John's Elementary school grew the tomatoes from seeds given to them from NASA's space experiment.

All of the plants reflect the time and energy and extra care of watering and fertilizing that has been given to make them outstanding. The family found that the soil that looks so bad, really can provide good growing conditions with a little help. Both Bob and Chris Barnard enjoy working outdoors and take pride in their yard. Bob Barnard gets a break from his work as a financial director with the Digital Corp., and Chris Barnard adds another dimension to her homemaker responsibilities.

The Barnards have plans for a few more plantings, but are very aware of the temptation to put too many plants in a bare landscape. They don't want to screen themselves away from their neighbors, and they like the open view the community now affords.

Bob recommends that new homeowners try to work with their builder on landscaping. If they want a better than normal lawn, they are going to have to ask for it before grass seed is planted. This is much better than putting up with a poor lawn or having to start over in a few years.

New owners may also need to do a little homework to learn about the plants that are being used in their landscape and where they are to be placed. Some suggested plants may obscure the architectural features of the house in only a few years; others may have inappropriate seasonal colors or habits. He says the front entrance is the most important place to begin landscaping. The sides and back can wait a while.

Green Piece features local gardening tips and profiles of county gardeners every Sunday. It is written by Miriam Mahowald and Mary Gold, two county residents blessed with green thumbs.

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