Everyone who was in school the day they taught Einstein's Universal Law of Doing It Yourself knows this equation. The more time and effort you invest in something, the more money you'll save. It is one of the Fundamental Tenets of Everything in the Universe.
So, too, is Paul Ganshert's Landscaping Theory of Lofty Ambitions Irreconcilable to Cold Reality. Loosely paraphrased, this principle states that when it comes to gardening projects, many of us bite off more than we can chew without first taking stock of how we live - and of our commitment to maintaining the home landscapes we desire.
The place where these two premises bump up against each other gets to the roots of whether or not an inexpensive yard can look professional.
Ganshert, principal of Fitchburg-based Ganshert Nursery and Landscapes, believes it can, so long as you're honest with yourself and realistic in your ambitions.
He'll present his case during "Plant Sale With the Pros" the second weekend of May at Olbrich Gardens, where he'll join Dane County Master Gardener Ann Munson and a dozen other experts.
Born into the business his father established in the early 1950s, Ganshert took his landscape architecture degree from UW-Madison almost 30 years ago. Not yet 50, he has drawn on his career-length experience to compile "10 Things You Can Do to Make Your Yard Look Professionally Cared For." He'll present these tips during the Olbrich event.
Some of Ganshert's strategies for achieving a professional look at little expense are echoed by other experts, including Munson.
"I guess the thing that bothers most people is weeds," she observes. One of the best ways to suppress weeds on your lawn, she says, is to avoid mowing your grass too short. "Three inches, three and a half inches," Munson suggests. This can shade the soil enough to suppress weed growth, she explains.
Depending on weather patterns, this may require more frequent mowing. If there's sufficient rain to spur rapid growth, Munson cautions, "you can't let it get away from you. You don't want to take more than one-third of the blade off at a time."
Ganshert concurs. Some old-timers used to believe it was good to "butch it down in the fall," he says, to make it easier to rake up leaves. "They thought it was good practice, but all you're doing is stressing the lawn just before it goes dormant." Even today, he observes, most people cut grass too short and don't cut it often enough.
There are alternatives to a higher-maintenance lawn, Munson notes. You could learn to live with more weeds, she says, but this is a hard sell. A more attractive alternative is to follow the lead of people who are moving away from lawns toward putting in more gardens. Some combine produce and flower gardens, she notes.
"Heirloom vegetables are coming back," Munson says. "It's really an exciting time. Old things are new again. A lot more people are interested in vegetables now. For a lot of people, that might mean in the front yard, where their sun is."
The growing contemporary plant palette also extends choices available for ornamental gardens, Munson observes.
For a clean, delineated appearance, she suggests, "you can make your own wattle fence, which is basically just branches of a similar size, woven wood." Willow and dogwood are good options for these projects, she says. "If you have a source, it looks fantastic." This method lends a coherent appearance and avoids a sprawling, disorganized look.
Mulch is yet another inexpensive means of achieving an attractive, tidy appearance, Munson adds, while also suppressing weeds and helping to retain moisture. Some gardeners prefer cocoa bean mulch, others oat straw, still others chipped bark or shredded leaf mulch. (Olbrich's popular leaf-mulch sale in mid-April offers $6 bags of leaf mulch, each one containing enough material to cover about 35 square feet to a three-inch depth.)
Mulch also figures in the list compiled by Ganshert, whose other suggestions for achieving a professional look on a limited budget include edging plant beds with plastic, brick, stone or another material for clean lines. Digging a shallow trench to outline your beds is an even cheaper alternative, he notes, yet still affords clear delineation. He is partial to "sinuous, flowing lines" on the grounds that they are easier to maintain.
Clearing out all the clutter may be the simplest and least expensive way to bring your yard closer to your professional ideal, Ganshert observes. Junior's Big Wheel, your fishing skiff, that rusted-out Weber grill, the leaf rake waiting for someone to step on its metal tines, those cracked flower pots containing neglected and desiccated plants: All these things distract from whatever attractive qualities may exist on your property.
This leads Ganshert back to his premise regarding how well you know yourself and your goals. Whether or not you hire professional help to plan and execute your home landscape, your commitment to maintenance can make or break the project.
Ganshert expects his presentation to run more than two hours and encompass considerations ranging from hardscapes and low-voltage lighting features to pruning, weeding and watering.
"People come to me all the time saying they want low maintenance," he says. "What they really mean is they want no maintenance." Reconciling this to a desire for a showy home landscape with cascading blooms of color can be as difficult as keeping current with the contemporary plant palette and understanding which species are appropriate to both your needs and the climate, soils and shade properties of your setting - as well as resistant to existing diseases and pests.
"Most people have a hard time with where's the line between the do-it-yourself sort of thing and hiring a professional to do it," Ganshert says. He proposes three considerations as key to where you draw the line. "A, do you have the interest? B, do you have the know-how? And C, do you have everything you need?" Answering these questions is a prerequisite to the success of even the most reasonable DIY project, Ganshert contends.
Many of our home landscape ambitions, however, are unrealistic. Ganshert attributes this to TV home-makeover shows and coffee-table books rich in color spreads of elaborate gardens featuring plants that don't thrive in Wisconsin. His professional obligation, he concludes, is to help clients avoid wandering down the wrong garden path.
One of Will Gilmore's favorite ways to save money is to shop the nurseries toward the end of the growing season, when many drop their prices 20% or more. For the best deals, he advises, you have to hit the right vendor at the right time. Wait too long for prices to drop, however, and "the selection starts getting really lame."
A carpenter, designer and builder schooled in landscape architecture and construction management, Gilmore has invested 14 years in his yard on Madison's near east side, where he and longtime partner Susan Churchill own a bungalow in a cluster of bungalows harboring one of the city's greatest concentrations of gardeners.
Churchill, Wisconsin's deputy secretary of state, has contributed willow arbors and trellises to the couple's home landscape. Gilmore's enthusiasms run more toward hardscapes and berms.
"We did start from pretty much a blank slate," he notes, describing a classic grass lawn bounded by a picket fence. An early visit to Madison Block and Stone yielded a reddish stone that Gilmore used to install a meandering path. He also transformed what had been a monoplane yard. "I really like berming," he explains, "building up the soil."
As a carpenter, he thinks in terms of hardscaping and other sculptural elements "that add structure before your plants mature." There is a birdbath. "We're pretty happy bringing in salvaged things," he says, noting a fondness for things that rust. The burnt colors of oxidation complement earth tones, he observes, but also the sparkling greens of damp moss.
Starting plants from seeds and cultivating them in flats before planting them in your yard can be a huge money-saver, Gilmore continues. So can opting for younger plants, such as a three-year-old maple instead of a more mature six-year-old. "Everything is gonna look scrawny for a while," he allows. "You just have to be patient." Patience, he suggests, is fundamental to the contemplative aspects of gardening.
"There have been a lot of false starts," he acknowledges. But he views the mistakes he has made as opportunities to learn about things like the subtleties of microclimates, which can change in the space of 10 feet depending on such factors as soil composition and shade.
- Discourage weeds through correct mowing.
- Plant a vegetable garden.
- Make your own wattle fence.
- Add edging.
- Clear clutter.
- Look for salvaged stones, birdbaths or other sculptural elements.
- Grow seedlings in flats.
- Buy younger shrubs and trees.
- Shop sales at the end of the planting season.