Help! I'm a Black Thumb and I Bought a House With High-Maintenance Plants
Outdoor spaces that are accustomed to being well-maintained can overwhelm gardening rookies. Here's how to keep your little patch of the Earth thriving.
A beautiful backyard can make anyone fall in love with a home, but all of that greenery is going to require some major TLC. If you're a homeowner moving into a place with a high-maintenance landscape, we understand your apprehension, especially if keeping plants alive isn't exactly your strong suit. Keeping succulents thriving is one thing, but caring for a lawn, shrubs, trees, and flowers? Well, that's a whole different ballgame.
Even if you’ve never put on gardening gloves or held a spade that’s not on a playing card, you can successfully keep your little patch of the Earth thriving and beautiful.
Hydrate thirsty plants
Your landscape is going to need the right amount of water, and an automated irrigation system will help keep everything hydrated.
“Irrigation is probably the most crucial thing to have under control as soon as you move into the house,” says Jen Strobel, a design consultant at Sloat Garden Center, in Mill Valley, CA. “You can have a lot more problems down the line if you ignore it and plants are dying or stressed out.”
If you buy a home with a sprinkler system, make sure every head is working properly. Also, don’t assume the schedule it’s already set on is the optimal watering frequency. Sprinkler specialists can help you calibrate your system and answer any of your irrigation concerns.
Mulch does all kinds of good things for landscapes, including keeping away weeds, retaining soil moisture, and promoting healthy soil.
Put it around shrubs, flowers, and trees. Avoid putting it right up against the trunk of a tree, because that will create mulch volcanoes, which could suffocate your trees.
Determine what’s growing
Fertilizing, watering, and pruning requirements vary among plants, so it's important to identify the plants in your yard so you can give them the exact care they need. For example, annuals (blooms that last only one season) have different requirements than perennials (plants that live longer than a year).
For help identifying plants, take pictures of them and show the snaps to experts at garden centers or to participants of online garden forums. You can also upload your photos to a variety of plant identification apps like PlantSnap or PictureThis.
Document your yard
Take pictures of your landscaping to serve as a reference of what it looked like when you moved in. It can help to know, for instance, that begonias once grew well in your side yard and impatiens flourished in the pots on your deck. You may choose to replant those again.
If you move into a home during the dead of winter, some plants without their foliage may look like their best days are behind them. You may be tempted to pull them out of the ground, but don't do it.
“I would definitely recommend giving it through April to see what starts to leaf out,” says Strobel. “Most things that are dormant through the winter should start leafing out by then, so in a few months you will be able to know if it’s actually dead or not.”
You may find some of your plants demand more attention than you’re willing to give. Potted blooms may need an indoor sleepover when the temperature drops too low. Others, like gardenias, can be hard to grow.
“They require specific soil, specific sun exposure, a heat environment, they don’t like their roots disturbed, they’re particular about their fertilizer, and they can’t really adapt well if any of those things are off,” Strobel says. Talk about needy!
If the upkeep gets to be too much, there’s no gardening rule that says you can’t replace challenging plants.
“There are plenty of easy, low-maintenance plants you can swap out, and it’s not the end of the world to change your landscaping,” says Dave Whitinger, executive director of the National Gardening Association, based in Jacksonville, TX.
Drought-tolerant plants can be good alternatives because, once established, they generally require less water and less pruning.
Build your list of experts
Ask your real estate agent and local friends and family members for names of companies they trust to help maintain their own outdoor spaces. These may include professionals specializing in lawn care, tree care, and sprinkler systems.
Also, ask for suggestions about garden centers that not only offer a variety of plants, but also have employees who would cheerfully help rookies find new selections and diagnose plant issues.
Local Master Gardeners, who are highly trained volunteers, can also be valuable resources.
Don’t get frustrated
Accept that you’ll make mistakes as your green thumb develops.
“If you lose a plant, that's OK because you can always get new plants," Whitinger says. "The only thing you’re out is your time and your money."
“Gardening is really about trial and error, so the more you plant, the more you learn,” Strobel adds.
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