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Get started with your garden

Billie Clifton clips nasturtium flowers
Billie Clifton, owner of the Sunflower Cottage in Middletown, clips nasturtium flowers. The spring flower is edible and a good fit for salads. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

Billie Clifton waters plants
Billie Clifton, owner of the Sunflower Cottage in Middletown, waters blue emerald and scarlet flame phlox plants outside her nursery. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

Hydrangeas
Hydrangeas are a popular flower choice for spring planting. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

Daffodils and pansies
Daffodils and pansies are early spring flowers on display at the Sunflower Cottage. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

By Josette Keelor - jkeelor@nvdaily.com

As warm weather drifts through the valley, prompting flowers and trees to bloom, many across the area will be inspired to head outdoors and get to work in the garden.

For those having trouble unearthing their green thumbs or who previously have not had the space or opportunity to begin a garden, here's your chance.

Beginning a small garden plot is not hard; it just takes a bit of space, a dash of time and a large handful of creativity.

Start small

First choose a location for your garden, says Billie Clifton, owner of Sunflower Cottage in Middletown. Where your garden is, particularly in the shade or sun, will determine which plants will grow there. Testing the soil will alert you of any mineral deficiencies in your garden plot. A local extension office can help identify what's missing, she says.

In this area, people usually need to add lime to the soil to balance out the acidity, she says.

Next build a bed, turn the soil to make it fluffy and begin planting. If you use topsoil, make sure it has all the ingredients you need. Local topsoil, for instance, will still need lime and organic compost added, she says.

Jen Creany, a landscape designer with Earthworks Landscaping Company in Clarke County, recommends beginning with a 10-by-10 plot for a cutting garden, or bigger for a garden that includes a lot of trees and shrubs. Trees will need room to grow, she says, though flowers do well planted in clusters.

The size of your yard will determine how big of a garden you can have, but a good start is about 100 square feet, she says.

She also suggests planting a few larger plants rather than several smaller plants. In this way you can cover more ground for less money.

Think about what grows when and what will come back every year, Clifton says. Most of the color in your garden derives from spring and summer annuals, she says. Do you want your garden to supply you with many flowers to use in vases around the home, or do you want it to furnish your table with edibles? The type of garden you plant will depend on what you want its function to be.

Native plants

"A good place to start is with natives," says Creany.

Plants native to Virginia are more likely to adapt easily to your garden, and many will begin blooming early in the spring, she says.

"Make sure to buy Virginia or mid-Atlantic," Clifton says. Some suppliers will label a plant "native" if it naturally grows in the United States, but something that grows well in Idaho might not grow in Virginia, she says.

Similarly, a native Virginia plant that grows well in swamps will not do well in a dry location.

Another obstacle could be naturalized plants.

The website for the Virginia Native Plant Society, www.vnps.org, explains that plants termed "naturalized" does not mean they are native, such as Lily of the Valley or Queen Anne's Lace. Some naturalized plants can even be invasive alien plant species, like English ivy, which can quickly grow out of control if not kept in check.

Native plants are not as likely to take over the yard like foreign plants will do, Creany says. Non-natives tend to take over "mostly because there's nothing to keep [them] in check," such as deer or insects that feed on native plants.

Though this year the weather has been unseasonably warm, April can be very cold and low temperatures can affect how spring plants will endure.

"The best time to plant [a new garden] would be around Mother's Day," Creany says. Planting in May will help prevent the risk of frost damage. Plants kept inside until May, however, will do fine whatever the weather outside.

Flowers

If you did not plant those crocuses or daffodils or hyacinths last fall, never fear. Clifton says replanting a flower you buy at a garden center is a great way to kick start your garden, offering up an instant rainbow of colors in a previously lackluster plot of earth.

For seed planting, Creany recommends that novice gardeners or those without the benefit of a green thumb start with a sure thing like begonias, marigolds and petunias.

"For planting 101, those are your best bet," she says. Petunias especially: "Those are pretty hardy, fast growing, usually do well." They do not need a lot of watering or care in order to flourish, she says.

Geraniums, portulaca, zinnias and daisies are some others that Clifton uses. Phlox -- an early bloomer -- heather and bruneria are others. In summer, coreopsis, echinacea and day lilies will take the place of early colors that have since faded.

If you like arranging flowers in your home, Clifton recommends planting a cutting garden, choosing flowers that keep their color longer and look good in a vase. Some options are hydrangea, Black Eyed Susan and roses.

Edible flowers like nasturtiums and herbs like lavender and rosemary can prove a charming addition to a cottage garden as well, says Clifton.

"The definition of a true cottage garden is a collector's garden," Clifton says. Perennials, berries, herbs and flowers grown from cuttings can all add to the varied look of a cottage garden. Take daffodils, hyacinths, tulips and Easter lilies "and let them be the thing that starts your garden," she says.

The garden should be "a collection of plants that make you happy."

When the perennials in your garden wilt away, just keep the bulbs in the ground for next year, but remember where they are, she warns, so you don't plant something else in the same place. Planting something like pansies or a ground cover above it closer to ground level is OK, she says, if it won't harm the tulips sprouting below.

Trees, shrubs

Red maple is a tree Creany recommends. "That's a native tree that you can plant now that turns a beautiful color," she says. Others are the aster, the anemone and American holly.

"It's [American holly] a native tree and it gets berries in the fall and wintertime." Some trees will even begin showing their colors within the first year, she says.

"They need a pollinator -- they might need another holly nearby, a male holly," she says. Other holly bushes are usually present around the neighborhood, she says, but if not you might want to plant one.

Trees and shrubs can add color, dimension and height to a garden prominent in flowers and ground cover, hinting at mystery and depth behind every leaf and around every corner.

For more information about native plants or garden care, visit the National Arboretum at www.usna.usda.gov, the online library of plants at www.horticopia.com or the Virginia Native Plant Society at www.vnps.org.



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