A garden where you can have it all: Find out how at Erie County Master Gardener event

garden courtesy Kerry Ann Mendez
Choose the right plant for the right spot and give it the right care. That will give you great results, save you time and money, and help the environment, said Kerry Ann Mendez, garden designer, writer and consultant. She will be one of two speakers at the Education Day to be held by the Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners of Erie County on March 12.

by Connie Oswald Stofko

If you do it right, you can have pretty flowers while helping the environment–  and save time and money, too!

Kerry Ann Mendez, garden designer, writer, speaker and consultant, will show you how to do that in two talks during the Education Day to be held by the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County Master Gardener Program.

She shared some of her tips with me in a phone interview.

Details on Education Day

For the first time, Education Day will be open to the public as well as to Master Gardeners.

The program will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, March 12 at the Classics V Banquet & Conference Center, 2425 Niagara Falls Blvd., Amherst.

Mendez will give two talks. In “10 Tips for Growing a Beautiful and Sustainable Flower Garden,” she will give tips on design, maintenance, plant care practices and plant selections that yield exceptional results for gardeners and the environment.

In “Three Seasons of Outrageous Color from Perennials,” Mendez will talk about spectacular perennials for sun and shade that brighten your landscape spring through fall.

The second speaker will be Don Leopold, distinguished teaching professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

Leopold will present “Native Plants for Sustainable Landscapes.” He will talk about native herbaceous and woody species that are no maintenance and long-lived, are adapted to extreme conditions, attract wildlife (especially birds and butterflies), are deer proof, and/or produce food for people.

He is the author of “Native Plants of the Northeast,” and “State Protected Plants of Forests” and has contributed to many other books and publications. He has won numerous teaching awards and is well known for his excellent presentations on native plants.

Advance registration is required. The cost for this full-day event is $30 for Erie County Master Gardeners, $45 for Master Gardeners from outside Erie County and $50 for the general public. The registration fee includes a hot buffet lunch, beverages and snacks. Space is limited.

Persons with disabilities requiring accommodations should contact the Master Gardener Program office at (716) 652-5400, ext. 177 by 4:30 pm March 7.

For more information, call the Master Gardener Program at (716) 652-5400, ext. 177.

Tips from Mendez

“We don’t have to sacrifice the beauty of flowers, the eye candy that we want for ourselves, in order to benefit the environment,” Mendez told me in a phone interview.

We’re often told that we have to fertilize our gardens and lawns. While some plants definitely benefit from additional nutrients, a lot of plants, especially native plants, don’t need a lot of extra input from us, she said.

If you feel a need to fertilize, she recommends using organic fertilizers rather than chemical fertilizers. Your plant can’t tell the difference between nitrogen that it gets from organic material and nitrogen it gets from a chemical fertilizer, but the soil around your plant can tell the difference.

The organic product doesn’t kill earthworms and microorganisms the way that chemical fertilizers can, she said.

“You feed the plant either way,” Mendez said, “but it’s how it affects the life around the roots of your plant that really counts in the health of your soil.”

Using chemical fertilizers creates a sterile environment or dead zone, she said. And plants that are used to this constant supplement source of nutrients come to depend on this extra feeding and don’t develop strong roots.

When you pull the chemical fertilizer away, you might see a reaction from your plants. They go into a kind of withdrawal, Mendez said. They might look anemic and they may not flower as well.

At this point, gardeners may make the assumption that it’s not working and they need to go back to chemical fertilizers.  Mendez advises that you adjust your expectations while the soil comes back to life.

“It will take time, but it will happen,” she said.

To bring life back to your perennial garden, dump compost or manure on top of the soil. You don’t have to work it in. It will be like a forest floor, where all the leaves and plant matter pile up, then break down, creating rich organic matter for the soil. The earthworms and soil life will come back.

Mendez said she has done this on lawns, dumping wheelbarrows of aged compost on it, raking it in, then watering it so the organic matter can soak in and feed the soil.

“Slowly but surely you can see a change start to happen,” she said.

Using compost or manure is not only good for your plants, it can help the environment. The use of chemical fertilizers may provide more nutrients than the roots can absorb, and the fertilizer runoff can pollute our waterways.

Another sustainable practice that we can embrace is the use of drought-tolerant plants, even in Western New York where we rarely experience drought.

“Even if you have a lot of water, you have to pay for your water,” she noted, “unless you have a well.”

And if you choose plants that don’t need to be watered often, you save time because you don’t have to drag those hoses around your yard.

Awhile back, Mendez was at a conference and was chatting with an Australian when the topic of water came up. People around the world use greywater (water left over from baths, washing machines and the like) for many things, including watering their landscapes. The Australian was amazed that Americans still use precious drinking water to water their landscapes.

“That pricked my heart,” Mendez said. “Water is becoming more and more precious everywhere around the world. Even if it’s not affecting me directly, we can embrace more sustainable habits.”

The trick to a low-maintenance, high-impact garden is to have the right plant in the right spot and give it the right care, she said. Mendez will discuss plant choice and provide extensive handouts so those attending don’t have to take a lot of notes.

“You’re going to have a great time and walk out with the information you need,” she said.

Get more tips from Mendez in this article from 2011: “Your plants aren’t your children: advice for low-maintenance gardens.”

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