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Does Your Garden Need a Makeover?

By Donna Dawson
9/2/2013 11:20:23 AM

Just as most aspects of life seem to change with time, so does your landscape. If you're like me, perhaps a busy life has resulted in your landscape getting ahead of your maintenance. Or, if you've kept up with weeding and pruning and other similar needs of your plants, perhaps it's time for a new look, some more excitement or a new design?

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Other reasons you may want to reassess your landscape include trees getting taller and shading out plants or lawns below. Shrubs outgrow their space in the garden, perhaps fighting for space with each other. Or it may be that your lifestyle has changed, and you no longer need to devote space to a children's play area or swing set. Whatever the case, there comes a time periodically in every gardener's life when it's time for a landscape makeover.

Start by taking a look at what you have and reassessing what needs to be done to achieve the results that you want. It doesn't have to be a major undertaking, and once you have a plan in place, you may decide to make a few adjustments or changes each year rather than tackling the "re-do" all at once, but that's up to you.

First, take a long, honest look at what you have. Because changes can occur subtly over several years, you might overlook the obvious, such as an increase in shade or a physical change in your garden. For example, maybe you added a deck and traffic patterns have changed. Or you took down the swing set and the focal point of your garden is now in the wrong place. Pretend you are the new owner of the house and view the landscape with as much objectivity as you can.

Is there an orderly look to the garden, or has it evolved over time? Even "natural" gardens have a plan behind them that keeps them looking natural instead of reverting to a wild state. If you haven't had a plan, now is a good time to start. You can either hire a professional or go back to the drawing board yourself. You don't actually have to draw out an elaborate landscape plan. Just some notes on paper, a sketch of your garden beds or some playing with a computer landscape design program is all that generally is needed.

Even if you decide to call on a pro, you will need to have some idea as to what you want your garden to look like eventually. Visualize it one area at a time. If your garden doesn't naturally break into areas, think about creating separate areas by varying garden bed sizes and shapes, as well as plant types. Pot groupings, plantings in large landscapes, or decorative fence sections, can be used to partially divide areas, creating separate spaces or "garden rooms." Don't be afraid to take out beds if they don't work in your new plan.

Trees and shrubs not only grow taller and larger, but they can dramatically influence what can or can't be grown underneath or near them. To keep the same plants or even lawn areas, you can have trees trimmed professionally to thin out branches and allow more light to filter to the ground, particularly large ones or limbs high off the ground. Lower ones you can prune yourself with pole pruners or from a ladder. If the latter, have someone there to help hold the ladder, and use caution.

If pruning is needed, do it before midsummer so trees and shrubs have a chance to heal before winter. As pruning often stimulates new growth, summer bloomers should be pruned in early spring, spring bloomers just after they finish flowering for the season. Avoid pruning in early fall, as rampant diseases can enter wounds before they heal.

Sometimes, the best solution is to have a tree removed. Ask your local tree experts for advice on these options. Or just planting different plants beneath may be needed.

If plants need more light, with extensive tree pruning or removal not an option, consider moving such plants to more sunny (6 hours or more of direct sun daily) area of the garden, and replacing them with shade-tolerant annual plants like begonias or shade coleus or perennials such as hostas. There are quite a few perennial groundcovers you might consider for shady sites, such as herbaceous lamium, foamflowers (Tiarella), the non-native Japanese spurge (Pachysandra) or carpet bugle (Ajuga). Site some of these carefully, as many such perennial groundcovers spread easily.

There are fewer woody groundcovers, although Russian cypress (Microbiota) is an excellent choice, which performs well in sun too. If you don't know how well a plant will perform in a problem area, then plant one or two plants (in the ground or a container), and test them for one season.

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Consider the color and texture of leaves, not just of flowers, particularly of perennials that for most of the season won't be in bloom. A bed of ferns in the part shade, interplanted with daffodils for spring bloom, taller perennials such as Culver's root (Veronicastrum), or contrasting foliage as from hostas, can require little maintenance and fill an area beautifully.

Almost every landscape has a problem area. Often it is the north side of the house in full shade, a walkway along one side of the house or an area behind a garage or shed. Frequently, a simple cleanup is the first order of business. For example, once cleaned up, a dirt pathway can be spruced up simply with mulch or a layer of gravel and the addition of stepping stones. Every few years I use a hoe on my flagstone patio in part shade to remove unwanted plants between the stones, and most moss growing on top of the stones. Just this renews the look of the patio.

A north wall that never gets any sun can be brightened up with containers or shade plants grouped or lined along the way. Use begonia hanging baskets under an overhang, but just make sure to keep them watered as they may get little rain under the eaves. Alternating tall and short containers, and varying plant types and colors can turn a drab area into an attractive space.

When remaking your garden, keep in mind that all gardens need a focal point. A small garden needs only one, and larger gardens may need several. A focal point draws the eye to a special feature or planting and helps give the rest of the garden a more orderly look. Focal points can be as simple as one spectacular plant or planting among others, or a structure. Ornamental features such as large rocks, a pedestal, a statue, a colorful grouping of painted Adirondack lawn chairs or a gazing ball create focal points, as does a bird bath or a decorative bird feeder. What about a trellis to plant yearly with morning glories, black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia) or scarlet runner bean?

In larger gardens, focal points can be created for different areas. On a patio, for example, a grouping of different sized pots can serve as a focal point, with one large pot being the center of attention. Or group tall plants in a mass, surrounded by shorter plants, or contrast colors and plant types.

Don't forget to consider color. A well-coordinated color scheme can really pull a garden together and refresh one that has gone stale. Use a combination of three or four colors to create a color theme. Red, white and blue make your garden look patriotic. A combination of pink, white and green is cool and refreshing. Yellow, blue and white is bright and summery. Blues, purples and tints such as lavender are relaxing, while reds, yellows and similar bright colors are exciting and stimulating.

Remember, you don't have to start from scratch. Even a few simple changes now can give new life to an old garden.

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