Wednesday, August 16, 2017  



Landscape Mistakes: How to avoid and correct them

By Judy Ripley

    Every gardener makes mistakes.  We are human and are good at them. Gardening has been described as always evolving. Fortunately for us we can make changes in our gardens and learn.

    Sometimes these mistakes are ones we create without full knowledge of the plants we are using and other mistakes are ones we inherit with the purchase of an established home.

Many are charmed by this beautiful area and decide to move here.  With the purchase of a wonderful home with a great view, in just the right neighborhood and after a lot of planning and searching and packing and sorting and unpacking and unpacking we start to lay claim to our new space. Careful choices are made of furniture, floor coverings and window dressings for the inside and perhaps some new furnishings for the porch.

    Now it is time to look clearly at the yard and its furnishings.  Look and see what works and what will work and what needs changing.

New Construction

     When looking at construction options start at the local courthouse and become acquainted with the officials that help to enforce the zoning and waterfront regulations.  These laws are in place to protect our environment and deserve respect.  They are meant to protect our water by minimizing runoff and pollution. Some owners try to get a variance to place a dwelling closer to the water for a more advantageous view. In the ensuing years erosion concerns may develop due to the proximity of the building to the water’s edge. Erosion is aggravated by the impermeable surface of the house and its hardscapes (areas that do not allow for absorption; patios, roofs, walks and driveways of materials such as asphalt and cement). These structures are a dynamic change compared to the natural area before construction. Erosion issues need to be addressed by a professional with zoning information for your area (a landscape designer or your local court house can help). Plantings and berms (small constructed hill-like areas) can help divert water flow and erosion. Walkways and patios can be constructed using paving materials interspersed with stepables (herbs and short plant material such as mondo grass that actually thrives when walked upon). Pavers can be laid in patterns allowing grass to grow up in-between. Specialized pavers, made for this purpose can be used in driveways.  Gravel or seashell pathways work well.  Driveways in this area do not need to be made of impervious material such as black top or cement as the snow load is minimal. Trees, shrubs and plants aid in the absorption and filtration of rain. Try planting bayberry, laurel and blueberry natives between your home and the water. 

    The ideal is the option of buying property undeveloped and in its native state.  Good builders will move the topsoil to the side of your property during construction and grading rather than removing it from the site. Topsoil takes many years to form naturally and needs to be preserved. It is already adapted to this space. This soil will be graded up to the dwelling for suitable growing medium for grass and gardens at the completion of construction. Test your soil and check with the extension office, some have test gardens and can recommend appropriate seed for lawns. They can recommend the most effective maintenance of lawns with fall aeration and fertilization.

    When construction is complete, do not rush to install gardens.  Live with the look and feel of your home and surroundings.  Do we sometimes put in foundation gardens because we think we should?  Why not look at the beauty of your home with a few limited plantings, away from the foundation, in curvilinear gardens?  Curvilinear gardens with soft curving lines offset the straight lines of most buildings.   If you are faced with the “hide the foundation cinderblock” scenario, consider the possibility of having a brick, stone or stucco facade applied instead of “hiding” it with plants.  Groupings of low growing evergreens (holly, boxwood and cotoneaster) in wide curving beds give multi-seasonal interest. Sometimes all that is needed is an orderly ground cover (liriope or pachysandra) under planted with multi-seasonal bulbs (daffodils, rain lilies). When planting ground covers they are can be controlled using edging.

   Waterfront properties come with salt spray and high tides. Salt can be carried in the air on a calm day or anytime the air travels over the water.  It is deposited on and around the plants along the shore. Salt bush, bayberry and other natives tolerate this inundation well. Other inhabitants occupy our shores. It is reported that there are 5 to 6 moles per acre and 5 to 6 hundred voles. Moles are annoying and change the contours of our lawn areas into mounding obstacle courses but are not responsible for vegetation loss.  Voles, tiny mouse-like rodents are terrors.   Not often visualized, their presence is often detected when a tell-tale cherry-sized hole appears in the soil at the base of a plant.  Upon further examination the remaining parts are missing! Then there are the raccoons, squirrels, rabbits, deer and the swans which although beautiful to see, consider the tender greens of our landscape their appetizers.
A simple non toxic solution consists of the use of castor oil spray.  This deterrent works by attaching its user-friendly container to the end of the hose and spraying large swaths of garden and lawn areas. Depending upon the rainfall and exposure this will work for about a three month period.

Existing Homes and Gardens

    Not everyone wants or needs to build a new home.  With every existing structure comes a history.  Slowly we begin to look at what we can change and what we cannot. The most important aspect of existing gardens is the mature size of the shrubs and trees contained within them.  A finished garden should not look finished.  If it does, then you have a limited time before it becomes overgrown. Consider and reconsider the mature size of the plant material that you wish to use within a garden.  Evaluate its conditions. Mature size may not be what is listed on the label.  It is affected by its environment. Soils that are rich or lacking in nutrients and competition from other plantings will impact this growth.  Once again foundation gardens need to be looked at for their feasibility. Many buildings become overwhelmed by shrubs placed close to the foundations.  These specimens grow up and over windows, walkways and front doors making pruning a second occupation for the owner. When a plant requires pruning and more pruning it is often the wrong plant in the wrong place. Oversized and mature plants can harbor all kinds of volunteer plants that can be difficult to remove. Thorny and bee-attracting plants might be best used in spaces other than those you need to walk through or closely by.  Rhododendrons with the mature size of 6-8 foot in height would be more appropriately used for privacy at the edge of yard or porch rather than against a foundation below a window.

    Removal of overgrown vegetation around established homes requires care.  Consulting with a landscape professional can be invaluable.  Be careful not to replant without taking your time to evaluate the size and scale of replacement plants and whether it even needs to be done.

Invasive Plants

    The introduction of plants from all over the world offers many benefits.  They are often toted as being “insect resistant” and certainly have some interesting qualities, shapes, colors and features. The problem is two fold. Non native plants (those introduced since the first explorers came to our country) do not support insects which serve as food for our bird population.  Bird and insect populations are interdependent and self regulating.  The more insects we have, the more birds resulting in less damage to our plants. 
The second concern is the controllability of these plants. Without many enemies they grow and expand and self seed. Kudzu, Japanese honeysuckle, Russian olive, tree of heaven, bamboo and English ivy are among many that are showing up in places where they effectively over-compete with our natives for growing space.  All were brought to this country for specific reasons (erosion control, insect resistance, and attractive features) but now are doing an enthusiastic job of pulling down trees, climbing houses and effectively eliminating many of our native plants.  Effective elimination is difficult.  Manual removal and repeated application of herbicides during their growing seasons are two options. Check with your extension office for the most current information. 


    All plant material takes maintenance.  Look at your yearly maintenance both in time and cost.  Would ground cover serve better than hauling mulch for soil moisture stability?  If so then consider adding ground cover to gardens as you establish them and reduce the need for mulch. Try mondo grass, liriope in the clumping (variegated) and spreading forms, pachysandra and a low plumbago. A simple edging with spade or weed wacker twice a year should keep them tidy.  Grouping plants with like water needs is a simple fix.  Keep it simple!  If a particular plant grows well for you requiring little maintenance it is certainly not a mistake!
    Landscape plans are a work in progress.  It can be similar to raising children.  The goal is sometimes a little foggy and ever-changing but the intensions are good.  It is fine to make mistakes, we all do, but we can learn.  Happy gardening!