Spring 2020 is here! Winter flowering witch hazel is nearly finished, forsythia is beginning to open, and my potted hellebores are now bringing beautiful, pastel colors to the garden. Warmer weather, returning birds, and plant growth are underway!
You may be considering redoing parts of your landscape this year. Maybe you’re thinking of redoing it all. Winter gives us a lot of time to think about the new year’s garden projects. Social distancing has now given us additional time for that. For me, garden projects are exciting, but I realize many find it overwhelming. If you’re overwhelmed, know that we’re here to be a resource for you. We enjoy helping our customers choose plants that suit their needs and providing pointers on how these plants can be arranged so that they can enhance the home landscape.
Here are 6 tips for you to consider in your home landscaping endeavors. These same principles apply to other private and commercial landscapes.
The key to “low maintenance” is maintaining healthy plants. Plants are healthy when their cultural needs are met.
Before you begin looking at plants, assess the amount of sun and shade throughout your landscape. Remember that certain parts that are partly shady now may be sunnier as the days grow longer. Some areas that are sunny now, such as under trees, may become shadier as they leaf-out.
Assess the soil throughout the landscape. Which areas have rich, average soil that is easy to dig through? Where is there a lot of clay? Are there rocky areas? Can you dig down more than a foot in any of these areas or do you meet shale a few inches down?
Assess the amount of moisture in the landscape. Which areas tend to stay dry, and which tend to stay wet? Are there spots that fill up in a rainstorm but drain a couple days later? Take in mind that slopes drain well but the bottom of slopes are often moist to wet.
Don’t worry if your landscape conditions aren’t ideal. There are plants that will grow in just about any setting. Resist the desire to dramatically “fix” your yard to meet the needs certain plants. Instead, I recommend you fit plants according to the conditions of the yard. This is the foundation for success.
Know the cultural conditions of your landscape and then we can suggest plants that will thrive in those places. Healthy, appropriately sited plants are low-maintenance plants.
Most professional landscapes utilize a variety of plant types. Trees and vines give height and structure to the landscape. Shrubs help anchor it. Ornamental grasses provide texture and motion. Perennials and annuals provide color. Groundcovers act as “green mulch.” Evergreen plants bring permanency while deciduous plants provide more charm during the warmer months – the months you are outside the most.
Avoid relying on one plant type alone. Beds of strictly annuals look great in July but are bare five months of the year. Landscapes that only utilize shrubs are reminiscent of subpar gas station plantings. Don’t get me started on yards that are solely lawn. You can do better!
Also consider stone to give your landscape some character such as a few boulders, statuary, a fountain, or some pottery. Whimsical yard art, when used conservatively, can also be a fun addition. The good news for the horticulturally uninclined is that these are hard to kill.
A medium-sized shrub planted two feet from a walkway or underneath a low window will require a lot of mutilation to keep in bounds. Continually having to prune shrubs that are too big for their spaces are what I define as “high maintenance.” Before you put your plants in the ground, space them out appropriately. If the tag says space 36” apart, follow it. If it says a plant matures at 6 feet wide, give it 6 feet or more of space. This is especially true for trees and shrubs.
Start by choosing your biggest plants first: trees, then shrubs, then grasses and perennials. Give them the space they need to reach maturity. You can then fill in the spaces around them with perennials, annuals, and groundcovers. You can easily move some irises or daylilies around as shrubs fill in but pulling out a 10-year-old lilac because it was planted too close to the house, is nothing short of a nightmare.
Find somewhere to add a vine too. This is a great way to give height to an area without using up a lot of space. A clematis (Clematis spp.) is often a great choice due to its smaller size and tepid growth habit.
One of the most egregious landscape errors is “the hodge-podge.” This happens when the yard is seen in small plots instead of as a whole. It’s hard to not want to plant one of everything –trust me, as a garden hobbyist, I know – but don’t do it. You want a landscape that is cohesive, not a keychain collection.
When landscaping a garden bed, consider using multiple quantities of 1-2 types of shrubs, 1 type of grass, and 2-3 types of perennials. Making repeated use of a select few plants will bring repetition and rhythm to this part of the landscape. This provides coherency and legibility. Beds with a lot of different plants but less repetition (i.e., one of this, one of that, two of this, one of that) lack identity and tend to look cluttered.
Groupings of smaller plants can add an impactful presence. Most garden magazines utilize groupings in pictures because they’re easy to make sense of. A single penstemon (Penstemon digitalis) by itself might look lost, but a grouping of 5 of them will contribute much more to the landscape. Be sure not to skimp on smaller plants as they help complete a landscape.
Stand back and look at the landscape around your home regularly during the process. Consider making brief sketches to help you get the big picture. Remember, you want your landscape to be legible. To do this, don’t view it in fragments; view it as a whole.
If your landscape beds are on the narrow side, consider widening them to five feet or more if you can. If this requires carving out some of the lawn, don’t hesitate to do it. Wider planting beds allow you to layer them better. Layered garden beds utilize plants of different sizes and habits so they flow together in an attractive way. An example
of a layered garden bed would be illustrated by shrubs in the back, some perennials in the middle, and lower perennials or ground cover in front. This not only gives the bed a multi-dimensional, finished look but also give the illusion that the space is bigger than it is.
It’s more difficult to layer a bed if it’s 2 or 3 feet wide. It will also take more work to maintain shrubs in those tight bounds. If widening your beds isn’t an option, an alternative can be utilizing a trellis with a vine in back and some perennials in front.
Professional landscapes utilize a variety of plants that are at their best in different seasons. This provides year-round interest in the landscape. If all your perennials bloom in mid-summer, you’ll miss out on a lot of color and texture that Pennsylvania’s fall flowering perennials provide. Landscapes that rely entirely on evergreens may look resolute in winter but will look stagnant the rest of the year.
Try to see the landscape through the lens that every season is an opportunity. Some inherently associate fall with “decline” and winter with “dead” but this viewpoint is incredibly limited. Even during the coldest months, there is garden excitement to be had; red and yellow twig dogwoods (Cornus spp.), white-barked birch (Betula papyrifera, B. jacquemontii), and native winterberry holly (Ilex verticllata) are among the best plants for winter beauty. I let my ornamental grasses stand all winter as seeing them flow in the wind against a backdrop of snow is part of what makes them special.
Don’t buy solely based on what looks good in the season you are shopping. If you tend to shop for plants in summer, remember there are three other seasons to consider. come into glory. Do some research ahead of the time so your landscape can have year-round appeal. Utilize our PlantFinder to help you plan and consider stopping in the nursery at different times of the year to get ideas. Plumline Nursery Plant Finder – Pittsburgh Murrysville Plum Monroeville Trafford Pennsylvania PA
There are many more aspects to landscaping, but these pointers will get you off to a good start. Remember, gardening is a fun opportunity to let your creativity come out so don’t feel overwhelmed. While shopping, feel free to ask us for help. Consider bringing photos or a sketchbook of your landscape so we can better help you. We want you to succeed!
If you are interested in a hands-off approach, we have two skilled designers in the landscaping department we can connect you with. They can create professional drawings for you and a list of plants for you to choose from, as well as a crew who can carry out the work. For more information, you can go here: Pittsburgh Landscape Designer | Plumline Nursery | Plum, PA Landscaping
Stay safe at this perilous time and we hope to see you out soon!