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Gardening Q & A: Horticulture has many specializations – Virginian

My claim to fame, whatever it might be, is not that of landscape designer. I have never professed to be an expert in that area. In fact, in college, I took only one class in landscape design. Relief is what I felt when the final course project was submitted and graded. It was interesting, but it just wasn’t my thing.

I often have a hard time explaining to folks that horticulture is kind of like medicine – there are areas of specialization. Most people have a doctor who is a general practitioner. He or she may send you to a dermatologist, cardiologist or urologist, if you require expertise/treatment in one of those areas. See where I’m going with this?

For example, floriculture – the culture and marketing of flowers – was my specialization. I can advise you in that area and in operating a greenhouse; that’s my training and where the bulk of my experience lies. I know a bit about turf and trees, but if you require a specialist in those areas, you’d want to see an agronomist or an arborist. And I have some knowledge of fruits and vegetables, but if you want the expert, you’d talk to a pomologist or olericulturist.

But back to landscaping. A landscape designer is a hybrid between artist, plant person, communicator and psychiatrist. They understand the fundamental principles of good design, and they know plants and how specific species respond in different environmental situations. In other words, they know which plants do best in certain situations and are able to choose the best of these that will work together in a good design plan. And, finally, they are able to effectively communicate with clients to determine what their specific needs are, so that the final design meets those requirements and is functional.

I could call myself an artist, but I’m not. I could call myself a designer, but I’m not. Some of those out there that call themselves “landscape designers” may hold credentials from a college or university. And while landscape designers are not licensed, they also may hold green-industry certifications. The Virginia Society of Landscape Designers is one certifying organization.

There are lots of companies and individuals out there providing lawn establishment/maintenance and landscape installation and management services, but I wouldn’t hire one of them to draw up a landscape design without inquiring about their design experience. Many local garden centers have staff with design experience, but, again, ask specifically about that experience.

So, if you require the assistance of a landscape designer, ask about his or her qualifications, and ask to see some of his or her work and references. And as with any other service, remember, “you get what you pay for.”

term of the week

Prop root – an aerial root that arises from the stem or trunk, penetrates the soil and functions in additional support for the plant as well as in normal root functions. By definition, prop roots are also adventitious. They are also known as stilt roots. Some examples include: corn, mangroves and certain species of palm.


Q. I was hoping you could direct me to some solutions for this mess of a lawn. My husband is an avid gardener, but he insists that nothing will grow under a magnolia tree. True? We live at the Oceanfront, and the soil is hard and mostly sand. – C. Morgan, Virginia Beach

A. My sense is that this is not the answer you want to hear, but I’ll have to agree with your on-site gardener. Your picture shows a large, well-established magnolia with a dense network of shallow surface roots. I think it would be very difficult to establish anything under this tree that would co-exist with it for your purposes. In this situation, it would be practically impossible to properly amend and prepare the soil for any type of turf establishment without disturbing the tree’s roots.

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When the tree was younger, and before it had taken over the area, some understory plants might have had a better opportunity to become established, but at this point, the tree holds most of the cards in the competition for resources. And there may be one other calculation here to consider. In the picture, the tree looks quite close to your house. Is this an issue yet? Magnolias can grow in excess of 75 feet tall, with a spread of more than 40 feet. That’s something to consider going forward. My best advice for improving the appearance of this area is to spruce up by edging and then applying a 2- to 3-inch layer of a decorative mulch.

I don’t sense this by your comments, but if you are in love with magnolias, the cultivar “Little Gem” is a miniature version, in all respects, of the Southern magnolia, that tops out at about 35 feet. Most owners I know have a real love/hate relationship with the Southern magnolia.

and one more thing (or two) …

Last week I asked for recommendations for summer reading. Please keep them coming. Here are three that readers have suggested:

n “The Gardener’s Bed-Book,” Richardson Wright (recommended by S. Butts)

n “Seeds on Ice,” Cary Fowler (recommended by T. Hill, Suffolk)

n “Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Unloved Plants,” Richard Mabey (recommended by D. Jenkusky, Virginia Beach)

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