NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — For 23 years, Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., has been named “The Most Beautiful Park” by the National Amusement Park Historical Association.

Maintaining that designation for the park’s 200 acres takes planning, coordination and expertise from landscapers like Sheila Cox, a Virginia certified horticulturist and member of the park’s landscaping team since 2002. She’s also one of the guides that now give the Landscape Life Tour, a 2½-hour behind-the-scenes look at how the park cares for its 150 flower beds and creates its many container gardens.

During the tour, you visit the greenhouse where the park grows much of its own plant material and uses beneficial insects to naturally control pests. You also learn about the park’s green initiatives such as rain barrels that collect water for reuse and how its certified habitat garden with native plants provides food, water, shelter and nesting for wildlife.

Most importantly, a successful garden starts with good bones, according to Sheila, a passionate gardener in her personal life, too.

“For Busch Gardens, crape myrtle is among the trees that are used to provide structure to the park’s landscape design,” she says.

Crape myrtle trees offer a variety of color options and in cooler months feature visually appealing, exfoliating bark. To add dimension to support many containers, the park also uses hedges like Winter Gem boxwood, which gives strong, green coloration from late spring through the late winter months.

Secondly, focal points define your yard’s theme.

“For the park’s formal gardens in Italy, fan and needle palms were selected as the focal point, both for their look and for their hardiness,” she says.

“To blend in color and a tropical feel, the formal gardens in Italy also include green and blood bananas. The slight variation in leaf color in the blood bananas provides additional visual interest. In the France area of the park, Knockout roses were used to create a ‘French country’ style garden. Knockout roses work well as a feature element or as support in a mixed bed.

Finally, color and form can be achieved without flowers.

“From late spring into fall, croton varieties provide colorful, wide, waxy leaves in many Busch Gardens’ flower beds and containers,” she says.

“These sturdy tropical plants have a base of yellow with green, orange and burgundy accents within each leaf. Colors and shapes can vary to work in many landscape applications.

“Coleus is versatile and is easily managed with minimal pruning or can be kept within a tight size requirement for a more formal look. Coleus varieties are also widely used in the park’s late spring-to-fall flower beds and containers. Park guests may notice several varieties layered in beds within structured shapes or blended into containers with daisies, petunias or coneflowers.”

Plan before you plant. It’s really easy to go to the store and fall in love with everything. However, look at your space and figure out what you need, as well as what you want for your yard. For example, my yard is a full of flower beds — great for children to play hide-and-seek but not for playing ball. Once you decide where you want to make changes, you can spend your money more wisely when you shop for plants.

Take your time creating your dream garden. Plants will fill in, shade will replace sun. You will feel more successful if you concentrate your efforts a bit, maybe one area per season, rather than trying to do everything at once.

Get ideas from lots of sources. A visit to places such as Busch Gardens, local parks and even neighborhood yards can give ideas that will work for you. It also helps to see plants at their mature sizes and in color combinations before you buy them.

Try to reduce turf in your space. Often times, people spend a lot of time mowing and then spend money on water and fertilizer so they can spend more time mowing. Any time even a small amount of turf can be replaced with a mixed bed, the variety of plant material that replaces the turf will slow runoff when it rains and create spaces that provide a habitat for birds and insects.

Avoid using chemicals in your garden if possible. Can you manage any pests with beneficial bugs such as ladybugs or praying mantis? Can you tolerate some plant damage? If you plant milkweed, for instance, it may look unattractive when it’s doing its job as a monarch caterpillar’s food source, but it’s a great addition to a yard. Put it in the back of the bed with other tall perennials and then go out and enjoy the show.

Water smart. Choose plants that fit well in your zone and any microclimates you have. Place those plants with like water needs together to make the yard easier to maintain. Watering early in the day is usually better for disease prevention, if supplemental water is required.

“Even a small garden or large container can create a beautiful addition to your home and provide a restful hobby at the end of the day,” says Sheila.

“Take time to enjoy the process and the visitors who come to your garden. Then you can share your love of gardening with others.”

©2013 Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services