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Going Native

When starting from scratch with your garden, native plants are usually a fail-safe option.

A friend recently purchased a cute house in the Carrollton area, but her yard is a challenging eyesore. Most of the backyard was concrete, a slab that at one time must have been the base for an above-ground swimming pool. She blasted out the ugly obstruction and now is left with a big muddy mess. Although she’s a true whiz with renovation and interior decorating, she was at a loss as to what to do with her yard and asked my advice.

I had no quick answers. I am so much better at sprucing things up than starting with a blank canvas. So when in doubt, I guess it’s best to begin at the beginning.

The most important element to make sure your lawn and garden are robust is good soil. The condition and type of your soil has a profound effect on the health and growth of your plants. Around Louisiana, soil types vary greatly, from light sands to heavy clays.

A knowledge of the characteristics of your soil will help you make the best decisions about your gardening projects.

The LSU AgCenter performs routine soil-testing. A convenient box with instructions and a postage-paid label is available at the Orleans and Jefferson Parish Extension offices and can also be picked up at Perino’s Garden Center and Jefferson Feed Pet & Garden Center. The kit is free, but there is a $15 processing fee, which includes the postage. After you send in your soil, you’ll receive a detailed analysis of your sample that will cite the levels of the main nutrients in the soil, as well as its pH, and offer recommendations for making it ideal.

The next thing to consider is your landscape plan. You want to choose a landscape design that complements your home’s aesthetic and your activity needs. There are a wide variety of Web sites that can guide you through this process.

“The most important thing is to use the same taste and style you use on your house,” says Kurt LeBlanc, landscape contractor with Harold’s Indoor-Outdoor Plants. “I suggest you start by planting trees for shade and then work beds around the tree. Trees are the bones of your yards; the rest is just makeup.”

He also suggests using trees native to Louisiana such as bald cypress and Southern magnolia.

“You can plant those and not worry because they just do well here,” says LeBlanc.

Having the opportunity to start from scratch also gives you the opportunity to choose other native plants.

“Native plants are specifically adapted to environmental factors such as, in our case, high water table and extreme heat and drought,” says Amy Graham, head gardener with Longue Vue House & Gardens. “Indigenous plants also strengthen the local ecology by providing specific food for wildlife. There is also little to no need for pest control when using natives, which reduces maintenance time and use of toxic chemicals.”    

She says finding native plants can be a challenge but suggests trying the Crescent City Farmers Market. Asking your local plant shop for specific plants is another way to encourage availability.
 
If you have an experimental streak, you might want to try some of her favorite native plants.

“I adore Callicarpa americana, the American beautyberry,” she says. “It produces glossy, showy clusters of indigo berries, which are gorgeous in the garden and great for flower-arranging. It is also a food plant for fall-migrating songbirds and the funky, rustic sphinx moth caterpillar.”

She also suggests coming to view the diverse collection contained in Longue Vue’s Wild Garden, a 1-acre garden dedicated to native plant species of Louisiana.

“A good starter plant is the Rudbeckia hirta, or black-eyed Susan,” she says. “It blooms prolifically from July through August,
is not water-reliant, self- propagates readily – and if that isn’t enough, is a wasp-, bee- and butterfly- attractant.”  

You can also join naturalist and Wild Garden steward Tyrone Foreman as he leads Wild Walks every fourth Saturday of the month. It’s an informal guided tour focusing on plant identification, seasonal interests and wildlife habitat.

There’s no doubt my friend has some hard work ahead of her, but by next summer, I feel certain she’ll be enjoying a cool beverage as she relaxes in her beautifully landscaped yard.

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