When I was a teenager, my favorite fashion articles featured ‘on the street’ photos of women dressed either very well or very badly – with big bold headlines telling you ‘do’ this and ‘don’t’ do that’! I’ve always thought it would be great to see something equivalent for landscape design, pointing out common errors made by homeowners and landscapers alike. I’m a big believer in learning from mistakes, and seeing them in photographs is like taking a speed course in better design.
The proliferation of the deer population has changed the palette of what can be safely planted in any given area. Combining deer resistance with a need for a screening hedge or for plantings in a shaded spot can vastly limit choices. Deer will eat anything if starving, but it pays to avoid their favorite foods like arborvitae and yew. Don’t use these at all in deer populated areas, even though they have been the most classic standbys since forever. Substitute deer resistant varieties. A good list for our area is from Rutgers University. They rank plants in four groups from most to least resistant, and you can use the list based on your deer traffic.
The most common request from clients is for a screening hedge to block views to neighboring properties and roads. Sadly though, many property lines where the hedge needs to be placed, are shaded by existing established trees. The reality is that tall evergreen plants don’t grow under big trees. A newly planted hedgerow may last a year or more but will fail over time between lack of light and root competition from larger surrounding trees. If the goal is evergreen screening, larger trees may need to be removed to make light available for new plantings. A looser combination of shrubs planted in and around existing trees may be another solution. A tree or other object that distracts the eye can be a device to minimize an unwanted view. And sometimes a fence is your best option.
WHAT WAS I THINKING?
Plants, like people, come with all sorts of particular needs and preferences. There is wiggle room here and there, but respecting a plant’s particular cultural needs brings success. If you have a shady garden and love roses, don’t imagine they’re going to grow just because you love them so. This never pays off so it’s best to select plants that thrive in the conditions you have available: wet shade or sun, dry shade or sun being the most important factors.
Plants also generally come small (that’s why they call it a nursery), but they grow! Read the tags before you buy and understand what the ‘mature’ size is before placing it in your garden. It’s hard, and sometime impossible, to move large shrubs and trees once they’ve settled in. It’s much easier to measure twice, and plant once.
Gardens are fluid and take time to develop. Plants grow and change shape, albeit slowly. For the most part plants arrive as young specimens that need several seasons to mature to potential. In our ‘point and click’ culture, waiting doesn’t sell well. But the notion that more plantings will solve the problem makes for costly mistakes. Plants need ample space and air to allow for future growth. Planting closer together may take away unwanted gaps short term, but only creates headaches later when things are overcrowded and overgrown.
Once a landscape is installed mulch is required to finish off the beds, retain moisture, maintain temperatures and aid erosion. Mulch comes in many varieties with accordingly varied price tags. Sometimes I’ll get a request for black mulch because it looks rich or organic. But beware- black mulch is dyed to look that way, and therefore to be avoided. Similarly red mulch, my biggest ever landscape ‘no-no’, should never be used. It looks like bacon bits sprinkled into the landscape. Just plain ugly.
A LITTLE BIT OF THIS, A LITTLE BIT OF THAT
Big buffet spreads are great for lunch, but a ‘little bit of everything’ doesn’t translate well into the landscape. As with any other great art, it comes down to editing. Don’t buy ‘one of each’ or dot plants into the landscape to try to fill gaps. Plant with purpose, intention and meaning. Groups of 3, 5 or 7 are recommended with larger swaths and masses making the biggest impact. As we are information overwhelmed everywhere else in our lives, use the landscape to reduce visual noise levels. Keep the message clear and avoid dotting in a little of everything. It always fails to please.
Have you ever noticed trees that look like there is a small volcanic eruption at the base? This trend seems to be popular mostly in commercial applications, but I do see it around in residential settings. Trees can easily be set too low, or settle after planting and fail for this reason – suffocating the roots. ‘Plant them high so they never die’ is a good warning, but don’t go too far with that idea! And once planted at the proper depth, don’t drown them in mulch. It’s looks bad and it’s suffocating for tree root systems. And it’s double worse if you use dyed red mulch! Ouch on so many levels!
The Suburban Lot is a monthly blog that highlights topics and issues unique to the suburban landscape. For assistance with any of the above information, please contact Mierop Design, a complete resource for landscape design, installation and property maintenance services.