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GARDENING NATURALLY: Expert designs gardens, landscapes using the ebb and flow of nature

Don't let anyone kid you, gardening is not as easy as one, two, three. Or four, five, six, for that matter. In fact, gardening by the numbers is more of a marketing scam than a gardening plan, says Don Engebretson, a landscape designer who has wr...

Don't let anyone kid you, gardening is not as easy as one, two, three. Or four, five, six, for that matter.

In fact, gardening by the numbers is more of a marketing scam than a gardening plan, says Don Engebretson, a landscape designer who has written several books on gardening and landscaping and is the field editor and garden scout for Better Homes and Gardens magazine. "You shouldn't take the easy way out. Gardening isn't always easy, but the rewards are great," says Engebretson, Deephaven, Minn. Skills in gardening, like sewing, golfing, fly fishing or any other hobby, are developed over time, Engebretson says.

"It should require work and constant, constant learning." Engebretson was in East Grand Forks April 14 at the annual NDSU-sponsored Gardening Saturday event to speak to people who wanted to be the recipients of some of his teaching.

Engebretson, who calls himself the "Renegade Gardener," says he labels himself that way partly because he is rebelling against the "dumbing down" of American gardening by people who want to market it as a "simple" hobby. Meanwhile, his very approach to gardening is unconventional because he believes nature plants in "random perfection and it plants in swaths."

"I preach a style of residential landscaping for homes that is quite a departure from the status quo landscaping style of polite clipped shrubbery; what I call 'little ball, little ball landscaping.' "


Live and learn

That type of landscaping, which involves circling trees and planting the same varieties of trees or plants in straight lines, has made it on Engebretson's list of "Top 10 Gardening and Landscaping Blunders and How to Avoid Them."

Here's a look at the list and some of the observations Engebretson made at Gardening Saturday:

10. We think too small and too straight.

Instead of looking at the big picture, gardeners divide their property into small areas and plunk things down, creating "pocket gardens. " "We circle trees with stuff. We plant a tree and we can't leave it alone," circling it with material such as white rock.

"I don't think white rock is indigenous to Earth," Engebretson says. "It completely removes the tree from the landscape. It becomes an island of itself."

Instead he suggests "circling the trees and creating a party," an island that curves away from the trees.

"Make your gardens curve. Think of the flow of nature. There are no lines in nature. There are no perfect circles in nature."


Using a flexible rope laid on the ground is a good way to create that look, he says. Once the gardener is satisfied with the layout, he or she can spray paint along the rope to create the boundaries.

9. We're afraid to cut down a tree or yank out old shrubs.

"Fix your tree situation first," Engebretson says. "Don't be afraid to cut down trees that are old, diseased or storm-damaged. "Nature thins its trees out. Don't be afraid to thin yours out."

8. We cut down healthy branches off of our evergreen trees but don't prune our deciduous trees.

"Never cut a live, healthy limb off of an evergreen tree," Engebretson says. Nature designed the branches to support one another in the event of heavy snows, and cutting branches from the bottom ruins that support system.

Instead of cutting healthy evergreen branches, he suggests annually budgeting for trimming of deciduous trees. "Budget $500 to $800 a year for tree trimming," he says.

7. We forget about winter.

"Winter is a beautiful time of year," Engebretson says, and gardeners can use items such as fountains, benches and brick walls to create landscapes that are attractive in winter, as well as the other seasons. "A bench should be placed for summer use, but with an eye toward winter."


Meanwhile, bushes such as red- or gold-twigged dogwoods, crab apple trees and eight different shades of evergreen trees can add beauty to the winter landscape.

6. We devote too much space to lawns and not enough to trees and shrubs.

Houses should be nestled by foundation plantings that include, in addition to flowers, trees and shrubs, Engebretson says.

"Flowers and perennials are the throw pillows on the couch," he says. The basis of the garden should be trees and shrubs.

The top five

We plant the wrong plant in the wrong place.

Gardeners often ask the wrong questions when they make a purchase at the garden center, Engebretson says. For example, instead of asking "How tall does it get?" they should ask "How wide does it get?"

Meanwhile, gardeners need to learn about plant culture which involves determining whether the plant requires full sun, part-sun or shade; what kind of soil the plant needs; and how much moisture it needs.

4. We get suckered into taking the easy way out.

The industry is "dumbing" itself down because it lost money a couple of years and is afraid people no longer have time to garden, Engebretson says.

But contrary to how the gardening industry is trying to market itself, gardening still is hard work and it takes time to develop skills, he says.

3. We use too few containers, structures, art, accessories and other non-plant materials.

Container gardens and window boxes pull the garden right up to the house, Engebretson says. But don't stop with just placing them there.

"Fling them gaily throughout the landscape."

Meanwhile, just as homeowners buy art for the interior of their homes, they need to start thinking about using art to complement their home's exterior, Engebretson says.

Pieces such as antique farm equipment and unique stones and driftwood are just a few of the items that can be placed throughout the landscape, Engebretson says.

2. We don't test, correct or amend our soil.

"Eighty percent of your success in gardening will come from your soil," Engebretson says. Extension services at NDSU and the University of Minnesota have soil testing labs that will do analysis.

1. We design and plant garden beds based on flower color combinations.

"Color bloom is secondary," Engebretson says. Characteristics such as the shape and texture of perennial leaves and the contrasting tapestry of the foliage is primary.

"Place trees and shrubs with an eye toward contrast in foliage."

Gardens forgive

It's normal to feel dismayed about making one of the gardening blunders Engebretson has listed, he says.

In fact, he has committed them himself.

The criteria for making his list was:

  • It must be a common blunder.
  • It must be a major blunder. "It must have been truly gruesome," Engebretson says.
  • The mistake must have been made two or three times.

Like any hobby, gardening requires a learning curve, Engebretson says.
"It's OK to make a mistake because you can always change it. I've done the landscape in my front yard three times in 22 years."

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