Lisa's Landscape & Design

Saving the Planet One Yard at a Time

Lisa’s 5 Basic Rules of a Successful Gardener

With the depressing last blog I posted, with impeding doom and drought  just shy of the locusts invading Austin,  I thought at least a few solutions were in order.  I have 5 basic rules to becoming a succesful garden and I have seen them work for over 20 years.  After a recent trip for over a week returning home and expecting the worst during a record drought, I saw how amazing my back yard still looked (ck out the attached video taken two days ago) when my neighbors yards were near dead.  It was proof to me that what I have been doing works.  While I cannot promise you will get adequate rain and that the heat won’t be worse next year, I can promise that you will have better success then you have had in the past by following these basic rules.

I am torn here in one of those Chicken or the egg sort of scenarios where I really struggled with whether to say soil or plant first, as I really cannot see how you can have one without the other, but I am going to have to say that the  1st rule is to amend your soil.  No, this isn’t going to require a PhD , it just means you are going to need to add a lot of organic matter.  I have said this many times, “Compost can save the world”, and you need to think of your garden as the rain forest.  Do you have adequate soil and organic matter?  If you live in Central Texas, the short answer is no.  Therefore you need to add copious amounts of Organic compost (organic matter), humus or Peat Moss (acid), a good quality dark potting soil with perlite (those white thingy’s that look like styrofoam and hold in moisture, make sure the soil is dark, not sandy beige) and cow, chicken or turkey manure. (as supplemental fertilizer and food for micro organisms and fungi).  Every Spring I toss out a heapin helpin full of all of the above (I would say 1/2 compost and equal parts of the others to complete the other half)  to give my plants a good start and to provide nutrients for the bacteria and fungi that support your plant and tree health. When I am through, I mulch heavily ( 2-4″).  Always maintain at least 4 inches of mulch /organic matter on your beds, it helps to maintain the water content, it keeps the nutrients from being leached out by the sun and it protects the plant  roots from the elements.

Now for the plant talk, there is no secret here.  The 2nd rule is to only use native and adapted all the way!! Perennial plants that are indigenous to this area are successful because they belong here.  Plants that are non native introduce pests, they have no checks and balances and can become invasive, and they have different soil and water requirements than native plants do. You can easily do your homework before you set out to find your plants so you won’t make expensive mistakes.  The City Of Austin and the Agrilife extension office put out a free native plant booklet each year that you can carry in your car, you can access plenty of free sites like my FB page at Lisa’s Landscape & Design or you can hire a professional like me to lay out a design for you that includes a plant list.  A design is a great way to know exactly what grows together, has the same water and light requirements and the proper placement of them. NEVER trust a landscaper who offers you a free design with install, not only do you pay for it later (figuratively and literally), but they will often get your plan off of a software program that plugs in plants from anywhere in the country, not only central Texas.  I just returned from the Northeast and guess what, many of  the same plants grow up there but have completely different light requirements because of our heat.  There are also a lot of plants in those generic design programs that do not belong here at all.  I design with the intention that you would never hire me at all for the install.  I specialize in Xeriscape plants and I teach you how to do it yourself if you are so inclined. If you decide to hire a professional other than myself, at the very least you will know what you are bidding on.  Remember when making plants choices for your yard that “full sun” is a minimum of 6 hours, “partial light” is morning Sun only and “shade” means SHADE!!  The sun in TX is brutal, its not only hot, but it scorches. Also sooooo important, is spacing, if the plant is 3×3′ make sure no other plants are in its mature space.  Just like people, plants need room to grow.  Cramped plants are prone to disease, they need trimming to maintain their own space and they loose their structural integrity because they have to compete for light and food. It takes about 3 years for a mature plant and 7  years (or longer) for a mature tree to really take up it’s space. (one of my rules should probably be patience 😉

The 3rd rule is to make sure you are watering adequately. This does not mean you water all the time, it means that you water one day a week to the depth of one inch.  You measure this amount with a rain gauge placed near your watering source, or simply by placing a tuna can or any flat sided vessel to measure how long it takes to get an inch, however long it takes (30 min, one hour, etc) is how long you water each section.  The reason for this is that watering too frequently causes your plants roots to stay too close to the surface of the soil and in turn requires more water. (the same is true with sod) Collect rain in a rain barrel, the more barrels the better. City water is not adequate to raise healthy plants. Rain water is far superior and you will find that during the rainier seasons that you will not have to rely on city water at all.  For every sq foot of roof space you have, only one inch of rain will collect .527 gallons, so for a 2000 sq ft roof, you can expect 1000 plus gallons from an inch of rain…that is a lot of water for free.  For the first two years after planting you will need to water more frequently to be sure your plants and trees are established, after that, the weekly watering will do. Soaker hoses are also an excellent choice for your landscape beds. You get far less spray and inefficient watering you would get with irrigation and you know the water is going strait to the source. Never use a soaker hose longer than 25′ as anythign longer loses too mush pressure at the end and the watering becomes unreliable. Check your hoses every year for leaks and replace or repair torn or broken ones as needed.

The 4th rule is to go Organic.  If you are using chemicals….Stop.  There is an organic solution to almost everything.  If there is not, or you cannot control your problems with organics, then resort to the other, not before.  Most chemical fertilizers do FAR more harm than any good they could do.  Slow release fertilizers are harmful to the eco system and due to our torrential rain events, most of it runs away anyway.  The blue stuff  is compounded with salt, after repeated use, the salt binds the nutrients in the soil making them insoluble to the plants. Weed and Feed kills everything, the timing is off on the fertilizer and weed killer, making one or the other useless, and the run off is killing our lakes streams and oceans. (hope you like Jelly Fish, they are the only ones who seem to survive the chemical wrath) I saw my neighbor this year waiving a bag of Weed and Feed in the air like an American flag to disburse his chemical warfare. About a week later, his whole front yard was dead….most people do not follow the true rate of application, making the chemical reaction and run off issues even worse. Compost your lawn, plants and trees in the Spring…DONE!  If you want to do some residual fertilizing during the growing season, buy a large container of “Liquid Seaweed” fill up one of the hose sprayer attachments, attach to hose and spray everything, lawn, plants and trees, leaves and all with no worries about killing your plants.  If a plant constantly gives you bug problems, get rid of it and replace it with one that is hardy.  Sick plants introduce pests into your garden, once they are done with the troubled plant, they take residence on another.  You will find most organic remedies now even at the big box stores and at the HEB in the seasonal isle.  Remember that the chemicals you use are on/in your children, your pets and in the water you drink.

Now for the 5th and equally important rule, DO NOT TAKE ON MORE THAN YOU CAN HANDLE  (and exercise some patience)!!   Planting a larger space than you can care for is only setting you up for failure.  Not to mention it is expensive if you lose it.  Be positive about the garden space you plant, remember, you are inherently designed as a human to be a gardener.  The reason you may not have been successful in the past is because you simply didn’t have the right information, not because you have a “black thumb”.  Honestly that is a myth, people are unsuccessful in the garden for two reasons, either  you don’t have the right info and/or experience, or you just really don’t care that much, maybe it’s just not your thang… 😉   If you desire to be successful, start with a small patch by removing some sod, do NOT use landscape fabric, that stuff is a weed magnet.  If you would prefer not to take on the labor or cost of having your sod removed ( and frankly, unless your composting it, it isn’t “green” to haul it to a landfill) you can cover the new bed area (over the grass) with painters plastic and secure with landscape pins,  ( look like huge staples)  add soil mixture and mulch to 6″ in-depth and wait for the sun to kill the grass ( a few weeks). Be sure not to use this method on a hill as it will become a slip and slide.  If this will work for you, yhe grass is pure nitrogen fertilizer so it is good for your soil.  You can then either plants into the plastic (if you are not on a slope) by cutting large holes and making room for the plant that way, or you can remove the plastic in sections as you go returning the soil the space as you remove the plastic. This is something that can be done any time of year, and company’s like mine offer these services, or you can do it yourself. (note foundation rule below)

The basic five rules are really simple to use, follow my soil recipe up to  6 inches in depth at least, (if your bed is near the foundation, be sure you go deeper instead if taller, you should always stay 4″ below the foundation line of your home)  plant the right plants, native and adapted, with the proper spacing and water (being mindful that new plants up to the first two years need a lot more water than a mature plant) and use only organic methods of fertilizer and pest control. Be sure to take on your new garden with a good attitude and an experimental mindset.  Plants have an energy and they feel energies.  If you believe you will be successful,…you will.   If you have failures, embrace them, they are opportunities for growth.  Gardening is a roller coaster….enjoy the ride 😉

Happy Gardening!!

Lisa LaPaso

Lisa’s Landscape & Design                                                                                                                                                                      LL&D

“Saving the Planet One Yard at a Time”

Check out my video’s on YouTube!!


  1. Well, I’m sure after this year everyone will be clamoring to follow those rules. I am pretty good on 3 of those but with English gardening blood in my veins you can imagine which one I fail on. Then there is the taking on too much… Been away from home for 8 weeks out of the last 10 and am wondering what will be waiting for me when I get home. I think I know!

  2. Great post! What fruit tree is that shown in your video?

    • Thank you 😉 The two trees you could see are Kieffer Pears. If you are not familiar with them they are a really crisp pear similar to an Asian or Bosc pear I would say. If you allow them to ripen until September or so, they are still really crunchy, but have a lot of flavor. Because of the tiny tree and large fruit (they are quite large mature and my trees are still babies), I pick them not to thin and cut them up for smoothies. I have started eating them off the tree as they get larger to unburden them a bit, but they are really a prolific heat and drought tolerant tree, great for shade, Fall color and the fruit is good for eating and cooking. Gonna go get me one now 😉

  3. Wow! Thanks so much for the information, Lisa. That sounds delicious. My husband and I were discussing planting a fruit tree in our vegetable garden. We want something that won’t create too much shade once it is mature. Do you think it would be possible to prune Kieffer Pear trees to keep them small/medium or is that not healthy for the tree? I’ve never grown a fruit tree before.

    • I am afraid the Pear wouldn’t cooperate, it gets about 30′ tall and cutting the main stem (meristem) to dwarf a tree can actually kill the tree, or will only make it wider, providing more shade. Not to mention you could be cutting all the fruit off. If you are looking for a dwarf-like plant citrus can be a good choice. Meyer Lemon, key lime, and some oranges do very well here with some protection in the Winter.

  4. That’s what I was afraid of. Thanks so much for your help, Lisa. I was also considering a fig tree, and have heard there are some apple trees that stay small.

    • Don’t forget figs get really fat!!! They don’t get very tall but they are real wide.

      • mysolis

        Thanks Lisa!

      • I would love to know how it works for you!!

  5. Laura Evans

    I signed up to take a Master Gardener’s class in my town but it hasn’t started yet and I hope I can make myself clear with what I’m needing to know. Here goes: People talk about ‘starters’ or starting seeds in a small protected place FIRST — reminds me of a baby nursery. Anyway, I didn’t get out there quite soon enough to collect the seeds from my ornamental cabbages before the dried pods burst open. I’m thinking I lost all those seeds. NOT, they are sprouting up from the mulch that surrounds the Mother plant…there’s like 100 or more! I love these beautiful plants & I want more to enjoy this winter but I’m very new at this & I’m not sure how to go about lifting that inch or so of mulch up & out…then what do I do? And secondly, why do I do that?

    My research tells me, a cool area will give my future cabbages fabulous color, which I’m all for! Wow, fabulous backyard you’ve got!

    • Hi Laura, thanks for the comment, If I were you in that situation, I would hold off on transplanting the new seedlings until they are larger. I had the same situation this year with my Dill and Cilantro. I mulched everywhere but in the area’s the new seedlings were sprouting because transplanting can be too stressful in the early stages. Till around the seedlings and make sure the soil is aerated around the plants without disturbing them. Once the plants have a better root system you can either transplant them into a pot and keep in a protected area (morning sun only), or inside in a sunny window. What is the weather where you are? Here in Texas those little seedlings would not survive the Summer heat, so it not just the sun, but the heat. I might also suggest some root stimulator when you move them to get the roots to take off for better support of the plant. Fertilize with liquid Seaweed and enjoy.

      Hope that answered your question 😉

      • Laura Evans

        Hey Lisa, thanks for your time. I am in Somerville, Tennessee, approx 1 hr from downtown Memphis. We deal with extreme humidity ALL the time and summer temps reach the upper 90’s easy and alot.
        I’m to hold off for now. Ok, I can do that. Q: Being that the seedlings have sprouted out of my mulched bed (mulch thickness approx 5″)…their roots are not even in any soil yet + my previous landscaper used fabric in this bed, (and I just learned you are not a fan of fabric). It’s a problem that they are not in soil, right?
        As far as tilling goes…I’m landscaping the front of my house and these seedlings are amongst well established (since Oct) plants that are neatly covered with black mulch. How would I till? Why would I normally do this? Do you mean ‘just till the mulch’ layer that surrounds the seedlings? It’s not a huge area so if I AM to till, I probably can do it with a pencil–no kidding–or maybe I just don’t get it? I’m sorry.
        Despite our weather here, the purchased potted ‘mother plant’ cabbages went into the ground as soon as I saw them on display in late Oct (2011) at my local Home Depot. And believe it or not–they did beautifully well–from day one–through rain, shine, sleet, snow. They were adequately protected from the elements and from scorching, by the partial shade of a very mature pecan tree. Cabbages were new to me so I became distressed to see them heaped with snow but later was delighted to see them grow tall. Then, even taller. And, still taller. Plus, they bloomed! A bonus! I was very proud (like I had anything to do with all that.)
        I no longer use a professional landscaper since the plan is established and since we ‘think’ we know what to do from here on out…and I google…alot. But before that, we had to hire a second professional + 3 other guys, with a transome and a bucket digger-thing to correct a drainage issue with a successful French drain. Now, we have a fabulous and functional dry creek bed that showcases some of the most beautiful rocks in the entire world, (strictly my opinion). I’ve added seashells from the banks of the TN River (imagine that) along with bauxite crystals that I collected from my travels, amongst all the beautiful and colorful KY, TN and AR rocks. It’s about Color! Color! Color! which is why I am saddened by the fact that my nine azaleas ($76 spent) that are ALREADY planted, are PINK…because I did not desire pink. I desired RED. The tag said ‘Red Ruffle’ with a picture of hot pink blooms right there! And I told the man, “I don’t want pink. I want true red” but he insisted they were red. Are some men color-blind? I know my husband doesn’t know a red from a fuschia!
        Would you like to see ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of my landscaping?
        And, Oh! Just wait until I tell you about my compost pile surprises! Wow!
        I’ll be checking in to root stimulator and liquid seaweed as you suggested.
        Again, thanks for your help,

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