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December 04, 2016
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Tips from a professional: Plan, plant, persist & be pleased with yourself

Backing up to a wooded area, Gavalla created a dramatic scene, filled with blouders, “under canopy” trees, cascading grasses, shrubbery and low-growing ground cover that hugs the stone wall.
Contributed photos

Landscaper Ed Gavalla of Jesse G’s Nursery in Glen Spey, NY is in the business of helping people create special outdoor spaces. His eyes twinkle and his passion for his line of work shows when he talks about the pleasure of creating a backyard dream oasis—a peaceful zone where a person can sit quietly and appreciate the birds, the bees, the flowers and the endless palette of nature’s colors, no matter what the season. In Gavalla’s world, spring should pop with color, summer should be lush and green, and autumn should be awesome. “Personally, I may be more about autumn leaves than summer,” he confessed recently as we talked.

Whereas spring is a time when homeowners engage in a frenzied period of planting—flowers, shrubbery, vegetables, you name it—Gavella plants up until the ground freezes or the snow flies. According to him, one needn’t confine planting (and replanting) to springtime. It’s OK to plant continually all summer and fall, but there are some rules.

Splitting perennials

Splitting of perennials—dividing them at their roots—is the best way to promote new growth, and you’ll end up getting new plants for free. While some gardeners recommend not splitting perennials when they’re in bloom, Gavella insisted, with proper care, you can split perennials any time of year. Divide a plant when it’s good and healthy, and replenish the soil with organic matter/compost. Depending on the kinds of roots the plant has, the procedure differs a bit. (Watch a four-minute video and read the accompanying information at


In early spring (oops, if you haven’t done it, do it now!), remove old material from deciduous plants, ideally before they leaf out or bloom. To transplant, remove and re-place in its new location and water immediately; don’t leave it sitting out to get stressed. Then, you want to provide proper maintenance to keep everything lush, green and growing. As for evergreens (they experience a tender, new growth season in the spring), it’s not recommended to transplant when their new growth is soft, but rather to wait until the new growth is fully developed and hardened.

Make a plan

So now that you’ve tackled a few small jobs yourself, perhaps you’re ready for the BIG PROJECT, and that involves making a plan.

Determine shade, wet and dry areas. Make a sketch of these areas on a large piece of paper.

Do your research: Make a list of which plants will do best in these differing conditions. Learn which plants are deer resistant. (For a long list of deer-resistant plants, visit the website: When purchasing plants, one of the most important sources of basic information will be right there at the store. “Read the tag,” Gavalla insisted. “It’s worth the few minutes you invest.” Finally, if you’re so inclined, your research might also include having your soil tested; based on the results, you can add the appropriate amendments, making it more or less acidic or adding minerals that may be missing from your soil.

Consider the dimensional perspective: Start with low ground covers and work up to taller shrubs and trees. According to Gavalla, one of people’s biggest mistakes is overcrowding; you need to leave enough room for potential maximum future growth. If you’re planting what he called “understory trees” (they live under the canopy of taller trees), consider redbuds, dogwoods, shadblow, or bay magnolias.

Decide which plants you like best: “It’s important for people to understand what they like,” Gavalla explained. “There are blue people, gold people and silver people, for example. I’m particularly fond of gold: gold junipers and golden mop (Pisifera chamaecyparis), Peabody’s gold-tipped arborvitae.” Now, on the drawing you’ve made of your plan, sketch your plant choices, placing them, as Gavalla says, “where they want to be.”

Consider other natural features: Rocks give a tranquil native kind of feel, according to Gavalla, but need to be in line with surrounding geology and ecology. Water features also offer a sense of tranquility. “The sound of running water is soothing to the soul,” Gavalla said. “They can be a little pricey and require maintenance, but if you’re willing, they can be awesome.”

Pergolas and trellises: These manmade features, from simple to elaborate, add interest, atmosphere and even privacy, helping to create what Gavalla calls a “fortress of solitude” (or FOS as he calls it for short). Some of the vines and climbing plants he likes include climbing hydrangea (“I love it”), clematis Japonica and silverlace vine (Fallopia baldschuanica), which blooms in mid-summer.

Label your plants: This adds a nice, professional look to your landscaping and helps others identify what you’ve planted. In addition, it also helps avoid a surprisingly common problem—believe it or not people frequently start weeding out the very ground covers that they planted intending them to spread. “When I weed gardens, I weed what looks like grass,” Gavalla laughed.

Trends in landscaping

Native plants, ornamental grasses, mosses and ferns

Finally, Gavalla mentioned several popular trends in landscaping, including—top on his list—planting native plants and avoiding invasive species, followed by gardening with moss (“everybody’s getting into it this year”) and ferns, as well as planting for bees and butterflies.

For more information on working with these, here are some resources:

Ornamental grasses: See

Mosses: how to grow and care for moss:


As for any final advice Gavalla has to offer: start with what you can afford, do a little at a time, spring, summer and fall, and if you make a mistake, dig it up and move it, and then give it a drink.

Gavalla’s parting words the day we spoke? “Good luck and let’s do some gardening.”

Ed Gavalla’s favorite deer-resistant plants

Given where we live in the Upper Delaware River Valley, when making your plan, consider plants that are deer resistant. Fencing is wonderful for keeping deer away, Gavalla observed, and it comes in some awesome black and dark green colors, but there are many plants that deer don’t like and don’t require a fence.

“Most of what I plant is limited to coreopsis, Russian sage or any sage, scented geraniums, Echinacea, lavender and mint. Walker’s Low (Nepeta racemosa) is awesome.”

The more Gavella talked, the longer his personal list of deer resistant plants grew. Many varieties of deciduous shrubbery, and hardwoods don’t get browsed by the deer, he said: Vibernums; white snowballs, either Anabelle hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) or Chinese snowballs (Viburnum macrocephalum), American cranberrybush (Viburnum trilobum); Minnesota snowflake mock orange (Philadelphus x virginalis), Princeton Red Bells (Enkianthus campaulatus).

If you’re looking for deerproof flowers, Gavalla likes Japanese iris or Siberian iris, snapdragons, columbine, creeping phlox (Phlox subulata), bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis), Clematis viticella ‘Alba Luxurian’.

For four-season interest there are many evergreens: Russian Cyprus (Microbiota decussate) is a low-growing, spreading conifer, which Gavalla said he uses on every one of his jobs. He also likes bird’s nest spruce (Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’), globe spruce, mugo pine (Pinus mugo) and Oriental spruce (Picea orientalis).