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RISMEDIA, Feb. 19, 2008-(MCT)-You’ve got most of the boxes unpacked and the bedrooms painted. The new house is starting to feel like it’s yours. But what about the yard?

Is it foreign territory? Maybe you’re moving from a downtown high-rise and you’ve never had a blade of grass to call your own. Maybe your new outdoors is a high-rise balcony and you’ve never had a houseplant.

We’re here to help, whether you find yourself in the middle of a blank expanse of sod in a brand-new subdivision or in the former home of an avid gardener, surrounded by mysterious brown stalks.

When Claudine Holaska and her family moved to Homewood, Ill., last summer, the former owner told them, “Oh, this is a wonderful perennial garden. You won’t have to do anything to it.”

She believed him. So she didn’t set foot in the garden until October, when she noticed the plants weren’t blooming anymore and the flower beds were thick with weeds. “It’s starting to look pathetic!” she wrote in an e-mail. “I am having a difficult time figuring out what to pull, weed and cut back.”

What are the first steps?

1. Wait. The urge to redo the landscape may be as strong as the desire to get rid of that 1970s wallpaper. But it’s a good idea to go slow. If you let some time go by-even a year-before making major changes, you can answer some essential questions about your property.

You’ll know what kind of sun, shade, soil and wind you have so you can choose plants that are likely to thrive. A well-planned garden that suits its site and your needs will be much easier to care for and more enjoyable than one you rushed into.

2. Watch. “It’s going to surprise you,” says designer Brian Shea of Voltaire’s Gardener in Chicago. Maybe the previous gardener planted bulbs that will pop up in spring. Shrubs or perennials may bloom at different times. There may be a lot more shade in summer, with leaves on the trees, than in March. As the year goes by, take photos and make notes (with dates).

3. Learn. Now, while it’s still winter, get a good all-round gardening book. And read at least the introductory chapters. Leaf through garden magazines. Tear out pictures of gardens you like and ones you hate, and think about why. Are you drawn to formal gardens? Do you like looser, more natural landscapes? Find a good garden center with a knowledgeable staff. Ask them lots of questions.

4. Take a class: Many garden centers, public libraries and park districts offer free or inexpensive seminars and talks on such topics as lawn care, houseplants and choosing perennials.

5. Live. As you spend more time in your home, you will discover what kind of landscape your life requires: where you walk, where the kids want to play, where you’d like a screen for privacy, where the hot summer sun blasts your afternoon barbecues, where you’d like something interesting to see out a window in winter.

Does merely mowing the lawn bore you to death or keep you rushed? Maybe you need to keep your landscape simple.

6. Sneak peeks. Walk around your neighborhood and others and look for yards you like, especially those that seem to have the same kind of site as yours. Take a friend and talk it over. Go on garden walks. And make those notes.

7. Keep up. Sorry, but the maintenance-free yard is a fantasy. “There is no easy fix for weeding,” says landscape designer Eileen Klehr of Lakemoor, who specializes in helping new gardeners make a plan. “They have to be pulled. By hand.” You will have to mow the lawn and water too.

Keep up with these few basic chores and your landscape will stay in shape while you settle into it. Neglect them, and you may have a monster to tame.

8. Plant. To really own your garden, you have to get your hands in the dirt. So plan to plant a little something this spring. A good bet: pots. They are small enough to master and can be moved to find the sun.

Place a couple of pots near where you think you’ll want to sit. Invest in quality containers and ask the garden center for help choosing potting mix and plants. “You have some flowers, you have some beauty that you are happy with until you are ready to tackle the rest,” says Linda Sarb, who coaches new gardeners through her business, Gardening Angels in Lisle.

9. It’s not just flowers: Herbs and some vegetables thrive in big enough pots; even some varieties of tomatoes are suitable.

Don’t over commit the first year; you may end up overburdened or create problems down the road by installing garden beds or big plants in the wrong places.

10. Identify. Even in a brand-new subdivision landscape, you will have mystery plants (what are those spindly saplings?). Different plants have different needs and will develop in different ways. Even knowing what kind of grass you have can make a difference (yes, there are different kinds).

Photos-of leaves, flowers and the plant’s overall shape-will be key to a good ID. The library has garden books and the Internet is chock-full of plant information. You also can consult the gardening advisers at the Plant Information service of the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe (where they answered 35,000 questions last year), the Plant Clinic of The Morton Arboretum in Lisle and the University of Illinois Extension. They won’t be able to identify plants over the phone, though. Take them photos and samples.

11. Don’t whack. Many people assume all bushes must be sheared into neat geometric shapes. But most shrubs look better and are healthier if they are allowed to keep their natural form, and one pruning technique doesn’t fit all. Prune some shrubs wrong and you may never see flowers. So don’t trim your hedges until you have identified the plants.

12. Compost. What matters most in your landscape is what you can’t see: the soil below, and all the organisms that should be thriving in it. On their health and happiness everything else depends. There is nothing better for your soil than plenty of compost– decayed plant matter that gives all kinds of goodness back to your garden. And if you make it yourself, it’s free.

Stake your claim to a future of great soil by starting a compost pile (or buy a bin) and getting in the habit of putting the right stuff in it. For more information, see

13. Make friends. Take some cookies or a jar of jam and knock on the door of the best-looking garden in the neighborhood. That gardener may be willing to help you learn about the plants in your yard. Better still, you may find a mentor (and a source of free plants).

14. Dare. You’ll try, you’ll fail, you’ll learn. Jessica Rinks plunged right into her new yard in Forest Park last year, building raised beds for vegetables, moving perennials, making big plans. “I’m not afraid to plant things and just see what happens,” she says. When a plant dies, she says, “it makes me sad but it doesn’t stop me.” Expect some attrition.

Nobody gets it right all at once. Let gardening grow on you instead of expecting instant perfection, and whether you end up with a simple easy-care landscape or become an avid gardener, you’ll have an outdoors that works for you.

Claudine Holaska got some advice and went to the library last fall. Then she and her husband, Jim, did some weeding. They cut back the perennials (which had stopped blooming because it was their time to shut down for winter) and shredded fallen leaves for the compost pile (which they had been calling “the mysterious yucky corner of the yard.”) They had taken lots of photos last summer, so they were able to identify many of the perennials and figure out what was a weed and what wasn’t.

Now, she says, “maintenance should be a lot less daunting, and a bit more fun.”

© 2008, Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.