Almost as if to prove something to my wife, Terryl (who works out regularly at a local gym), I recently made some aerobic-aholics nearly get whipped by gardening. The regular group decided to put their excess energy into making a little flower garden out in front of the gym. One of them -- let's call him Ray -- put someone in touch with me a couple of weeks ago. I jumped at the chance to make 'em sweat.
I showed up on the work day wearing my usual flip-flops, straw hat and bright Hawaiian shirt. They came out of the air-conditioned gym in shorts and tank tops and sweatbands. I muscled them into working up a wasteland between and around a couple of raggedy crape myrtles. You could almost hear their heart rates go up -- along with their heavy breathing. It felt good to watch these guys get such a workout!
And I was getting into it, like a drill instructor: "Dig-dig-turn-turn! Dig-dig-turn-turn! Now the other foot -- that's right, people -- dig-dig-turn-turn, dig-dig-turn-turn! Keep it up, you got it, ladies and gents, now switch one more time, and a-dig-dig-turn-turn ...!"
They furrowed smoothly around the edge of the bed, which makes things look neat and also provides a grass barrier and a place for mulch to settle instead of running onto the sidewalk. The end result was a mounded-up bed that was partially sunken, partially raised and hand-diggable. I gave them a break, which they took -- gratefully -- in the shade.
Since the beds are beside a west-facing wall and surrounded by concrete walks, you can imagine how hot and dry anything planted there will get. We put in tough, multiple-season nandina shrubs at each end; groups of heat- and drought-tolerant annuals in the sunny parts; and red salvia and caladiums in the shaded areas. After being planted and watered in really well, they were all mulched heavily with shredded bark to help keep soil temperatures tolerable and conserve moisture.
When it came time to select a focal-point "hard feature" to give the garden a little zip, Eva, the least shy of the workout-aholics, let it be known that she would have none of my "artsy" shenanigans -- no bottle trees or flamingoes. She wanted something with finesse, like a bird bath, but settled on a large rock, which she personally helped place just so for maximum viewing.
We added some tough daylilies and a spreading, disease-free rose called Red Cascades, which will bloom nonstop with no care whatsoever. All were placed almost casually -- not at all as regimented as a workout session.
After the digging, planting and mulching, the gardeners were too tired to go back into the gym. So they stood around admiring their work, which will flourish for many years to come -- with no sweat whatsoever.
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Mulch should be just deep enough to shade the soil, but you may need to freshen it around new flowers or shrubs to replace that which has settled or begun composting.
Felder Rushing is an eighth-generation Southern gardener and regional writer for Garden.com. For more gardening information, visit the Web site: http://www.garden.com.