Pathway to a beautiful yard

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Attractive yards make homes and neighborhoods look better, and make your city or county environment healthier and prettier, too.

In Hampton, Va., the Clean City Commission and master gardeners share these tips on how to create and maintain a yard that looks good every day of the year — no matter where you live.

Evaluate your "curb appeal." Stand across the street from your house and look at your home landscape like you are a stranger in the neighborhood.

Does it look nice? Is it colorful and well-balanced? Are plantings graduated by size and scaled to their location? What would make it look better?

Plan your landscape for easy and effective maintenance. Reduce the size of your lawn with flower beds and islands to reduce lawn maintenance efforts. Use ground cover and mulches to control weeds. When you shop for trees, choose varieties that will not compete with power lines. Look for native plants that resist pests, disease and drought.

Allow your landscape to reflect you and your family. Use yard art, picnic and play areas, gazebos or other features to show that your yard is part of your home. Add wildlife habitat features such as ponds, rock gardens, or feeders, or make your yard an outdoor living space.

Trees and shrubs can enhance and protect. Use trees to shade your house and air-conditioning equipment to reduce summer energy demands. Use wind-breaking trees or shrubs on the north side of your house to block winter winds. Use trees to add color and texture to your landscape.

Select flowering trees, trees that have beautiful fall colors, or trees with interesting bark as focal points for your landscape. Take the full-grown size of the tree into account before planting it.

Plant with care. Follow expert advice in placing and planting your plants. Allow plants plenty of space to grow. Put them where they would look best fully grown. Place plants with similar sun, water and fertilizer needs together.

Water your landscape conservatively. If you select drought-resistant plants and plant them properly, you can start counting your savings in time and lower water bills. When you water, do so deeply. Light sprinkling wastes water and produces shallow roots. Set up rain barrels to capture water for the dry season.

Use lawn chemicals sparingly. Remember that your yard often is just one storm drain away from an important waterway. Use lawn chemicals as sparingly as if you were pouring them directly into your drinking water.

Only use pesticides after you identify the specific problem and then select the proper chemical registered for use with your problem. Be kind to the environment — try to use nontoxic alternatives before turning to chemicals.

Lastly, but importantly, keep your organic materials to yourself. Mulch your grass clippings and leave them on the ground to keep your lawn healthy. Start a compost pile to maintain a good supply of inexpensive soil conditioner on hand for your landscape. Composting is a good way to put your fruit and vegetable peelings to work for you as well, instead of sending them off for disposal.

Joan Harper believes in tough love for the plants in her yard.

She seldom, if ever, waters because she chooses plants that are suitable to the various growing conditions on her property. She uses no mulch because she prefers to see the ground. She relies on no toxic chemicals because she really never needs them.

Yet, Harper's piece of paradise in Hampton, Va., 2010 winner of the Hampton Clean City Commission's Yards Are Really Distinguished Showplaces contest, is just as lush and lavish as any garden could want to be.

"I have been gardening all my life," says Harper, 64, a retired schoolteacher.

"As a child, I remember vividly the blue hydrangea on both sides of my grandmother's steps leading to the front door. I thought they were the most beautiful flowers in the whole universe. She always had an impressive garden with loads of color.

"I caught the garden bug immediately and have not stopped."

When Harper moved into her current house in 2001, there were only two plants in the yard — a red crape myrtle in the front and a lavender rose-of-sharon in the back.

She soon began to change that scenario. Before buying anything, she studied how sun and shade moved across her yard, learned the makeup of her soil and then planned what would look and work best.

"You've got to do your homework, know your conditions and know what your plants need," she says.

That little bit of homework paid off because today thousands of healthy-looking plants spill everywhere, leaving little ground to be seen, especially when they are in full bloom spring and summer.

Dainty white flowers cover hundreds of stems on seven Diamond Frost euphorbias that fill a raised brick bed at the front of the house.

Nearby, dozens of celosias with flaming red blooms splash color against the green lawn.

An 8-by-35-foot bed on one side of the house is covered in a vigorous ground cover called chameleon plant — Houttuynia — that features a small white bloom in spring and red foliage in fall; although some consider it invasive, Harper's masses of chameleon behaves itself in its confined area. Abelia, Texas Star hibiscus, ornamental grasses, mums, chocolate basil, oak leaf hydrangea, jasmine and smoke bush thrive among the attractive ground cover.

In the back, Harper's garden first started with a gazebo, now barely visible, thanks to the flowering vines that camouflage its cool interior.

"The kitchen window is where I get my inspiration," says Harper, pointing to a window at the back of the house. "I look out and things just come to me."

She calls her garden "Four Seasons" because something is always doing something. Right now, purple flowering Joe-pye weed blooms for bees and butterflies. Passion vine draped along an old clothesline forms purple blooms and ripe green pods. Cup flower, named because its leaves turn upward to hold small amounts of water for birds and insects, flowers in a sunshine yellow color.

In contrast, miniature Christmas poinsettia, an annual that reseeds into all parts of the yard, sports hundreds of poinsettia-shaped buds.

And, no weeds anywhere.

"People ask me what I do about weeds and can't believe I really have no weeds," says Harper. "When I see any, I just pull them up, it's that simple."

Just as her grandmother passed on her love for gardening, Harper shares her fondness for the outdoors with granddaughter, Natalie, 10, who lives in North Carolina.

"We were out here the other day having the best time," says Harper.

"She asks me a lot of questions and we're into writing letters to each other, no not e-mail, but real letters. My last letter to Natalie asked her to name two plants she remembered in the yard, so I'll be interested to see what her reply is."

Harper also shares her yard with wildlife such as bunnies that she says behave themselves and do little damage to her gardens. She also likes the company of beneficial giant "garden writing spiders" that weave huge silk webs above a huge bed of lemon balm she planted in the back patio.

"The only thing I hate is when the spiders catch a butterfly, but that's part of nature," she says wistfully.

When Harper isn't outdoors in her yard, she's poking around in garden centers, thrift and antique stores and specialty shops, looking for the many pieces of art she — gazing balls, old windows, artsy signs and statuary — tucks into her gardens.

"Gardening is trial and error," she says. "What works for me may not work for you and vice versa. I've learned to work smarter, not harder, and to enjoy the peace and beauty it gives me.

"Some late evenings when it gets cool and the light falls on the beds, I feel like I'm living in another world. My other favorite time is very early when the dew is on the ground and I'm enjoying the stillness of the morning. My garden depicts love, serenity, beauty and wonder.

"Make your garden your own, let your mind wander and ideas will come to you."

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