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Tips for landscaping like a professional

Posted on June 15, 2016 by Mark Cullen

You see them early in the morning traveling in crews. Usually driving a club-cab pick up truck full of bright vested, coffee toting professionals, a trailer in tow loaded with plants, equipment and dirt. They are the implementers of the plan — the landscape plan.
What are their secrets to doing great work?
If you would like to landscape like a professional, I can help you. Here are my top five tips for a great garden installation.
1. Great dirt. Would you build a house without a foundation? Of course not. Buy the very best soil that you can to create a home for the roots of your new plants. What soil? ‘Triple mix’. It is 30 per cent top soil, 30 per cent peat moss, 30 per cent finished compost and 10 per cent earth worm castings (the “high-octane” boost). There is really good and really bad “triple mix” and for the most part you will get what you pay for. Ask an experienced gardener or a high-quality garden retailer will steer you to a reliable soil supplier. Don’t be surprised if you have to pay upwards of $45 per cubic yard (approximately a tonne) of soil. That is roughly equivalent to 50 20-litre bags (the standard retail size bag). When you do the math it is actually quite economical to buy in bulk. There are many reliable suppliers who sell by the ‘one cubic yard’ bag. They drop it on your driveway and when it is empty you return the bag for a refund, like a jug of milk only heavier.
2. Dig Down. The area where you wish to create new planting beds needs proper preparation. This is grunt-work, no kidding. If you have typical southern Ontario clay-based soil, dig down 30 to 40 cm (14 to 18 inches). In extreme cases, you will have to use a pick axe to do the job. Be sure that your digging tools are sharp. I put mine on a grinding wheel every time I use them. Bring in a disposal box and have it dropped on your driveway and be sure that the front of the box opens flat to the ground so that you can wheel the waste soil into the back of it.
Replace the old soil with the new triple mix and add 20 cm. Mound it high as it will settle over time to grade.
3. Buy quality plants. I have seen a lot of effort go into soil prep only to plant second rate plants. The results languish: the plants just sit there seemingly forever. In the case of perennials, shrubs and trees it can take years for new roots take hold.
When shopping for annuals, look for dark green foliage and not too many flowers. The pot should not be more than 60 per cent roots: if it is root bound take a pass on it.
Perennials grow surprisingly quickly so avoid the one and two gallon specimens if you want to save money. Buying the small potted stock is where your investment in quality soil will pay off. Plants will explode out of the great soil that you provide.
Trees, shrubs and evergreens should look healthy, no yellowing leaves. Slipping them out of the pot to examine the roots is a good idea, if you are careful. Be respectful that the retailer has to sell the plant should you not choose to buy it: paramount to squeezing the avocadoes at the fruit market, don’t bruise the merchandise. Again if the plant is root bound, with roots twirling around the inside of the pot, take a pass on it.
As a rule of thumb, “young and vigorous” is a good guide. Young and vigorous plants have equally enthusiastic roots which equal a fast and healthy start in your garden.
4. Dig wide, plant high. Plant trees more wide than deep. Most trees spread their roots horizontally rather than straight down. If the root mass of the plant is 50 centimetres deep, dig the hole about 60 cm deep and line the hole with enough new soil that the plant stands several centimetres above grade once planted. Make sure that water runs away from it. In the long run the tree will thank you with excellent performance.
5. Get a plan. This should top the list as this is a “do it yourself” column, but when you consult with a garden designer whose full time job is landscape/garden planning you will learn short cuts to a great looking garden and get the plant selection right the first time.
Note that landscapers and garden designers are in their high season right now so there will likely be a wait to get their attention. Perhaps another reason why you should consider installing your new garden yourself.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at markcullen.com. Look for his new best seller, ‘The New Canadian Garden’ published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook.

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