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Martha Maletta, Home Horticultural Consultant
Dated - February 05, 2003
When there's not much to do in the yard or garden, there's time to take a critical look at the landscape. Observing other's landscapes...and, perhaps, one's own will confirm that one or more of these basic mistakes are all too common.
Too many plants for the area. Aiming for instant effect and/or forgetting that plants do grow leads to over planting. While close planting may be appealing for the short term, it won't be very long before plants begin to crowd each other, to the detriment of their health and appearance. Some plants will need to be removed or annual pruning will become an overwhelming and ultimately impossible chore. To avoid this situation, it is essential to consider the "mature" size of plants during planning. The "three-quarter" rule used by many landscape architects is helpful: plants are drawn on a plan at three-quarters their expected mature size and planted at that spacing no matter the plant size purchased. A properly planned newly installed landscape should look sparse. It can be temporarily filled in with herbaceous ornamentals and ground covers to give it a "finished" look.
Wrong size plant. Most commonly, plants end up being too large for the space in which they were planted. Particularly difficult are large trees planted much too close to buildings, tall plants in front of windows and spreading plants near walks and driveways. Trying to confine a plant that is genetically destined to out grow its allotted space is a daunting task that too often leads to pruning disasters. Again, the approximate mature size of a plant is a critical piece of information needed in order to make good choices.
Wrong plants for the site conditions. Conditions that are too shady, too sunny, too dry, too wet, too exposed, too sheltered - simply not appropriate for a given plant - lead to disappointing performance in the landscape. Trying to change the conditions to suit the plant is not usually the best approach. Better to match the plant to the conditions. A good example of a poor plant selection for the site is acid-loving plants installed in a high pH (alkaline) soil. Trying to lower pH significantly either before or after planting is not easy. Far better to match the plant to the existing soil character. (This, of course, means soil testing before planning.)
One-season landscape. Too many landscapes look wonderful only part of the year. Year-round appearance deserves careful consideration, especially for highly visible areas. For example, azaleas are glorious in spring and satisfactory in summer but many don't have much to offer in a winter landscape, so it's probably better not to overdo them at the front of the house. "Year-round" doesn't mean evergreens only. Plant features other than foliage - structure and growth habit, bark color and texture, and fruit, for example - are important to creating an attractive four seasons landscape.
Too many different kinds of plants in an area. The "one-of everything" plant collection does not usually result in an effective landscape planting. A limited number of carefully chosen cultivars, each planted as groups rather than individuals and repeated through the landscape, along with a few select single specimen plants will help avoid the "horticultural zoo" effect. Selecting appropriate plants before visiting nurseries can reduce "kid in a candy store" urges to buy one of everything.
Too many planting beds and/or complex lines. With the exception of trees, landscape plants are usually and best planted in beds rather than isolated holes. Grouping shrubs in beds helps unify the design as well as simplify maintenance, but making many small beds does just the opposite. Many landscapes could benefit from simply creating a few large beds from many small ones. The larger beds don't necessarily need to be filled with woody plants; ground cover or mulch will do. Complex and very curvy bed outlines also detract from landscapes and make mowing difficult. Many landscapes could be easily improved by simplifying bed lines. Use garden hose to layout long, sweeping edges and get out the mower to check the conformation for ease of mowing.