The grotto holds more than 100 ferns.
Photo credit: Daniel Schreiber

Expert Advice

Chevy Chase, D.C., landscaper Marlene Bessel says, “We know what we like and we know what works.” Good for them, but maybe not so much for the rest of us. Here are tips from Marlene and her husband, horticulturist Mitch Baker, for keeping your garden green and healthy.

Location, location, location: Mitch says one of the biggest reasons plants fail is the poor choice of location. If a plant requires full sun, don’t plant it in the shade. Don’t burn a shade-lover by forcing it to live in full sun. “Plants can die within a week or two of being put in the wrong spot,” Mitch says.

Don’t squeeze an elephant into a shoebox: Give your plants adequate space to grow. “The tendency is to want to make [the garden] look full right from the start, but a month later, it’s too crowded,” Marlene says. “It’s like when you bring home a St. Bernard puppy and it’s so cute. Six months later it’s big,” she says.

Nature not nurture: Marlene and Mitch used many native shade plants in the garden; they’ve already adapted to conditions here and thrive when they’re correctly sited. “There are so many varieties of hosta,” Mitch says. Pick some showstoppers and use them as accents.

But nurture when needed: In addition to a regular fertilizer program, Mitch supplements with American Plant’s freshly brewed Compost Tea, a mixture of biological supplements, to help bring ailing trees back to life. He uses it on the lawn once or twice a season and on stressed, aged or newbie plants.

Find the silver lining: The blizzard of 2009-10 may have devastated area evergreens, but the snow blanket provided moisture and “was a great insulator for a lot of plants,” Marlene says.

The couple says their hydrangeas bloomed profusely that spring.

Follow the sun: Don’t let a shady yard deter you from growing vegetables. Marlene suggests using a large container like an Earth Pot. You can move it around to follow the sun.

Karen A. Watkins is a contributing editor for the magazine.