How to Do It Without Breaking the Bank
Are you looking out your window, itching to start messing about in your yard? Or are you unsure where to begin, and concerned about how much it will cost to beautify your little piece of Earth?
Either way, expert gardeners have good news for you. You can spend less, work less – and meanwhile, attract birds, butterflies, and bees – by following a few simple tips. Their chief advice? Plant natives.
“We don’t garden smart. We try to work against nature. It makes gardening harder, and more expensive,” says Margery Winters, assistant director of Roaring Brook Nature Center in Canton and a lecturer in the State of Connecticut Master Gardener Program.
Tips For Beginners and Not-So Beginners
Sarah Bailey, coordinator of the state Master Gardener Program, suggests:
- Plant small areas: choose a spot to concentrate on. Make a multi-year plan but start on one area. “It’s less overwhelming, and you spread the cost and work. You’re also spreading the enjoyment and learning as you go.”
- Plant small things: plants grow surprisingly quickly, and smaller plants cost less.
- Don’t skimp on focal points, like evergreens and anchor plants.
- Leave room to grow: don’t place plants too close to each other or to foundations.
- If you want an instant full effect: fill in with annuals.
- If you rent: focus on annuals.
Spring Season Specifics
It’s easy to focus on those beautiful flowers, but gardening begins with, depends on, and affects the soil. “People don’t pay any attention to soil, and it’s a limited resource,” says Winters.
Before you do anything, get your soil tested. The University of Connecticut offers inexpensive testing, and the results come with recommendations. Testing can be done any time of year, but if you want to beat the crowd, get it done as early in the year as possible.
“It will save you considerable money when you find what you don’t have to put down,” says Bailey.
Some other tips from Bailey, Winters, and Farmington River Watershed Association Executive Director Aimee Petras:
- Practice “No Mow May.” At least wait, says Petras, until after forsythia blooms. This gives valuable undisturbed time to beneficial insects and allows low-growing flowers like violets to provide pollen in an otherwise scarce time.
- Tidy up edges, but stay out of garden beds, because the wet soil is easily compacted.
- Prune in February or March, before birds start nesting, and when you can see the shape of the shrub.
- Leave leaf litter under as many shrubs and in perennial beds as possible. But if you want a more tidy look near the house, remove leaves and put down bark mulch.
- It’s best to plant trees and shrubs before it gets hot, or in the fall. Otherwise, prepare to haul a lot of water if your hose doesn’t reach.
- Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are not essential for plant life, and they kill bees and pollute the water supply. As for weeds: in small areas, they can be killed with vinegar or boiling water. Hand-held propane torches are handy for large areas, like gravel driveways. Winters offers another option: “Adopt tolerance.”
Work With Nature
You’ll save money and time by planting natives. They’re more likely to thrive, as they’re already adapted to grow here. And as a wonderful plus, they’ll fuel insects, birds, bees, and butterflies.
“When I garden, I try to think about who’s going to eat them [plants]. I want them to be functioning,” says Winters. “Think of the garden as a place for bees and birds, and how what you plant is making a difference.”
Besides, she says, “It’s no harder to plant a native plant than a non-native.”
This doesn’t mean you can’t plant your favorites. “Peonies aren’t native. I can’t live without them,” Bailey says. “It’s about balance. If you have 75 percent native plants, including shrubs and especially trees, you are a sustainable gardener for insects and birds.”
Lisa and Kyle Turoczi opened Earth Tones Native Plants in Woodbury in 2004, offering 20 species of native perennials. They now offer 400 species of trees, shrubs, grasses, perennials, and ferns.
Their business has grown because “People’s eyes have opened. Your ecosystem is very local. It’s not just a pretty plant, it’s a part of your society,” says Lisa Turoczi. Plus, she says, people have learned that non-natives require more work, when instead you can “Relax, enjoy, and bird-watch.”
Focus on Shrubs
Shrubs cost more at first but are less expensive long-term. “They last an awfully long time,” says Winters. And if you plant native shrubs, they’ll attract birds even in winter. That’s a pleasure for bird-lovers who no longer put out bird feeders because bears are out year-round in this warming climate.
Reduce Your Lawn Size
Lawns have their uses – just ask kids and dogs.
But while grass is inexpensive initially, long-term, it requires treatments, expensive equipment, and a lot of water. It doesn’t contribute to the ecosystem but does contribute to air, water, and noise pollution.
Experts recommend reducing your lawn size. For what lawn remains, they warn against applying herbicides, which kill early spring pollinators.
Before wasting money on treatments, get that UConn soil test. Connecticut has acidic soils, and if you want green grass, you’re going to have to raise the pH – but first find out by how much, says Petras. “All I have to do is apply lime,” she says of her lawn.
If you’re not a dandelion fan, know that keeping your grass tall shades out weeds. Mow no shorter than 3 inches (4 is even better).
You can turn a section of lawn into a garden bed without having to dig up grass, says Winters. Lay out a garden hose as a guide and remove a one-foot swath of grass as a buffer. Cover the area with cardboard or several layers of newspaper. It will smother the grass and decay. Within two years, you’ll have ready-to-plant soil.
But what about the appearance meanwhile? Accept that landscape design is a process, says Winters. “It doesn’t look messy if it’s intentional.”
Grow a Meadow
You can turn some of your lawn into a meadow without removing the grass or buying wildflower seeds. Just let your lawn grow. Winters suggests mowing a path around or through it, and adding a garden sculpture, to make it look intentional.
In a couple of years, wildflowers will grow. Mow once a year, waiting until after the first frost because the meadow supplies pollinators until then. Winters’ backyard meadow includes Goldenrod, Monarda, Mountain Mint, Rudbeckia, and Phlox.
The “Hell Strip”
That’s the area between the sidewalk and street that gets pummeled with salty water. “People give it up to grass,” says Petras. But the grass never does well. Petras chips away at hers each year, replacing more of the sad grass with easy-grow natives like Sedum, Rudbeckia, Echinacea, Thyme, and Sage. Now, it serves a purpose, she says. “I saw a goldfinch in my hell strip, getting pollen from one of the plants.”
Where To Find Plants
It’s hard to tell what a plant will look like when it blooms, so Bailey suggests that you find out by going on garden tours. “It’s like doing open houses – you get ideas. And gardeners share tips and plants.”
Roaring Brook Nature Center has a native plant garden, and Winters invites all to call and ask for a tour.
It’s easy to propagate many plants via cuttings and rootings, and learning how is just a click away on the internet, Winters says.
When you do buy plants, remember they’ll grow faster than you might expect. You’ll soon be spreading them around your yard or giving them away.
Some sources for buying native plants:
- Garden clubs hold plant sales in the spring.
- People give away plants on the Connecticut Natives Facebook page.
- Nurseries specializing in natives can be found on the Pollinator Pathway website.
- Your local nursery is likely to have a growing inventory of native plants, as they’re hearing more demand from customers. “If you work with your garden center, they’ll work with you,” says Bailey.
- Big box stores sell some natives, but be careful to read the label. It should have the species name only, and not be followed with a cultivar name in quotation marks.
Fall Matters, Too
What happens in your garden in spring depends a lot on what you did, or didn’t, do the previous fall. They’re called leaves for a reason. Mow them into your lawn. Leave them in beds as mulch and insulation from the cold. “Rather than think of them as a waste product, think of them as a bounty,” says Winters.
Contrary to popular belief, don’t cut back perennials in the fall, says Bailey. “Insects overwinter in the stems and leaf litter. 85 percent of those insects are beneficial.” Only remove what is badly diseased or visually bothers you, she says. “Do a spring cleaning, not a fall cleaning.”