Two of North Haven Gardens’ gay experts—garden adviser Rusty Allen and container specialist Cynthia Koogler — offer tips for making your plants look great, indoors and out
By Gregory Sullivan Isaacs
Tennyson wrote that in the spring, a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love, but for many of us — even those not so young — our fancy turns to the our yards and gardens. How do we cure the wreck of cold weather (even during a mild winter like Dallas just had) to the beauty of a healthy garden from spring to summer?
The experts at North Haven Gardens know how.
As a container specialist, Cynthia Koogler deals in miniatures — gardens in pots of all sizes for indoor or outdoor. (It runs in the family: Her partner, Amanda, is also a horticulturalist and does indoor gardening with Dr. Delphinium, maintaining commercial indoor pots in office buildings and other public places.) By contrast, Rusty Allen specializes in outdoor plantings. (Unlike Koogler, Allen’s partner, Damon, doesn’t work with living things — he’s a computer whiz. “We are both geeks,” Allen says, “we just have different areas of geekdom.”)
Both Koogler and Allen are proudly geekish when it comes to helping nurture green thumbs by sharing their knowledge with all North Haven customers who ask.
First things first, then: “Where to start?” Both agree that the recent freeze was not a normal occurrence and folks will have to work around it.
“Usually, you are safe after March 15,” Allen says. “You want to plant early so that the plants get established before the heat of the summer. However, you have to keep an eye on the weather.”
One way to sidestep the dangers of unexpected weather is to change out plants as the seasons progress. “That is why we are constantly changing out our inventory,” Allen says.
For example, pansies are very cold tolerant, so you can plant them in early spring and they will last until it gets hot, Allen says. “Petunias, planted later, will take over for a while, but then they begin to expire in the really hottest part of the year.”
That may work for flowers, but grass is a different matter. Getting rid of grass-filled yards — xeriscaping — has become popular, Allen acknowledges. It saves on water and grass alternatives don’t require all the fussy turf management. But some just have to have a verdant Midwestern lawn; there are things you can do.
“If you want grass, the best thing you can do right now is aerate,” Allen says. He recommends a pull-behind drum that takes dirt plugs 6 inches deep by about a half-inch in diameter, out of your lawn. (You can have this done or rent the equipment, if you have a lawn tractor to pull it.) Good, conventional ideas. But Allen’s next suggestion is a surprise.
“Then, spread your lawn with molasses,” he says.
Are we gardening or making French toast?
“Sugar supplies energy to the microbes in the soil. The molasses is dried, not gooey, so it is easy to spread. Best, it works in all kinds of gardens from flower to grass to vegetable.” (Who knew?)
Allen says that it is easy to reduce that expanse of expensive-to-maintain grass with a little planning. “Design some paths, you can cover them with mulch or gravel or even stepping stones. Set a bench here and there.
Plant some drought tolerant trees, such as a Mexican Plum or Desert Willow. Have some raised-bed gardens placed around for your shrubs, such as Mountain Laurel, and add annuals for color. Then, leave some grassy places for the kids to play. You can easily reduce your grass by one half.”
If your yard is made up of neatly trimmed weeds, Allen says that you can kill them all with some industrial-strength vinegar — not the kind you’d find in the kitchen.
“We have a 10 percent dilution; what you get in a grocery is barely 3 percent. It kills whatever it touches,”
Allen says. Suddenly, your yard will smell like a salad.
Still, nothing much survives our blistering Texas Augusts — at least outside. If all this work is too frustrating, not to mention laden with condiments — or if you just live in an apartment — you can move your entire garden inside. Container gardening is big these days, well, small, but big. North Haven Gardens has a bewildering array of plants for terrariums from huge to tiny. Koogler recently made some in a wine glass as a party favor. But anyone who has been in a modern office lobby knows that whole trees work just fine in indoor containers.
“It is all about the light,” Koogler says. “We encourage our clients to bring us a photo of the place they want to put the container garden. Of course, the light changes as the season progresses. That tree in front of the window will loose its leaves, so your shady spot might be brighter in the winter.”
As to judging whether the light in a spot is adequate, Koogler has this cheat: “I tell people, if you can read a book without turning on a light, then that place has bright light.”
One great advantage container planting has to garden planting is also that you don’t have to leave them in one place all the time. Don’t be afraid to move your container gardens around, or even to take them outside in the summer for a constitutional.
As a final bit of advice, both Allen and Koogler agree that attitude will serve you well. “Don’t give up — a garden is not a short race, it is a marathon,” Koogler says. And Allen offers his own bit of encouragement:
“We have all killed plants,” he says.
It’s nice to know we’re not alone.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 19, 2013.