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Great Gardening: Know your property before you start spring planning and planting

I recently talked with a longtime farmer about how people grow up differently these days, with less familiarity with nature and fewer childhood memories of playing in the woods, climbing trees and splashing in a creek. Many people have never put their hands in soil. Compost and drainage are foreign terms. Most lives are lived primarily indoors and in cities, and have little to do with the rhythms of nature. Many people don’t know which direction is north, south, east or west; orientation awareness is slipping in our culture.

Just as a farmer must understand everything about the farm, so should a homeowner know the facts about his or her property, large or small.

Plantasia, the garden and landscape show presented by Plant WNY from March 31 to April 3 at the Fairgrounds Event Center and Artisan Hall, Hamburg, is not just a sign of spring. It’s a place to inspire thoughts and conversations about gardening and landscapes – the lecture series there might help – and it’s a chance to talk with landscape and nursery professionals or arborists. You can ask them questions all day. It’s also a very useful place for sorting out what kind of help, plants or products you want or will need for the season.

To get good help, of course you must ask good questions. And to give good help the nursery person or landscaper needs to ask you lots of questions. Before the show, or a garden center consultation, or meeting with a landscaper, do some homework. Prepare the following and know these facts about your own little piece of land:

• Pictures: Nobody can identify your plant, diagnose diseases or design your new landscape from a 2-by-3-inch cellphone picture. For a serious discussion, please print enlarged pictures of the plants or garden in question.

• Distances and measurements: How far is the house or the landscape bed from the road, from the nearest large trees, from the driveway or neighbor’s house? What are the measurements of existing landscape or flower beds? What are the measurements between windows, doors, air conditioning units, sidewalks and permanent trees or other features? How high from the ground are the windows? Many a small tree or short shrub quickly becomes too big for its chosen location, in part because nobody measured.

• Orientation: Consider the following conversation:

Consultant: Which way does the landscape bed face?

Customer: It faces the street.

Consultant: North, south, east or west.

Customer: I don’t know.

Customer: Think of it this way: Where does the sun rise and set in relation to the house?

For a garden or landscape design, orientation is very important. It tells you whether the sun from the east (gentle) or the west (hot and harsh) will hit your begonia basket or your ‘Endless Summer’ hydrangea. Orientation tells you whether the redbud will get whacked by a destructive west wind, or whether it will be on the protected side. When the pro knows it’s a north-facing foundation bed, she knows it’s a very shady site indeed. Orientation means a lot.

• Light: How many hours per day are the sections of the yard in full sun, dappled light, or deep shade? Keep in mind that the light in spring, when trees are not leafed-out, is different from light in summer. Try to remember the seasonal patterns.

• Wind: How windy is the spot you are analyzing for a garden or trees (or a patio or doorway)? It’s normal here that the wind comes mostly from the west, but that’s not always the case if neighboring houses or other obstacles deflect it. Notice if your neighbors have placed or planted anything to block the wind – fences or snowfences or hedges? Wind is a big factor in our comfort and the survival of our plants.

• Snow: Before you and your landscaper design a new bed, remember winter. Where does the snowplow push or dump the snow? Where does the ice from your roof land? (Newcomers shouldn’t trust the memory of this past winter; usually we deal with many snowstorms and many feet of snow.) Below ground plants are mostly safe. Dwarf conifers and flowering shrubs next to the driveway … not so much.

• Soil and drainage: Ideally, someone planning a new garden or landscape would get a full soil test or at least a pH test. Many professional companies will test soil, and others just bring in new soil for new beds. Most old landscapes have compacted, nutrient-depleted soil, and at least you will need to mix in lots of compost or composty soil mix for new plants. Discuss your soil and its history (as far as you know) with the consultant or landscape professional and make the soil decisions first.

• Up, down, all around: Our region has enjoyed many fine landscape instructors, and they have probably all told hundreds of landscapers or homeowners: Look up, down, and all around. Before you plant, know what the obstacles are. Do you have overhead wires or large tree limbs? Where is the air conditioning outlet, outdoor faucet and barbecue grill (with heat that will curl tree leaves)? Where are the large trees with root systems you’ll run into underground? What about the human and animal challenges, including dogs, kids and Bambi?

Finally, if you’re a DIY person, remember to call before you dig; utility accidents are no joke.

A nursery consultant or landscape pro will have many other questions for you, such as how you use your yard. Then come the fun ones: the colors and style and kinds of plants you’d like. But the homework comes first. Be prepared; know your property.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.