Kerry Ann Mendez does not believe in coddling her plants.
“I fertilize once a year, with a slow release fertilizer,” she told a crowd of about 140 people at the Portland Flower Show earlier this month. “I don’t do a lot of watering.”
She doesn’t use pesticides, and she says her garden is organic and sustainable.
Mendez says her garden works because she uses what she calls “tough-love plants, with the right plant in the right place.”
Mendez is a self-taught gardener who founded Perennially Yours, a garden design and consulting company near Saratoga Springs, N.Y., more than 20 years ago.
She has written two books, “The Ultimate Flower Gardener’s Top Ten Lists” and “Top Ten Lists for Beautiful Shade Gardens.” She speaks regularly on garden topics, including trips to the Philadelphia Flower Show and a Chicago flower show this spring.
Over the winter she and her husband moved to Kennebunk to be closer to their family, and she will be working at the Kennebunk location of Estabrook’s this year.
Mendez said one way gardeners get into trouble is by overestimating the amount of sun they have in their yard.
“Full sun is six hours a day,” she said, “but the time for that sun has to be from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.” She said sunlight before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m. is not intense enough to give plants its full benefit.
If a plant needs partial sun, she said, it needs 4.5 hours in the bright-light window. Partial shade can be three hours of direct sun or dappled sun all day long. Anything less than that is shade.
Mendez spent a lot of time describing how she deals with garden pests, and that one of the most common complaints she gets is that critters are eating the plants.
For bulbs, her answer is chicken grit, which is usually crushed granite or seashells. She puts a handful of grit in the hole before she plants a bulb and adds some more along with the soil.
“The grit doesn’t feel so good on their soft noses,” she said. She buys 50-pound bags of grit at feed stores, and a bag will last her a couple of years. The grit’s real purpose is to aid digestion for poultry.
Deer are another story, and she has several methods for repelling deer. First, you can plant deer-resistant plants. She included a list of about 55 favorite perennials with her talk, and 60 percent of them qualify as deer-resistant plants.
Taste and smell repellents are effective, she said, but she thinks the ones that are most effective contain dried blood. Another effective product, Milorganite, was created as a lawn fertilizer from treated sewage, but it works well at keeping deer away.
“You can use a mixture of milk and water for deer control,” Mendez said. The recipes vary, but the one she sees most often is three parts water to one part whole milk, using whole milk because the fat makes the mixture stick to leaves better. You will have to reapply the mixture after a heavy rain, and apply it especially early in the season because that is when deer set their browsing patterns for the rest of the year.
A bonus is that the milk solution also combats fungal diseases such as downy mildew and black spot.
Mendez is a fan of shade gardens, partly because they are less work – meaning less deadheading and dividing plants because they grow more slowly.
She also likes plants with interesting foliage, because they have interest throughout the growing season and not just when they bloom.
One example is Dicentra ‘Gold Heart,’ a bleeding heart with pink flowers that stand out starkly against the yellow foliage. Another is ‘Stairway to Heaven’ polemonium, or Jacob’s ladder, that has great blue flowers when it blooms in spring but looks like a variegated fern after you shear off the spent blossoms.
Bearded iris are among the most beautiful plants, but ‘Argentea Variegata’ has green and white-striped foliage.
She also likes intersectional peonies, which are a cross between herbaceous peonies and tree peonies.
The advantages are that they have more colors, have stronger stems so they don’t flop and die back to the ground at the end of the growing season, so they don’t suffer damage in winter.
With hosta, she said the blue varieties have more resistance to slugs because the blue of the leaves is caused by a waxy substance that also resists being eaten.
And she recommends getting varieties with fragrant flowers so you have another interest in the plant.
These are just a few of the plants Mendez mentioned. If you want the rest you can attend some of the talks she will be giving now that she is living in Maine, drop by Estabrook’s in Kennebunk or go to pyours.com for more information or to sign up for her monthly newsletter.
Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: