The Renegade Gardener brings the dirt

(NEWPORT NEWS, VA.) DAILY PRESSFebruary 27, 2014 



Don Engebretson, aka the Renegade Gardener and writer/scouter for Better Homes & Gardens magazine, travels the county, dispensing his brand of no-nonsense landscape design.

His name, Renegade Gardener, comes from his willingness to "tell it like it is, and sometimes that runs contrary to what the gardening industry sells and espouses," he says.

"No one is born with a green thumb," he says.

"If you have trouble getting plants to grow and remain healthy on your property, while a friend of yours plants stuff and it grows like Jack and the Beanstalk, it may be as simple as you having bought property with lousy soil, while your friend got lucky and has much better soil. Gardening has a massive and sophisticated learning curve. Learn how to garden and you will turn your thumbs green."

At shows, Don typically does a stage program and then offers one-on-one consultations with people who bring in photos of a current or potential landscape project.

"I can give some good suggestions in a brief consultation at the show, mainly concerning bed size, shape, and placement," he says.

"Tree placement also, and placement of landscape features such as patios, pathways, water features. It's difficult to get very involved in actual plant types and varieties. It's up to the homeowners to decide what they like; my opinion in that regard does not take precedence over theirs. They need to visit nurseries and go online and choose the plants they like.

"A common thread through many past consultations I have done with homeowners is their reluctance to remove existing plant material that negatively impacts future design. Very often the start of a new landscape involves removal of old material."

A landscape designer for 20 years, Engebretson has published five books on gardening and landscaping. For four seasons, he was the gardening expert on HGTV's "TIPICAL MaryEllen" show, and in 2002 served as landscaping consultant to the PBS TV series "Hometime." Online, he's at


"I see a continuation of the trend toward growing food, vegetable gardens, fruiting trees, etc.," he says. "Container gardening and using containers as artful accents is also going strong. Unfortunately, I also see a trend toward the continuation of the quest toward 'low-maintenance' landscapes, which do not exist.

"I do see a move toward sustainable gardening, even if the definition is somewhat muddled. Water conservation, gardening so as to cut down on the use of organic and synthetic chemical products, reducing lawn areas, planting more trees - these are all good and important things to move toward. But yes, many in the media are writing and talking over their heads. Sometimes you need to control insect pests, and fungal diseases, but far too few realize that it's never a choice between an organic product and a chemical product. Your choice is between an organic chemical product and a synthetic chemical product. Either way, you are always using a chemical. Some organic chemicals are safer for the gardener and for the environment than some synthetic chemicals, and some synthetic chemicals are safer and better for the environment than some organic chemical alternatives.

"Homeowners should always be leery of gardening trends. Do what you like and what serves your needs."


"I'm famous for not liking daylilies (Hemerocallis). I think they are fabulous in flower, but their foliage brings nothing to the party and they soon grow into this large, mounding eyesore for much of the growing season.

"Americans are afraid to cut down trees in their yards, often trees that are on their last legs and already in decline. I often recommend tree removal of trees that are going to be dead or felled in a storm in 10 years anyway. There's nothing wrong with removing an old, battered, ugly tree - or even a healthy tree that looks fine, but is planted in a really dumb spot. We can always plant new trees as a part of the redesign, while using the opportunity to plant new, properly sized, disease-resistant varieties in better spots than the old ones."


"Perennials, I love lilies - true lilies, not daylilies - as well as iris, heuchera and sedum," he says. "Shrubs, I love rhodendrons and azaleas, junipers, fothergilla and Physocarpus (ninebarks. Flowering trees, I love magnolias (yes, we grow them in Minnesota), cherries and redbuds.

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