Is it finally time to admit that youâ€™re not quite the garden designer you think you are? Or perhaps you want to take down a few sickly trees and youâ€™re wondering what to put in their place. Or maybe you just moved to a new house and you donâ€™t have a clue whatâ€™s in your yard and how you should take care of it.
Well, help is on the way. The volunteer master gardeners of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Westchester make house calls. For $150, you get a handful (usually two or three) of specially trained master gardeners for an hourâ€™s consultation, followed by a written report on your property and its needs.
These master gardeners will talk to you about what works in shady spots, what works in full sun, how to fix drainage problems, ways to renovate your lawn and how to add four-season interest to your garden. The Site Visit Program has been around for a decade or so, but interest has waned in recent years and Cornell wants to change that.
â€œWeâ€™d like more people to take an interest in the program,â€ says Fiona Mitchell, a new master gardener intern at the Cornell offices in Valhalla, helping to coordinate (and beef up) the Site Visit Program. â€œOur mission after all is to help the homeowner in a garden setting.â€
So far this year, only three people in northern Westchester have enrolled in the program, says Mitchell, who lives in Bedford Hills.
Last week, she was joined by three other master gardeners â€” Blaine Levinson of White Plains, Mitzi Weissman of Armonk and Judy Sandwell of Croton-on-Hudson â€” for a visit to Ruth Schwabâ€™s garden in Briarcliff Manor. Levinson and Weissman are seasoned pros with the program, while Sandwell, like Mitchell, just completed her master gardener classwork this year.
(From left, Weissman, Sandwell, Schwab, Levinson and Mitchell)
â€œWe need a little livening up,â€ Schwab says, as she greets everyone in her driveway. â€œEverything looks very overgrown and we just did some transplanting.â€
â€œWeâ€™ve got a major drainage problem â€” thatâ€™s No. 1,â€ she says. â€œNo. 2, my flower garden is looked after by two people who donâ€™t know a weed from a flower â€” thatâ€™s me and my helper. Weâ€™re desperate.â€
This is Schwabâ€™s second time around with program. Her first site visit was in 2001. â€œThey were marvelous,â€ Schwab says. â€œI implemented everything they suggested that I could afford.â€
She and her husband, David, have lived here in a split-level for 50 years, surrounded by a full acre of yard and a woodsy area in back that theyâ€™ve let grow wild for privacy. â€œWeâ€™ve got a typical suburban place, certainly not a showplace,â€ she says.
Luckily, the Schwabs deer-fenced their back yard several years ago, so they can grow lots of plants the deer would otherwise devour: lilies, impatiens, rhododendrons, azaleas, hostas, phlox and dahlias.
Schwab says that her main problem area is a deeply shaded, wet spot under an old maple that sits just beyond the swimming pool and its surrounding stone wall. She hired contractors to add drain piping last year, but the area remains wet and everything she plants here washes away in big storms.
â€œI would suggest that you add a layer of mulch under the tree,â€ Levinson says. â€œIt would immediately look different. It would hold down your soil, keep down your weeds.â€
For mulch, she suggests â€œsomething keeping with the woodsy look of the place and something that would break down,â€ perhaps wood chips or hardwood mulch. Groundcover plantings would help, too.
Once the soil is held in place with mulch, then you could add plants. â€œThere are lots of perennials we could put in, things that love it wet,â€ Levinson says.
â€œItâ€™s a good spot for a rain garden, something thatâ€™s very popular these days,â€ she says. â€œRain gardens use a combination of plants that love moisture and can stand up to the force of rain coming down.â€
Weissman says that Schwab might try planting another rock garden here. â€œIt would mirror what you have up here,â€ she says, gesturing to a well-tended cutting garden farther up the sloping back yard.
Dahlias in the cutting garden:
Levinson also suggests bringing a soil sample to the Cornell office for testing. â€œI notice lots of moss here,â€ she says. â€œYou may need to amend the soil.â€
Like many homeowners in older neighborhoods in Westchester, the Schwabs are surrounded by mature trees, making it hard to garden with anything needing full sun.
The master gardeners were able to suggest many plants that would do well in spots with partial or full shade: hydrangea, Japanese andromeda, rhododendron, mountain laurel, skimmia, ferns, hostas (especially the new ones with bright foliage), epimedium, vinca and brunnera.
The master gardeners agreed that Schwab is off to a very good start with her garden and the plantings she has in place.
â€œShe needs a ton of mulch and a ton of ground covers,â€ Levinson says.
Repetition of plants and design schemes would help, too.
â€œYou need to repeat the rock borders and visual designs to draw your eye up and around your yard,â€ Levinson says. â€œYou have a lot of lovely things here.â€
Scheduling a visit
For more information about the Site Visit Program, call Cornell at 914-285-3590 or visit http://counties.cce.cornell.edu/westchester/PDF/SiteVisits.pdf.