Column: Hassle-free landscape? Plan before you plant

Ken Lain/Courtesy photo<br>
Want hassle-free landscaping? Consider the Garden Guy's six cardinal principles.

Ken Lain/Courtesy photo<br> Want hassle-free landscaping? Consider the Garden Guy's six cardinal principles.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could enjoy an attractive, colorful garden without spending all of your free time working at it? Well, it can be done; all it takes is some knowledge about the right plants and the right techniques. Do your research for the best easy-care trees, shrubs and perennials before you plant and you'll save time and money years into the future of your landscape.

When considering hassle-free landscaping, the six cardinal principles in order of importance are:

1. Choose plants that are known to be reliable and problem free for your area and won't outgrow their spaces.

2. Reduce the size of your lawn or eliminate it entirely.

3. Prepare mountain soils before planting so plants get a strong start.

4. Use shredded cedar to reduce weeds and bugs and to conserve soil moisture.

5. Feed more often and with slow-release granular fertilizers.

6. Install an automatic drip irrigation system.

Use the right plant in the right place. Considering the bewildering array of plants available at the garden center right now, making the best choice will require a little research. Start by making a list of plants you like, even look around your neighborhood for interesting options. Consult gardening books and magazine articles to learn about the plants on your list, and ask the staff at your favorite garden center to learn how well local conditions suit the plants that have caught your eye. Take quick pictures of your landscape spot, the plants you like and the plants you dislike. Share them with the nursery professional working with you. A picture is worth a thousand words and helps to narrow down recommendations.

A common mistake is to choose plants that look just right on planting day then rapidly outgrow their allotted spaces, creating a continual maintenance headache. Allow enough space for the size of each plant at its maturity. Unlike an interior design that looks best the day it is installed, a landscape design should look its best about five years later.

Some plant varieties have resistance to pests and diseases that plague their common species. For example, "Prairie Fire crabapple" is resistant to both apple scab and fire blight. "Nearly Wild" and "Carefree Delight" roses rarely are troubled by black spot, mildew, and thrips, all common threats to landscape shrubs. Choosing disease resistant varieties will result in fewer pests and ultimately translates into lower maintenance.

Dwarf varieties such as Alberta Spruce grow very slowly, as little as an inch per year. Such slow growers are more expensive initially because a plant that is only 4- to 6-feet tall may be 15 years old. Growers have invested as much time and materials in these as in faster growing varieties that are much larger. But the initial extra cost pays off over time because such plants need minimal if any pruning. Other good dwarf varieties are petite blue butterfly bush, abbotswood potentilla, acoma crape myrtle, boulder blue fescue, crimson ruby barberry, flame maple, sand cherry, and gilded edge silverberry.

There's no real trick to proper plant spacing. If a plant's mature width is 3 feet, its allotted space must be about half that distance all the way around the base of the plant. If plants are slow growing or if you want them to grow together, space them more closely. This also minimizes appearance of weeds in ground covers.

Mulch is a very effective weed deterrent. I recommend a 2- to 3-inch layer of shredded cedar bark spread around plants. Mulch adds organic matter to the soil as it breaks down, shades the soil in summer, and insulates it in winter. Replenish mulch every few years. I find it's best to freshen it with a light top-dressing of the same product at the beginning of each season.

Even if plants require only minimal maintenance, fertilizer and water are essential. Amending the planting hole with composted mulch provides just the boost new plants need. To make fertilizing a snap, use all natural plant foods that release over an extended period of time. I created my own food for mountain gardening. Ken's "All purpose plant food" not only feeds the plant, but also feeds the soil so plants want to root deeper into our mountain soils.

A drip irrigation system with timer eliminates the need to stand at each plant with a hose. A little water administered over a long period of time is healthier for plants than drenching with a lot of water over a short period. I highly recommend investing in a drip system and not just to make watering easier. A drip system will pay for itself in very short order in reduced water bills. Since most of the water flows underground to the root level, drip irrigation also dramatically cuts down on weed growth.

So there you have it. You almost can ignore your garden and enjoy it, too. If you like, ask for my six points easy garden plant list when you visit the garden center.

Until next week, I'll see you at the garden center.

Throughout the week Ken Lain is at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Road, Prescott, and can be contacted through his web site at www.wattersonline.com. Ken says, "My personal mission is to help local homeowners garden better in our mountain landscapes."