Friday, April 9, 2010

Simple Ways to Create a Landscape You Love

When we moved into our home five years ago, I remember looking at the rolling expanse of dirt, dotted with scruffy patches of grass and wayward thistles. Other more experienced gardeners might have seen a blank canvas, but I felt overcome with landscape anxiety. An impossibly small landscaping budget and a file full of seemingly perfect garden images only made matters worse.

From the start, I knew I had to make peace with Mother Nature. This meant creating a landscape that could bear harsh temperature swings, little rainfall, and droves of hungry deer. It also meant raising my weed tolerance if I didn’t want to institute a serious spraying regimen or commit to hand digging a thousand dandelions.

I didn’t know it at the time, but these obstacles were forming my landscaping philosophy: beauty without perfection. After I got over the idea that my yard needed to be magazine-worthy, I could think about what I really wanted my landscape to do and be.

I knew I wanted a cottage garden landscape, with an abundance of flowers and vegetables and a place to enjoy them. From here, I could decide the best way to achieve this. I haven’t followed a rigid plan, but I have relied on several ideas that have helped my landscape take shape and that have kept my landscaping budget in check.

Spend your time and money on landscaping features that will bring you pleasure. If you need to create a landscape from scratch or want to punch up what you’ve got, start by setting some priorities. What landscape element will bring you the most joy? A lawn that looks like Astroturf? The same climbing roses that grew on your grandmother’s arbor? A fountain, fire pit, or pergola? From here, you can think about the best way to reach your landscape goals.

View landscaping as a process. The best landscapes evolve over time and anticipate future wants and needs—there is no such thing as an instant landscape. I always buy as many small plants as I can afford, rather than buying more mature and expensive specimens. I also tackle one or two landscape projects each year. This year, the plan is to build a roof over a back patio for some much-needed shade and create a small playhouse for our children. Make a list of what you want to accomplish in your landscape and choose the top two or three priorities to tackle this year.

Use materials readily available to you. I am fortunate to have an abundance of natural slate rock that we used for garden beds and paths. The horses in a nearby pasture supply our compost needs. A pile of cedar milled from old power poles became a garden shed and a picket fence. Look around your home and your neighborhood. What is available to you that you can put to use in your landscape?

Enhance what you already have. Paint worn patio furniture a vivid yellow or turquoise, repeating the same colors elsewhere in your landscape. Use specialty paint to splash color on a boring cement patio. Divide plants to expand your plantings. Think of ways you can incorporate existing plantings or features into your plan. Add shutters, painted trim, and a small window to a plain garden shed, for example.

CCCS/ACCE –American Center for Credit Education
Carey Denman

Monday, April 5, 2010

Practicing Gratitude is Worth the Effort

My husband was recently helping me with the spring garden chores, which involved top dressing beds with compost and cutting back the perennials within an inch or two of the ground. He was hard at work on a catmint, one of the most onerous plants to deal with in my garden. Bent over a dried tangle of woody branches, he looked up, pruners in hand, and asked, “Why did you even plant these things?” I responded with my gardening mantra, “Because I love what grows.”

In my prairie garden, where moisture tends to be scarce and hungry deer can be plentiful, catmint is a sure thing. It is tough as nails, blooms profusely, hides the fading foliage of other plants around it, and the deer don’t touch it. Yes, it tends to grow out of bounds, spreading seedlings into the gravel driveway and all along the path, and gives me blisters when I cut it back each year, but it grows—beautifully.

Loving what grows keeps me focused on the good in gardening, makes me grateful that I can sink my hands into the dirt and coax something, anything into bloom. It might take practice, but “wanting what you already have” is a good principle for life. In other words, practicing gratitude is worth the effort.

According to the research of psychologist Robert Emmons, the greatest reward for being grateful is a happier life. In several studies, Emmons asked three separate groups to keep a journal for a period of ten weeks. The first group kept track of what they were grateful for; the second group wrote down what they found irritating or bothersome; and the final group was instructed to write about something that had an impact on them.

At the conclusion of the study, the participants who focused on gratitude, by paying attention to and recording the good things that happened to them during those ten weeks, reported a higher level of well- being; they were generally happier and more optimistic, even sleeping better and exercising more. Other more objective data has shown that practicing gratitude has direct health benefits, which include lowering stress levels and moderating blood pressure.

If it makes good sense to practice gratitude, what’s the best way to do this? It doesn’t have to be a formal exercise in writing things down. It’s really about finding a way that you can acknowledge the good things in your life. At our house, this often happens at the dining room table, where we ask our children to tell us the best part of their day. Just last night, our five-year-old reported, “We got two jelly beans today. We’re really lucky kids.” It’s hard to be a cynic when I’m face-to-face with this kind of child-like thankfulness.

The next time you’re at a stoplight, resist the urge to pull out your cell phone or fiddle with the stereo. Instead, make a mental list of everything you’re thankful for. Or do the same when you’re brushing your teeth or taking a shower. However you do it, make gratitude a ritual. When you do, you’ll learn to want what you have, and you’ll be much happier for it.

CCCS/ACCE –American Center for Credit Education
Carey Denman