How to Create Large, Lush, Private, Low-Maintenance Landscapes:*

A Minicourse In 28 Parts

Recreating Privacy:

Use What Nature Provides:

What to Do About Your Lawn:

Create Color with Flowering Trees, Shrubs, Ground Covers, and Vines:

Save More by Building Less

A large, evergreen-planted berm...creates a large private garden at this Manchester, New Hampshire, home

Photo by Eileen Oktavec

An evergreen-planted berm creates a private garden at this Manchester, New Hampshire, home

Recreating Privacy: 1

New Landscaping for a New Landscape: Make Your Yard a Private Park

Think of the values of privacy.  On a private lot, you don’t see cars, trucks, and other people’s houses.  All you see is grass, trees, shrubs, flowers, and other growing things.  Your home is a little green world where, in the vision of the Navajo prayer, beauty is all around you.

Privacy can also provide one of the most important characteristics of any landscape: unity.  A landscape is unified when it’s whole, when everything in it visually relates to—is in harmony with—everything else.  A landscape is unified when, as Aristotle said of a work of art, nothing needs to be added and nothing needs to be taken away.

Unfortunately, what’s in your home landscape isn’t only what’s on your property.  Your landscape is everything you can see from your property.  Your landscape, in other words, isn’t a legal concept; it’s a visual one.  Your garden isn’t just your lawn, trees, and flowers.  It’s also every house, road, sidewalk, utility pole, and car that’s visible from your home.

A woman once offered to show me her    garden.   She led me to a well-groomed bed of colorful perennials along her front sidewalk.  I looked down at the flowers.  Then I looked at the line of houses, telephone poles, and cars up and down the street.

How sad, I thought.  And how typical.  The woman had lavished hours on her flowers (and her lawn and shrubs) but had done nothing at all about the other 90 per cent of her landscape, which was outside her property.  Like many homeowners, she had created a tiny island of beauty in an unsightly sea.  She had gardened only a part of her landscape and forgot the whole.

What is strange about this practice is that it’s totally different from how we decorate the inside of our houses.  We don’t paint only a corner of a room and forget the rest.  We don’t furnish that corner with a beautiful Queen Anne wing chair and use wooden crates elsewhere.  We decorate the entire room—everything we can see.

In contrast, when we decorate our outdoor rooms, we’re schizophrenic.  We attend to just a few parts of the space and pretend that the rest of it—the part we don’t own—doesn’t matter.

The problem with development around our houses isn’t only that it may be unattractive.  It’s also that—attractive or not—the neighbors’ houses simply may not “go” with our own landscape.  The green Victorian across the street, for example, doesn’t harmonize with your white cape.  Or it clashes with the red ranch beside it or with the yellow brick colonial on the other side.

Our neighbors’ houses, however, would be unwelcome even if they were beautiful and even if they harmonized perfectly with your house.  For the neighbors’ houses break one of the most useful rules of design: one space, one focal point.

The rule reminds us that one strong visual element—a house, a sculpture, an imposing tree—can dramatically organize and unify a garden “room” or other area, but only when it’s the only powerful visual component in the space.  Add a strong competing element—another building, sculpture, etc.—and that unity is shattered; the power of one focal point is dissipated by the power of the other.  Add still more powerful, competing elements—several neighboring houses, for instance—and our attention is divided among so many focal points that the original, simple unity becomes a visual babel.

A private landscape is unified because its major focal point—its main house—competes for attention with no other houses or other development.  By standing alone, the house can most easily dominate, organize, and unify its setting.  Like all great gardens, it has visual integrity.  Dominated by just one house—no more, no less—it’s a landscape from which nothing needs to be taken away.

The typical American home, of course, is anything but private.  It’s surrounded not just by trees and shrubs but by other people’s houses; by paved streets, driveways, and sidewalks; by traffic, utility poles, and overhead wires.

And because the house is so close to the development around it, the sounds of nature are usually drowned out by the noise of civilization: the churning engines of cars, trucks, and motorcycles; the motors of lawnmowers, leaf blowers, weed whackers, and power saws; and the often-unwelcome blast of neighbors’ televisions, radios, and other electric music makers.

Two hundred years ago things were different.  Most Americans lived in the country, on farms. Their houses were surrounded not by streets and other houses but by croplands, pastures, and woodlands that often stretched as far as their owners’ eyes could see.

  • The gasoline engine had not been invented, so 18th-century Americans were spared the sight and sound of cars and trucks passing just a few yards from their houses.
  • The most elaborate transportation was a horse-drawn coach, so roads didn’t need to be paved.  Instead of looking at asphalt or concrete, the early American family saw only dirt roads.  And because many of these “highways” were narrow and rough, they often looked more like wide paths than roads.
  • Because people were fewer and farther apart, “traffic” was light.  Instead of a noisy car or van speeding by every few seconds, a horse pulling a wagon might come along every few hours.  And far from being an annoyance, the horse, wagon, and driver might actually be a pleasing, welcome sight.
  • Because there was no electricity, telephone, computer, or cable TV, there were no overhead wires to clutter the rural family’s pastoral view of trees and sky.
  • Because there were no street lights, or no need for electric wires, there was no need to clutter roadsides with homely utility poles.
  • Because power lawnmowers, power tools, and power music-making equipment had not been invented, the 18th-century American was never bothered by noise from a neighbor’s skill saw, stereo, radio, or TV.  In fact, his nearest “neighbor” was not only out of earshot but probably out of sight as well.

Thanks, in sum, to a relatively primitive, rural society, the typical early American automatically lived in a large, peaceful, and nearly private landscape.  He was surrounded not by houses and noisy streets but mainly by forests, meadows, planting fields, and other flora.

Over the last 200 years, however, most Americans have lost their private pastoral landscapes. As they moved from farms to cities and towns they exchanged their 40-acre homesteads for half-acre lots, and their new houses were surrounded not by fields and forests but by noisy paved streets and dozens of other houses.

Today, the private, rural residence that nearly every American once took for granted is increasingly the privilege of the well-to-do.  For with the ever-rising price of land it’s mainly the affluent few who can afford to build their houses on large plots.

But while most of us can no longer afford ten or more acres, we can still afford privacy.  For privacy doesn’t require a lot of land.  On small lots, privacy simply requires barriers such as berms or hedges.  Privacy, in other words, doesn’t need to be found.  It can be made—even on small properties.

Similarly, large gardens don’t need to be what they usually have been: vast flower beds and sprawling lawns that take countless hours to maintain.  Instead, large gardens can consist of colorful trees, shrubs, ground covers, and other plants that almost take care of themselves.

The fundamental problem with our homes isn’t that they’re on small lots and surrounded by other houses.  It’s that we’re still landscaping them as if they were still large homesteads surrounded by fields and forests—as if the automobile had never been invented and our nearest neighbor was a mile away.

Paradoxically, if we want to enjoy the landscapes that early Americans once enjoyed, we can’t landscape them the way early Americans did or the way the rich do today.   We now live in a more crowded world; this new landscape demands new landscaping.  Since most of us can no longer have privacy automatically, we must create it.  Since we can’t afford large, expensive, high-maintenance gardens, we must have large, inexpensive, low-maintenance ones instead.

The great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux, faced a similar dilemma in the mid-19th century.  By then, millions of Americans had already moved into large cities, far from the pastoral scenery enjoyed by Americans who still lived on farms.  Affluent city dwellers, of course, could afford rural houses or at least extended vacations in the country.  But ordinary city folk had no such escape.   They were cut off from the natural scenery that other Americans could still take for granted.

Olmsted and Vaux’s solution was both logical and radical:  Since tenement dwellers couldn’t afford to live in or even visit the country, the designers would bring the country into the city.  The most famous “country” they created was Central Park, which Olmsted and Vaux transformed from a scruffy, swampy wasteland into an oasis of meadows, lakes, trees, and shrubs in the middle of New York City, a human-made but natural-looking 843 acres of countryside in the heart of one of the world’s densest urban areas.

Olmsted and Vaux recognized that a new landscape required new landscaping—that changes in living conditions had to be matched by changes in landscape design.  They understood that, if their generation of urban Americans were to enjoy the natural beauty that other Americans did, the partners had to do more than merely preserve nature.  They had to create it.

Almost 150 years later we are at a similar crossroads.  If we want to live in the large private landscapes that most Americans once lived in, then we must follow Olmsted and Vaux’s example: We must use new means to achieve old ends.  If we’re not lucky enough to live in privacy, we must make privacy.  If we’re not already surrounded by natural beauty, we must build beauty.

As Olmsted and Vaux deliberately transformed mid-Manhattan into an oasis of natural scenery, so can we transform our own yards.  As they turned cities into parks, so we can turn our own homes into miniparks.

The White Room at Evergreen is private, thanks to a large berm covered with rosebay rhododendrons

Photo by Eileen Oktavec

The White Room at Evergreen is private, thanks to a large berm covered with rosebay rhododendrons.

Recreating Privacy: 2

Berms Can Create Estatelike Privacy, Even on Small Lots

Have you ever dreamed of living on your own estate?  A place so private that you can’t see your neighbors’ houses—only your own land?  A place where you can’t see cars, trucks or telephone poles—just trees, shrubs and other growing things?

You can create that kind of estatelike privacy with berms.

Berms are artificial but natural-looking hills or ridges.  They’re made of fill, topped with loam, and planted with evergreen trees and shrubs.

The combined height of a berm and the evergreen plants on top of it create privacy.

A berm along the edge of your yard can block views of streets, cars, houses, and other development around your property.  Berms can also reduce noise from traffic and other sources.

Berms can help create the same privacy that acres of trees produce much less efficiently and much more expensively on much larger properties.

Hedges, masonry walls, and solid fences can provide screening too.  But berms are the best screen of all, for many reasons:

  • Berms block views completely because they’re solid.
  • Berms block sound better than most hedges, fences, and walls because they’re denser than hedges and fences and thicker than fences, walls, and most hedges.
  • Berms can be made any height and still be attractive. Properly shaped, they look like natural landforms.  In contrast, plain fences and walls can be eyesores if they’re more than eight feet tall. To be attractive, taller fences or walls must be more elaborate than lower ones, and the extra detail makes them pricey.  But even an elaborate fence or wall is unsightly if it’s as high as a house.
  • Walls and fences have another disadvantage: In many communities they’re illegal if they’re over a certain height or too close to the street or the property boundary.  Berms are usually unregulated—because they don’t need to be.  You can build them tall enough to provide as much screening as you need.
  • Berms can screen more things than fences, hedges, and walls can because they can be built higher. An ordinary six- or even eight-foot fence, for example, isn’t tall enough to hide even a one-story house.  Berms can be made high enough to screen virtually any building.
  • Hedges often need at least some pruning; fences need painting or staining and regular rebuilding; brick and stone walls need repointing. Berms need no maintenance at all.  After all, how can they wear out?  They’re dirt.
  • Because berms don’t wear out, they’re the least expensive privacy barrier in the long run. In fact, even in the short run, berms cost less than hedges and walls of equal height and only slightly more than the cheapest solid fences.
  • Berms are not just practical; they’re interesting landforms. Their gentle hilly shapes provide welcome relief from the often boring, floorlike flatness of the typical yard.  Unlike fences, walls, or formal hedges, a well-designed berm looks natural.  Fences and walls never look natural—because they’re not.
  • The slopes of berms are almost ideal platforms to display plants. On level surfaces, plants can hide other plants behind them.  On berms, plants obscure much less of the plants behind them, and sometimes none at all.
  • Because berms raise plants off the floor and up the walls of an outdoor room, they distribute plants more widely throughout the garden, making it fuller and lusher.

Some people think walls and fences are unfriendly and unneighborly.  Actually, they can be unneighborly if they’re homely and unattractive.

Berms are different.  They do the work of walls and solid fences—creating privacy—but they don’t look like fences or walls.  Walls and solid fences are tall, flat, vertical, sometimes ugly, and obviously artificial barriers that, not surprisingly, look like privacy barriers.

Berms are subtle.  They don’t look like barriers.  Properly shaped, they look like what they are: graceful landforms, lushly planted with handsome evergreen trees and shrubs, that are a vital part of a rich, well-textured garden.

Unlike some fences and walls, berms are very neighborly.  For what is unneighborly about a lush display of trees and shrubs?  In fact, isn’t a front yard with lots of trees and shrubs usually more interesting and more beautiful than a front yard planted with little more than a large, plain, flat lawn?

Use What Nature Provides: 1

To Get the Most Out of Your Landscape, Use What’s Already There

Do you have a woodland?  Handsome boulders or ledges?  A stream or pond?  A view of mountains or other scenery?

If you have just one of these things you’re lucky.  For any of them can be made into some of the most beautiful, most satisfying elements of your home garden—and, paradoxically, often for much less cost than less interesting landscaping.

Rock, water, and other natural features are gifts of nature that can stretch your landscaping dollar.  Every handsome tree or cascading brook given to you by nature is a costly tree you don’t have to buy and an even more expensive waterfall you don’t need to create.  Every square foot of your land already covered by an attractive pond, stream, or ledge is space you don’t need to landscape.  Nature has landscaped it for you.  Instead of spending time and money on those elements, you can spend it elsewhere.  In gardening, at least, you really can get something for nothing.  The trick is to use what nature provides.

Gardening by Subtraction

Turning natural features into a naturalistic garden is different from most gardening.  Most landscaping involves mainly adding things to the site—plants, sculpture, etc.  When you work with natural features, you begin by taking things away.  I call it “gardening by subtraction.”

Michelangelo famously declared that a statue already exists in the stone; the sculptor simply reveals it by chipping away the rock around it.  In the same way, you reveal a natural garden by removing the clutter in its way.  This process—gardening by subtraction—includes cleaning up, weeding and pruning.

  • Cleaning up is removing any manmade debris from the site, and all dead wood, including all dead, diseased, or dying trees, both standing and fallen, and all trees and branches, large and small, lying on the ground.
  • Weeding is removing any live trees, shrubs, and other plants that detract from the beauty of the site.
  • Pruning is removing unwanted parts of trees, shrubs, or other plants.

Gardening by subtraction makes a site more attractive—more like a garden—because it removes inherently unattractive debris, as well as clutter that obscures, distracts our attention from, or otherwise blunts the visual impact of the rock, water, trees, or other, more attractive plants on the site.  Gardening by subtraction beautifies a landscape by simplifying and clarifying it.

Most rock and water features don’t need weeding or pruning, of course.  But ledges, cliffs, boulders, streams, and ponds can usually be made more attractive just by cleaning them up.  After they’re cleaned up, they can become impressive focal points and strong organizing elements of a naturalistic garden.

Some special places have already been so well gardened by nature that they can be made into finished, natural gardens by cleanup alone.  Many of these are ledges fringed by handsome evergreens or solid drifts of ground covers.  You’ve probably seen them, usually on or near mountaintops with thin soil.

Sunny granite ledges, for example, are often edged by large, solid sweeps of lowbush blueberries, which turn scarlet in the fall.  The sweeps of blueberries sometimes are punctuated only by low pines or spruces, which provide accents and height in the background.  The gray ledge organizes the space and perfectly offsets the plants.  A gardener needs to do almost nothing here—there’s nothing to weed, nothing to plant.  Just clean up some errant dead sticks and—voila!—suddenly you have a large, handsome naturalistic garden, brought to you (almost) free of charge by nature.

Some sites need slightly more work.   Ledges, cliffs, or other large rock features may be obscured by trees or brush that needs cleaning up, weeding, and/or pruning.  And while ponds and streams usually need only cleaning up, plants along their banks often need weeding and pruning as well.

In the next three sections I explain how to incorporate water and rocks into a naturalistic garden; how to “borrow” views; and how to transform wooded land into an impressive but low-maintenance woodland garden.

Use What Nature Provides: 2

Water and Rock Are Gifts of Nature—Unwrap Them

In Evergreen, there’s a cascading brook with low granite cliffs rising dramatically beside it.  When I bought the property, however, a tangle of large honeysuckle bushes growing in and around the streambed hid the water and made the brook almost inaccessible.  Also, the lower part of the cliffs and even some of the brook were buried under the remains of several large white pine trees that had been cut down a few years before.

When I removed the pine tree slash, however, the cliffs looked even taller and even more dramatic because all of them were exposed, and there was nothing around them to clutter them up.  And when I pulled up the honeysuckles, it was like pulling a veil away from the brook:  Before the honeysuckles were removed, the stream was invisible; afterward, suddenly, almost magically, there appeared before me a lovely brook, cascading over mossy rocks.

The cliffs and the brook are two of Evergreen’s most impressive features.  But unlike other parts of the garden, I can take almost no credit for them. For they were gifts of nature.  All I had to do was unwrap them.

If you have a stream on your property—even just a tiny, seasonal brook—then nature has given you a great gift:  If the stream has cascades or waterfalls, the gift is even greater:  It’s an exciting visual and aural focal point that would cost you thousands of dollars if you had to make it artificially.

Waterfalls and cascades are nature’s fountains.  The sound, the movement, the white froth, the glisten and shine of moving water combine to make them one of the most engaging elements in the entire garden.

Unlike an artificial waterfall, however, they don’t have to be made, don’t need to be turned on and off, don’t need electricity to run, don’t break or wear out, and almost always look better than an artificial version.

All they need is cleaning up: the branches and other tree litter that inevitably fall into or over them need to be taken away.  But once the stream is cleaned up, there, like Michelangelo’s statue that already existed in the stone, is the falling water: wonderful, shimmering, perfect, waiting only to be savored.

Still other valuable natural garden features are large, handsome “glacial erratics,” so called because these rocks were scattered across the land by a glacier in the last Ice Age.  These stones are natural sculpture. Like any sculpture, they can be powerful focal points and organizing elements of a naturalistic garden.

All things equal, the handsomest, most pleasing stones look like miniature mountains.  They’re wide, gently sloping rocks that enter the earth at their widest dimension.  These rocks not only look stable and restful; they also appear to be even larger than they are.  You assume that the slope of the rock continues under ground and that the rock above ground is just like the tip of an iceberg: a small part of a much larger rock, or even ledge, beneath the earth.  The gentler the slope of the rock above ground, the wider and larger you assume the entire rock to be.

If the widest point of a rock is already below the ground, you can make it “larger” and more impressive by digging dirt away from it until its widest part is level with the surrounding earth.  The more rock you can expose, the larger, wider, and generally more impressive it will be.

On the other hand, if the widest point of a rock is above the ground, the rock will usually look top-heavy and ungainly.  In that case, simply pile more dirt around the rock until the ground is as high as its widest part.

In the section below I explain how to “borrow” a good view and block a bad one.

In the section after that I describe how to transform wooded land into an impressive but low-maintenance woodland garden.

Use What Nature Provides: 3

Borrow a Good View—and Block a Bad One

If your property has a view, or potential view, of a mountain or other beautiful natural scenery, make sure you can see it—or “borrow” it, as landscape designers say—so it becomes a visual part of your garden.

On some properties, the views are already visible.  On other lots, trees may need to be cut to open them up, or to make them wider or deeper, or to make them visible from more places on the property.

A few lucky properties are so large or well sited that everything you see from them is natural scenery.

The views around most homes, however, include at least some development.  The trick there is to block views of development with berms (or other privacy barrier) while opening up views of natural scenery.  On most lots, in other words, the views need to be controlled.

If, for example, you can see a mountain from your home but also some houses below the mountain, build a berm just high enough to hide the houses but not the mountain.

If, for another example, you can see a handsome woodland but also houses to the right and left of the woods, install privacy barriers that screen just the houses, not the woods.  The barriers will not only hide the undesirable view. They’ll also frame the desirable one.

At Evergreen, I cut the lower branches of trees to open up a view of my neighbor’s handsome cliffs, but I carefully left the upper branches alone so they would block my view of his house on top of the cliffs.  In other places I built berms to hide surrounding houses; but, where possible, I left openings to “borrow” views of my neighbor’s magnificent boulders and pine woodlands.

However you screen your views, the idea, if possible, is to create the effect of a large, private landscape.  By opening up every possible view of natural scenery while blocking every view of development, you help create the illusion that your house isn’t on a small lot surrounded by other houses, but is part of a large, parklike estate, surrounded by nothing but undeveloped greenspace.

Immense white pines and Nova Zembla rhododendrons around the Gold Room at Evergreen

Photo by Eileen Oktavec

Immense white pines and Nova Zembla rhododendrons around the Gold Room at Evergreen.

Use What Nature Provides: 4

A Woodland Can Become a Grand But Low-Maintenance Garden

Do you have a woodland?  If you do, you can transform it into a woodland garden, one of the grandest of all gardens yet, ironically, one requiring so little maintenance that it almost takes care of itself.

Woodland gardens are impressive because they’re vast outdoor rooms whose soaring walls and high ceilings are formed by the tall trunks and leafy crowns of large trees.

Unlike most garden plants, the trees in a woodland garden—which are the most expensive plants in any garden—are free.  They’re another gift of nature.  And the gift is not just any trees, but specimens so large that they aren’t available in any nursery at any price—and if they were, they would cost thousands of dollars apiece.

And that’s not all: Unlike other plants in your garden, these trees don’t need to be planted.  Nature has planted them for you.  Plants that take more time and effort to install than any other are already in the ground, growing nicely, awaiting your attention.

Besides trees, nature sometimes gives you evergreen shrubs and ground covers.  One of my clients has a half-acre of mature mountain laurel in his woods.  When I first saw the six-foot-high shrubs they nearly covered the ground.  I told my client that he was the owner of literally thousands of dollars worth of shrubs (if they could even be bought in a nursery) and an all-but-finished woodland garden.  All he had to do now, I said, was to clean out the dead wood, cut some paths among the laurel, and weed out a few trees to let in more light, so the laurel would bloom better.  With just a little gardening by subtraction, he would have an extraordinary landscape, one with a dazzling display of exquisite white blossoms in late spring.  And all without having to buy a single plant!

Woodland gardens are unusually economical in another way: Thanks mainly to their trees, they need less maintenance than other gardens.

  • You don’t have to mulch woodland gardens because they mulch themselves—with the thick layer of leaves and needles that fall on the woodland floor.
  • You don’t need to fertilize them because they make their own fertilizer out of decayed mulch.
  • You rarely have to water them because they’re kept cool and moist by the mulch and by their foliage canopy; as a result, most woodland gardens get all the water they need from rain or snowmelt.
  • They need little weeding because the mulch and their leaf canopy inhibit weeds.

A woodland garden, in other words, is like a forest: a natural ecosystem that, like all ecosystems, takes care of itself.

Properly designed, a woodland garden needs only seasonal cleanup (mainly of dead trees and branches) and occasional watering (mainly during a drought, and then primarily for appearance).

Few other landscapes give you so much garden for so little effort, or so lush a landscape, with so many large trees and shrubs, for so little cost.

A woodland garden has still other advantages: It’s cool—or at least the coolest place on your property—on a warm day and a lush, serene, shady oasis on any day.

To transform your woods into a woodland garden you begin by gardening by subtraction: cleaning up dead wood, weeding (removing mainly brush and small deciduous trees), and pruning.  Gardening by subtraction makes your woods neater, more open, more parklike—more like a garden—all by itself.

Then you lay out paths and plant sweeps of shade-tolerant, mainly evergreen shrubs and ground covers along the paths, and a few perennial and annual flowers for variety and interest.  Add appropriate sculpture and furniture… and it’s finished.

(For a more detailed explanation of woodland garden-making, see The Woodland Garden and How Evergreen Was Created.)

Use What Nature Provides: 5

If You Have Mountain Laurel in Your Woods, You Already Have a Woodland Garden

Would you like to add some trees and shrubs to your property this year? Would you like to get those trees and shrubs for free? Would you also like to get them planted for free?

For literally thousands of homeowners in the Northeast, free landscaping isn’t a fantasy.  It’s a real opportunity waiting to be seized.

Those lucky people have woods on their property, and in their woods is mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), the native evergreen shrub with exquisite white flowers in June, and leathery dark green leaves that are handsome year round.

If you’re in this lucky number, you already  own some of the most expensive plants in any garden: trees and shrubs that would cost you literally thousands of dollars if you had to buy them at a nursery or garden center.  Most of these plants, in fact, are so big that they’re unavailable in any nursery at any price.

And not only do you not have to buy them—you don’t even need to plant them.  Nature has already planted them for you.

And because these trees and shrubs grow in a natural ecosystem, nature takes care of them for you, too.  Nature waters them with rain and snowmelt and mulches them with fallen leaves and needles.  Like all mulches, the needles and leaves help keep the soil cool and moist and help control weeds.  When the leaves and needles decay, they become a free fertilizer and soil enricher.

Many people think that, to make a garden, they have to cut down their woods and put lawns, flower beds, etc. in their place.

Big mistake.  If you’re lucky enough to own some woods, you have the heart of a woodland garden, one of the lushest, most dramatic, most environmentally friendly, and lowest-maintenance landscapes on earth.

If you’re lucky enough to have a woods with mountain laurel, you already have a fully planted woodland garden.  For your garden’s largest, most important plants—its trees and flowering evergreen shrubs—are already planted and thriving.  Your woodland garden now needs mostly grooming—what I call gardening by subtraction.

What to Do About Your Lawn: 1

Grass: Cheap to Install But Expensive to Maintain 

What’s the most popular American landscaping plant?

If you answered rhododendrons, yews, or junipers, you wouldn’t even be close.  In fact, if you mentioned any shrub, tree, or flower you’d be wrong, too.  For the most popular ornamental plant is grass.  Not only is it the only plant in virtually every American yard.  It also covers more of that yard—by far—than any other plant.

Part of the reason is economic:  Grass is the quickest and cheapest plant to install.  A dollar’s worth of grass seed—even a dollar’s worth of turf—can cover more ground than a dollar’s worth of any other plant.

If a contractor landscapes a new home, his planting scheme is usually a few tiny shrubs in front of the house (because the foundation would be ugly-bare without them) and grass—just grass—everywhere else.  When the house is sold, the new owner simply maintains what the contractor has left him.

And that’s too bad.  For if grass is a bargain to install it’s anything but a bargain to maintain.  In fact, the cost of creating a lawn is inversely proportional to the cost of taking care of it.

Unlike most trees and shrubs in our gardens, grass is not a native or naturalized plant that largely takes care of itself.  On the contrary, in most of the United States a lawn is a high-maintenance organism that, in a typical garden, consumes more time and more money—by far—than all the other plants combined.

Count up the unique costs of lawn care:

  1. Watering: Properly mulched, most garden trees and shrubs and even many flowers don’t need watering—they can survive on rain and snowmelt. Grass can’t be mulched with anything heavier than grass clippings, and it usually needs frequent watering, especially in mid- and late summer.  To deliver that water, you have to install an expensive irrigation system or you need to water by hand.
  • In the summer, watering a lawn can consume more tap water than any other household function. In the eastern United States, as much as one-third of household water is sprayed on the lawn.  In dry areas of the West, as much as 60 per cent goes on the grass.  You can easily spend several hundred dollars a year just watering a lawn.  And that cost will only rise as an ever-expanding population consumes an ever-greater share of the country’s fixed water supplies.

  • Sometimes lawn-irrigation water is unavailable at any price.  When a drought dries up a municipal reservoir, lawn watering is simply banned—and homeowners watch helplessly as their precious, delicate greenswards turn yellow, then brown, after their life support systems are turned off.

  1. Mowing: Unlike any other plant in your garden, lawns need mowing.  And, of course, the greener and lusher—i.e., more desirable—your lawn is, the more mowing it requires.  Lawn mowing typically takes more time than any other garden chore.  One study estimates that Americans spend an average of 40 hours a year—or a full week’s worth of labor—cutting their grass.  If the average American adult earns $500 a week, then the average American homeowner is lavishing $500 worth of labor on his lawn.  And that’s only for mowing.
  • There’s also the cost of the mower—at least $100 for a no-frills, push-it-yourself model; at least $200 for a more popular self-propelled machine; and at least $700 for a riding model.  According to the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, the average American spends $338 for his mower and buys a new one about every seven years, which means he spends about $50 per year just to purchase a mower.

  • Just like automobiles, power mowers also need regular servicing—blade sharpening, oil changes, new spark plugs, etc.  Even a routine tune-up costs at least $25—and that’s when there’s nothing wrong except a dull blade.  According to the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, Americans spend an average of $65 on mower maintenance every year.

  • Add about $10 worth of gas per year, and you can figure that the typical American family spends at least $118 per year just to buy, maintain, and fuel a power mower.

  • If you hire someone to mow your lawn, your costs will be even higher.  The kid next door will probably want at least $10 an hour (and probably more) for his services—if you can get his attention.  Landscape contractors and other professional lawn care services charge at least three or four times as much.  Depending on the size of your lawn, mowing services can easily run anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars a year.

  • Another cost is noise.  A power lawn mower may be the noisiest appliance you own, even noisier than your car.  That’s because your mower, unlike your car, doesn’t have a muffler.

  • Still another cost is pollution.  Unlike your car, your mower doesn’t have a catalytic converter, so, according to one study, every hour it runs, it emits as many pollutants as a car driven 350 miles.

  1. Cleaning up: After a lawn is mowed, you’ve got to deal with the clippings. Many people still rake them up—which takes almost as much time as mowing. Then you’ve got to get rid of them.  A lot of lawn waste is still hauled (at great expense) to landfills—which, in many cities and towns, are rapidly running out of room.
  • You also have to rake up leaves.  Trees, shrubs and most other plants actually benefit from fallen leaves and needles.  They create a valuable layer of organic mulch, which suppresses weeds and eventually decays to enrich and fertilize the soil.  If trees didn’t create this mulch for free, you’d have to provide it. Grass is different.  A layer of leaves can kill a lawn, by rotting it and/or by making its soil too acidic.  And even if leaves didn’t hurt the lawn, they would still make it all but invisible.

  1. Weeding: Mainly because lawns can’t be mulched, they’re more susceptible to weeds than are virtually any other garden plants. Either you have to pull up the weeds by hand—a chore sometimes as time-consuming as mowing—or you have to kill them with herbicides, the side effects of which are dangerous at worse, uncertain at best. Some popular herbicides have been found to be almost as harmful to human beings as they are to weeds.  And who knows what we’ll discover about others—after it’s too late.
  2. Liming, Fertilizing, and Other Chores: Unlike many trees, shrubs and other plants, grass prefers a more neutral soil than the acid soils found in the eastern United States. That means you have to spread lime on your lawn at least once a year and periodically test it for proper pH.  Lawns also need to be fertilized at least once or twice a year.  Some also need aeration and occasional spraying of a pesticide, the effects of which are at least as noxious as herbicides.

Given all the costs of grass, you might think that, far from being our most popular garden plant, it would be only slightly more welcome than the weeds we try to extirpate from it.

The popularity of grass would be less ironic if it had at least one of the features for which we prize other plants—blossoms, for example, or colorful fruits or foliage, or evergreen leaves or needles, or brilliant fall colors.  But grass has none of these things.  On the contrary, it’s perhaps the least impressive plant in the garden.  No other species gives us so little for so much.

What to Do About Your Lawn: 2

Keep Only As Much Grass As You Use—and Get Rid of the Rest

Although grass has many limitations (see above), it isn’t all bad.  It actually has two valuable properties:

First, it’s the only plant that can be walked on regularly without serious damage—the only ground cover that withstands moderate foot traffic—and therefore the only one that can provide a durable planted surface for outdoor living and playing.

Unlike concrete or other paving—what landscape professionals call “hardscape”—a grass surface is soft, attractive, and cool in warm weather.  Grass is essential for croquet, pleasant for volleyball and badminton, and ideal for games like touch football, where a soft surface makes falls less painful and scrapes less likely.

Grass is also wonderful for sunbathing and picnicking.  Grass makes lawn parties . . . lawn parties.  It gives any outdoor living and entertaining area a softer, more natural feeling than a paved surface can.

Second, grass makes a great garden path.  Grass paths are cheaper to build and more pleasant to walk on than paved paths.  Plus, their smooth, level surface makes a beautiful contrast to billowing shrubs and other plants beside them.  Grass paths can unify a garden by tying it together in long, wide, green ribbons of turf.

But that’s it.  In a low-maintenance garden, grass should be used only where you need what only grass can provide: a ground cover that can be walked on.

If you’re not going to walk on it (except to mow it)—if, in other words, the grass will be strictly ornamental—there are literally hundreds of other plants—trees, shrubs and other ground covers—that are much more colorful and require only a tiny fraction of the maintenance that turf requires.  Grass simply requires too much care to use it anywhere you don’t need it.

(On the other hand, don’t use grass anywhere you’re going to use it too much.  Basketball courts and other heavy-duty sports areas, for instance, should be covered with something tougher than grass—a hard paving such as concrete or asphalt or a soft one such as sand or a sand-clay mix.)

When deciding how much lawn you need and where you need it, ask yourself what, if anything, you want to do on the grass.  If the answer is nothing, you don’t need it.

If you are going to do something on the grass, then ask yourself exactly how much grass you need to do it on.

One of my clients, for example, wanted a soft spot just large enough to spread a blanket for sunbathing.  That’s why her lawn is smaller than her kitchen—but it’s simply all the grass she needs.

If you need grass, say, for occasional badminton games, then you’ll need a lawn the size of a badminton court.  If you plan to play more frequently, you’ll need a lawn the size of two badminton courts—enough to use for a second court while you let the first one recover from too much footwear.  If you want to play touch football, you’ll need even more grass.

You get the idea.  The point is to maintain only as much lawn as you use and eliminate the rest.

If you’re like most Americans, you probably have more lawn than you use.  Much more.

Do you use your front lawn?  If you’re like many homeowners, the only time you’re on your front lawn is when you’re maintaining it.

In that sense, your lawn is almost like an old-fashioned parlor: Other than to entertain an occasional important guest, it existed only to be cleaned.

If your lawn is like a parlor—if all you do is take care of it—then get rid of it.  Replace it with flowering trees, shrubs, and ground covers and other easy-care plants.

Also eliminate strips of grass too narrow or too steep to use.  In fact, any lawn you keep should be level enough for at least some use.  The more level the lawn, the more activities it can be used for (and, incidentally, the easier it is to mow).

Unless you have your own golf course, you should get rid of any lawn larger than a quarter-acre.  Most people, in fact, don’t need—don’t use—more than a sixth of an acre of grass.  That’s just about 2,500 square feet, or a 50-foot square.  Still other people need less than 400 square feet, or a 20-foot square.

What to Do About Your Lawn: 3

How to Spend Less Time and Money on Your Grass

In Sections 1 and 2 (above) I explain why you should get rid of any grass you don’t actually use.

That, in fact, is the biggest step you can take to reduce your lawn care burden.  If, for example, you got rid of half your lawn—and millions of Americans can eliminate at least that—you can also eliminate half the time and almost half the money you now spend taking care of it.

How to get rid of the grass you don’t need?

One solution: Replace it more colorful, low-maintenance plants.  (See Create Color with Flowering Trees, Shrubs, Ground Covers and Vinesbelow.)

On most lots, especially those of an acre or less, most of the grass near the boundaries can simply be covered with berms, which can create estatelike privacy.

You can also save time and money by preserving only the parts of your lawn that are easiest to maintain—healthy, level turf in plenty of sunlight that’s relatively easy to mow—and getting rid of shady, sloping, and scraggly sections that need a lot of work.

You can also save by maintaining your remaining lawn more efficiently. Here are eight ways to do that:

  • The biggest saving you can make is: Stop raking up grass clippings. Instead, leave them on the lawn, where they’ll provide a light mulch.
  • Like all mulches, clippings help the soil retain moisture and reduce the need for watering.  When the clippings decay, they’ll enrich and aerate your soil and create natural, organic fertilizer.  In other words, leaving clippings on the lawn doesn’t only save you from having to rake them up.  It also saves you both water and fertilizer and the time it takes to apply them.

  • When you leave clippings on your lawn, make them small enough so they disappear into the grass.

  • Thick clumps of clippings left on top of the lawn are not only unsightly; they can also hurt the grass.  The smaller the clippings, the faster they’ll reach the ground, so the quicker they’ll decay.

  • A so-called mulching mower will chop the clippings up finely enough.  But if you don’t have one, you can dice up the clippings with a regular mower simply by mowing over them until they disappear.

  • The best way to mulch clippings is to mow the lawn in a continuous circle, beginning on the outside edge and blowing the clippings toward the center.  As you mow an ever-smaller circle, you’ll be mowing over an ever-smaller ring of clippings, pulverizing most of them and moving the rest toward the middle, where the mower will eventually get rid of all of them.  Just keep mowing over them until you can’t see any more.

  • To make sure you don’t create too much mulch, mow your lawn often enough so you don’t have to cut off more than two inches of grass at a time.

  • To save the cost of buying and maintaining a rotary power mower, buy an old-fashioned reel mower. Reel mowers cost only about $100—less than the least expensive power machines.  They seldom need repair (other than blade sharpening).  They don’t burn gas or oil.  They don’t pollute.  They’re safer than power mowers.  They cut the grass more sharply than a rotary mower (this helps protect the grass from diseases).  And they’re not that much harder to push than power mowers (especially on a level lawn—which is the kind you should have), and newer models are even easier to push than old ones, mainly because they’re lighter.
  • Reel mowers are also terrific exercise.  Since there’s no danger of cutting yourself on a power-driven blade, you can even jog behind them, as fast as you want.  Running on a soft, fragrant, newly mowed lawn, getting a workout in the fresh air without having to go to a gym, while getting a job done at the same time—who could ask for more?

  • (To be fair, you can also get a workout by jogging behind a power mower.  When I had a larger lawn I did it all the time.  Newer models have an automatic shut-off, so there’s not much risk of cutting yourself with the blade if you trip or fall.)

  • The best way to keep weeds and insects away from your lawn (thereby reducing the need for pesticides, herbicides, and hand weeding) is to make your lawn as healthy as possible.  A healthy lawn grows full and thick, crowding out weeds;  it’s also less attractive to bugs.  There are several ways to make your lawn more robust:
  • Don’t cut it too short. Longer grass—three or four inches is good—shades the soil better than short grass, making it harder for weeds to germinate.  Longer turf also helps keep the soil moister and produces deeper roots, both of which reduce the need for watering.  (Since soil dries out from the top down, the deeper a plant’s roots, the greater the chance that they’ll always have enough water.)
  • As with any plant, water a lawn deeply, enough to soak the roots. But don’t over water—that makes grass susceptible to fungal diseases.  An inch of water once or twice a week is usually fine.
  • How can you be sure of the right amount?  Poke your finger into the ground.  If the soil is damp, don’t water.  If it’s dry, water.

  • If you water late in the day, grass can stay wet all night, increasing the risk of fungus. But if you water early in the morning instead, the grass will have all day to dry out.
  • Use an organic fertilizer, such as composted cow manure. Unlike artificial fertilizers, organic ones enrich the soil and help decompose thatch (dead grass).  They also act more slowly than artificial fertilizers, so they give the lawn a longer, more consistent dose of nutrients.  Plus they’re gentler on the environment because they’re less likely to run off into the ground water.  Fertilize in both spring and fall.
  • If weeds do appear, try digging them out by hand. If your lawn is both healthy and not over large, you shouldn’t have many to dig.  You can also shorten your work by concentrating on the most conspicuous and unattractive “weeds” and leaving the rest alone.  Use herbicides only as a last resort, and then use only a specific chemical or product for a specific plant in a specific area.  Also avoid suspected carcinogens.
  • Avoid pesticides. They don’t kill just grubs and other grass eaters.  They also attack “good” insects that eat “bad” ones, earthworms that aerate and fertilize the soil, and microorganisms that break down thatch into fertilizer and enrich the soil at the same time.  Happily, pesticides are usually unnecessary on healthy lawns, which can withstand most insect attacks all by themselves.
Rosebay rhododendrons in bloom in Central Park

Photo by Eileen Oktavec

Rosebay rhododendrons in bloom in Central Park

Create Color with Flowering Trees, Shrubs, Ground Covers, and Vines: 1

Replace High-Maintenance Part-time Plants with Low-Care Ones

Too many gardens are planted with too much grass, too many annual and perennial flowers, and too many manicured shrubs.

That kind of gardening is the most time-consuming, labor-intensive landscaping in the world. It demands untold hours of planting, mowing, watering, weeding, fertilizing, dusting, dividing, deadheading, staking, clipping, pruning, raking, and cleaning up.  Maintaining even an average lawn-and-flower garden can consume 20 or more hours a week in the summer.  For some people it’s a full-time job.

Annuals, perennials, and deciduous shrubs have yet another drawback:  For all their color and beauty, they’re still just part-time plants.  Perennial flowers and deciduous shrubs bloom for only a few weeks each year.  Plus, their foliage dies back in the fall and doesn’t appear again until spring.  Annuals bloom all summer, but they can’t be planted until spring, and they die back completely in the fall.

If your garden consisted only of part-time plants, it would be only a part-time garden: green for only a few months and bare for as much as half the year.  In cold northern climates, it would be bare from September until it snows, bare again during winter thaws, and bare from the time the snow disappears until perennials reemerge in May.

Happily, there are alternatives to both bare ground and high-maintenance landscaping.

Instead of labor-intensive lawns, annual and perennial flowers, and sheared shrubbery, plant trees, shrubs, ground covers, and vines that largely take care of themselves.

For year-round interest, cover at least half of your garden—and ideally much more—with evergreen trees, shrubs, and ground covers.  Create color, not just with the flowers of high-maintenance perennials and annuals, but mainly with the flowers, foliage, berries, and bark of low-maintenance trees, shrubs, ground covers, and vines.

By planting colorful, low-care trees, shrubs, ground covers, and vines, your house can be surrounded by large, lush, colorful, year-round gardens.  But unlike the all-too-typical lawn-and-flower garden, this landscape will require, not 10 or 20 hours of upkeep each week, but just a few hours each month.

The 12 sections below describe the different types of low-maintenance plants that together can bring color, interest, and other benefits to your garden automatically, year after year, all year long.  They include:

Creating Color with Flowering Trees, Shrubs, Ground Covers, and Vines: 2

Flowering Broadleaf Evergreen Shrubs May Be the Most Valuable Ornamental Plants

One key to low-maintenance gardening is to create flower color, not with the blossoms of high-maintenance annuals and perennials, but with the blossoms of low-maintenance trees, shrubs, and ground covers.

Broadleaf evergreen shrubs may be the most valuable ornamental plants because they offer not only showy flowers but also handsome, leathery, dark green leaves that provide year-round interest.

Sweeps (large groupings) of evergreen shrubs are also one of the lowest-maintenance landscape designs. When the shrubs mass in, they create their own leaf canopy, like trees in a forest.  The space below the shrubs becomes so dark that almost nothing can grow there, so you rarely have to weed it. The shade also helps keep the ground cool and moist, so you rarely, if ever, have to water the plants after the first year in which they’re planted.

Perhaps the most colorful broadleaf evergreen shrubs are rhododendrons.

Rhodies, as they’re affectionately called, have the showiest flowers of any cold-hardy broadleaf evergreen—smashing displays of large flower trusses that sometimes cover the plant.

What’s more, rhodies bloom from April to July, so they can create blossom color automatically, year after year, with virtually no maintenance, for fully half of the entire growing season.

The earliest-blooming rhodies are the small-leaf, sun-loving varieties such as the justly popular P. J. M., which sports masses of lavender-pink flowers in April and striking dark mahogany leaves in winter.

Other little-leaf rhodies are showy too.  ‘Aglo’ has bright pink blossoms.  ‘April Snow’ produces double white flowers and distinctive yellow stems. ‘Balta’ has pale pink, almost white flowers. ‘Black Satin’ sports large purple-violet flowers plus mahogany-black leaves in spring, fall, and winter.  ‘Purple Gem’ produces purple-blue blossoms and tiny leaves that turn bronze in winter.  ‘Olga Mezitt’ has pink blossoms and bronze copper winter foliage.  All these are hardy to Zone 4, which means they can survive in many regions of the country

Two varieties that bloom later—in late April or early May—are Cunningham’s white, which is named for its white flowers, and Cloudland, which has small bluish-purple blossoms.  These, however, are hardy only to Zone 5.

Rhodies blooming in May or early June are the Catawba varieties—large-leaf, shade-tolerant cultivars that grow six to eight feet high.  The most popular selections—and rightly so—are the so-called “ironclads”: tough plants hardy to Zone 4.  ‘Roseum Elegans’ produces lavender pink blooms. ‘Album’ has white flowers. ‘Album Elegans’ sports blush-colored blossoms. ‘English Roseum’ has pink flowers. Everest produces rosy lilac flowers with frilly edges. ‘Nova Zembla’ has dark red flowers.

The lastest-blooming rhodies are the rosebays (Rhododendron maximum)—tall, shade-loving plants that are hardy to Zone 3 or 4.  “Maxies” bloom in July and will flower even in heavy shade.

Mountain laurel at Evergree

Photo by Eileen Oktavec

Mountain laurel at Evergreen

Almost as colorful as rhododendrons are mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia).  These large shrubs, native to the Northeast, are celebrated for their large clusters of exquisite five-sided, cup-shaped white flowers that appear in June, after most rhodies (and many other plants) have already blossomed.  Many mountain laurel cultivars produce pink flowers. All are hardy to Zone 4.

Slightly less showy is Japanese andromeda (Pieris japonica), named for its pendulous clusters of dainty, white, lily-of-the-valley-like flowers that appear in April—before most other plants bloom.  Its shiny, wavy, pointed dark green leaves are red when new.  Cultivars with pink flowers include the justifiably popular ‘Dorothy Wycoff,’ which also boasts deep pink buds and wine red new leaves.

Japanese andromeda is hardy only to Zone 5, but mountain andromeda (Pieris floribunda) will survive in Zone 4.  Its white flower clusters are fragrant and grow upright (not downward, like Japanese andromeda’s).  Its foliage, however, is not as interesting or as colorful as Japanese andromeda’s.

Leucothoe doesn’t sport showy flowers, but several cultivars of this sprawling, low-growing shrub have colorful leaves.  ‘Scarletta’ is named for its rich scarlet spring foliage, which turns dark green in summer and different shades of burgundy in winter. ‘Girard’s Rainbow’ is named for its “rainbow” of variegated foliage: yellow, pink and green when new, white and green when older. ‘Silver Run’ has even more striking green-and-white leaves.

Also valued for their foliage are the variegated cultivars of euonymus.  ‘Emerald Gaiety’ and Ivory Jade’ have white-and-green foliage.  ‘Emerald ’n Gold’ and ‘Moonshadow’ have green-and-yellow leaves.  They’re indispensable because they’re the only broad-leaf evergreen shrubs hardy to Zone 4 that can provide year-round foliage color even in heavy shade.  Chose varieties with the most white or yellow color.

Unfortunately, deer like euonymus.  Plant it only where deer are not apt to show up for dinner.

Also note that any broadleaf evergreen—especially those with the biggest leaves—may be damaged by winter winds.  Plant them in relatively sheltered places.

Create Color with Flowering Trees, Shrubs, Ground Covers, and Vines: 3

Plant Needle Evergreen Shrubs For Year-Round Foliage Color and Privacy

Unlike rhododendrons, mountain laurel and other broadleaf evergreen shrubs with showy flowers (described above), needle evergreen shrubs have all but invisible blossoms.

But needle evergreen shrubs bring color into your garden not with flowers, but with blue, yellow, and sometimes even white foliage.  And because they’re evergreen—not deciduous, like lilacs, for example, or herbaceous, like perennial flowers—their colorful foliage lasts all year long.

What’s more, many needle evergreen shrubs grow into picturesque shapes that make terrific accents and focal points.  And like all evergreens, needle evergreens can make dense year-round privacy screens.

A plant group consisting only of different sizes, colors, and species of needle evergreen trees and shrubs is called a pinetum, and it can be an unusually satisfying landscape composition.

Several Eastern arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) have yellow needles and—unlike many taller arborvitae—pleasing rounded shapes.  ‘Aurea’ and Golden Globe’ sport golden yellow foliage and grow only two to three feet high and wide.  ‘Ellwangeriana Aurea’ grows slowly to six to nine feet tall, Rheingold’ grows four to five feet tall and three to four feet wide, and both have rich, deep golden needles. ‘Sunkist’ produces attractive dense, slightly twisted golden needles and grows six to nine feet high.  All are hardy to Zone 3, so they’ll survive in the coldest regions of the United States.

Unfortunately, deer love arborvitae, so use them only in the city or in other gardens where deer are not apt to drop in for dinner.

Several Hinoki falsecypresses (Chamaecyparis obtusa) have yellow, yellow-and-green, or white-and-green foliage.  The cultivar Verdoni’ produces yellow needles and grows six to eight feet high.  Nana Lutea’ sports lovely golden yellow needles and grows slowly to about six feet. Named for its golden fern-like foliage, Gold Fern’ grows very slowly to four feet high and wide. Hinokis, however, are hardy only to Zone 5.

Several thread-leaf falsecypresses (Cham- aecyparis pisifera ‘Filifera’) also bear gold needles and they’re hardy to Zone 4.  Many are also smaller than Hinokis, so they make good foundation shrubs, (described in the section below).   Aurea’ grows 10 to 12 feet high and wide.  King’s Gold’ grows just four feet.  Lemon Thread’ grows slowly to five feet tall and four feet wide. Mops’—the yellowest of the threadleafs—grows just two or three feet high and four or five feet wide.Sungold’ reaches five feet and holds its golden yellow color throughout the season.

Many yellow falsecypresses, however, do not hold their color all year long or are only partly golden.  More reliable yellow color is found in junipers, which are generally low-growing shrubs that make good foundation plantings and ground covers.

Yellow cultivars include two Chinese junipers (Juniperus chinensis): Armstrong Aurea’ (also known as ‘Old Gold’), which sports yellow to gold foliage and grows three to four feet high and six to eight feet wide; and the well-named Gold Lace,’  which grows three to four feet tall and five to six feet wide. Both are hardy to Zone 4.

Mother Lode’ is a creeping juniper (Juniper horizontalis) with bright yellow foliage that grows two to three feet wide but only two or three inches high.  It turns yellow-orange in the fall and is tinged plum purple in winter.

Many creeping junipers have striking blue foliage.  Blue Chip,’ which grows one foot high and ten feet wide, produces slate blue needles. Named for its bright, frosty blue needles, Icee Blue’ grows only four inches high but spreads to eight feet.  Blue rug (‘Wiltonii’), which has bright blue foliage, grows six to eight feet wide, but only two or three inches above the ground.

Most creeping junipers are hardy to Zone 3.

Taller sources of blue foliage color are dwarf blue spruces (Picea pungens).  Compact globe (‘Globosa’) boasts deep blue needles, grows three to four feet high and wide, and is hardy to Zone 3.  Montgomery reaches six to eight feet high and wide and is hardy to Zone 4.

Unfortunately, dwarf shrubs are expensive, because they grow very slowly.  A dwarf blue spruce that’s the same size as, say, an arborvitae will be many years older.  The spruce will have required many more years of nursery care and so will usually cost four to six times as much.  If you’re short of funds, use them sparingly.

Create Color with Flowering Trees, Shrubs, Ground Covers, and Vines: 4

Foundations Need Evergreen Shrubs

Evergreen shrubs (described above) are needed around the foundation of most houses for three reasons:

  • To hide an inherently unattractive concrete foundation, as well as other blemishes on the house, such as utility entrances or wires.
  • To soften the edges, and especially the corners, of the house
  • To give the house a visual base, making it look as if it’s part of the site, as Frank Lloyd Wright put it, rather than merely on the site.

When installing “foundation plantings”:

  • Make sure the shrubs are high enough, thick enough, and close enough together so none of the foundation is visible at any time, even in winter.  Only evergreen shrubs can provide year-round screening.  Lower deciduous shrubs can be planted in front of the evergreens, of course, but mainly for decoration, not screening.  See below.
  • Make sure the shrubs hide every eyesore on the house—electric or gas meters, fuel oil pipes, wires, faucets, hoses, etc.
  • Plant shrubs far enough from the foundation so they won’t touch the house—or at least not touch it very soon—when they grow.  Two or three feet from the house is a good distance.
  • To avoid blocking views from indoors, use lower shrubs under windows.  Consider slow-growing and/or dwarf varieties under low windows.
  • Use larger shrubs at the corners of the house, which is where the contrast between the house and the site is usually the strongest and, therefore, where the building needs more softening than anywhere else.
  • Install shrubs not only around the house, but also around the garage and every other building with a concrete foundation and around any other building that, for whatever reason, needs softening or a visual base.

Foundation plantings can be as extensive as you want.  In fact, large groups of foundation plants are an easy way to replace high-maintenance grass with low-maintenance shrubs and ground covers.

Deep, layered compositions of shrubs and ground covers can be stunning arrangements.  To do this, group plants by height.  Plant the tallest shrubs closest to the house, medium-size shrubs in front of the tallest ones, short shrubs in front of the medium-size ones, and ground covers in front of the short shrubs.

Large Catawba rhododendrons, mountain laurels, andromeda, or gold arborvitae, for example, could be planted beside the house.

In front of these consider smaller versions of the above—yak rhodies, for instance, or pink mountain laurel cultivars—or gold Chinese junipers or dwarf Colorado blue spruces.

In front of the medium-size shrubs you could plant variegated green-and-white or green-and-yellow euonymus or variegated ‘Silver Run’ leucothoe.

In the very front of the composition, consider ‘Illumination’ vinca, ‘Silver Edge’ pachysandra, or other variegated evergreen ground covers

The possible combinations are innumerable.  But always remember to mass most plants—especially the smaller ones—in groups of three or more of the same variety.

Don’t waste your time pruning shrubs into rectangles, squares, balls, or other unnatural geometric shapes.  Most shrubs grow into attractive shapes all by themselves. Cut them back only when they’re blocking a view from a window or scraping the house, or when one variety is growing into another, thus making the composition look messy.  (Groups of the same plant rarely need pruning.  On the contrary, you want them to grow into each other, or “mass in.”)

The best ways to minimize pruning is to select shrubs that won’t grow any bigger than you want them to grow, and to plant them where they have plenty of room to reach their mature size.

Don’t put wooden “sandwich boards” or other structures over your shrubs to protect them from falling snow and ice in the winter.  These things are almost always eyesores.  They defeat the purpose of foundation plantings, which, after all, is to make your property attractive.  Making your house look a bit like a construction site for four or more months every year just to prevent the possibility of a few broken branches is a bad bargain.

Ice or snow damage, incidentally,  is less apparent on unpruned than pruned shrubs because unpruned plants are looser and more ragged.

Creating Color with Flowering Trees, Shrubs, Ground Covers, and Vines: 5

Deciduous Shrubs Can Provide Rare Late-Season Color

Deciduous shrubs have many limitations.

  • Unlike evergreen shrubs, they can’t provide year-round color or interest.  On the contrary, they’re bare much of the year.
  • Their leaves—when present—are rarely as attractive as the foliage of evergreen shrubs.
  • Unlike deciduous trees, their branches are way too skinny to create handsome winter silhouettes.

Late-blooming deciduous shrubs, however, can perform a valuable role that most plants cannot: They can provide flower and/or fruit color in mid- to late summer (and sometimes in fall and winter) after most plants—including broadleaf evergreen shrubs—have already bloomed. They’re essential plants in a low-maintenance garden because they can ensure that your landscape has flowers not only in spring and early summer, but all summer long; and, unlike perennial and annual flowers, they require little care.  Ideally these plants too would be evergreen. But they’re not.  They’re simply the best choices we have for mid- and late-summer shrub color.

The most valuable late-summer plants are hydrangeas.  They’re vigorous shrubs with large, coarse, dark green leaves and—best of all—unusually large white, pink, or blue flower clusters that bloom for weeks in July, August, and even September.

Perhaps the most valuable species of all is the panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata).  It’s the only hydrangea hardy to Zone 3—which means it can survive in even the coldest regions of the United States—and in August it produces huge white or creamy flowers that turn pinkish or purplish pink and finally brown, contributing showy blossom color well into fall.

Panicle hydrangea has several popular cultivars. The most popular—and properly so—is probably the fast-growing P.G. (‘Grandiflora’), which produces 12- to 18-inch-long flower clusters.  P.G.’s grow 10 to 15 feet tall, so just one bush can create a huge, long-lasting splash of color.

The P.G. tree is simply the P.G. pruned into a handsome small, single-stem tree.  (Actually, any P. G. cultivar—and, for that matter, many other shrubs—can also be pruned into tree shapes.)

Compact P.G. and ‘Pee Wee’ are smaller versions of the P.G.  ‘Pee Wee’ grows only about four feet high and wide, Compact only six or seven feet high and wide.  Their leaves and flowers, however, are smaller, too.  Use them only when you don’t have room for a regular P.G.

Other P.G. cultivars are ‘Tardiva,’ or late P.G., which blooms in September; ‘Pink Diamond,’ whose first blossoms are pink, not white; ‘Limelight,’ which has striking lime green flowers; and Kyushu,’ whose flowers stay white until fall.

Oakleaf hydrandra (Hydrangea quercifolia) also produces white flowers that turn pink, then brown.  But, unlike other hydrangeas, its coarse, oak-like leaves turn orange-brown, red, and purple in the fall.  It’s hardy to Zone 5.

The large white flowers of smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea aborescens) don’t turn pink, but the shrub tolerates light shade better than other hydrangeas, and it’s hardy to Zone 4.

Bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) produces immense white, pink or blue flower heads, depending on the variety and the pH (acidity or alkalinity) of the soil. They lack a permanent woody branch structure, however, so they provide little presence from fall to spring; and most are hardy only to Zone 5.  Two popular cultivars, however, are hardy to Zone 4: ‘Endless Summer,’ which produces pink or blue blossoms, and ‘Blushing Bride,’ whose white flowers turn “blush” pink. Unfortunately, ‘Endless Summer’ often flowers poorly, earning it the nickname “endless bummer.”

Hibiscus, or rose of sharon, is another big shrub—it grows five to twelve feet tall—and from July until frost it sports large, saucer-shaped, three- to four-inch-wide single or double flowers—red, rose, pink, white, blue and lavender, depending on the variety.  Hibiscus is hardy only to Zone 5, and it’s not impressive if it’s dotted with scattered blossoms—which happens when it’s grown even in light shade.  Plant it in full sun, where it will produce the most flowers.

Several varieties of swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum) offer fragrant blossoms in late June or early July, and some develop colorful fall foliage.  ‘Innocence’ sports white blossoms and burgundy red autumn leaves.  ‘Lemon Drop’ has peach-colored buds and lemon-scented pale yellow flowers. ‘Lady Barbara,’ ‘Lollipop,’ ‘Parade,’ and ‘Pink ’n Sweet’ all produce pink flowers.  ‘Ribbon Candy,’ named for its pink flowers with white stripes, sports reddish fall foliage. ‘Sparkler’ has ruffled pink blossoms and wine-purple autumn leaves. All grow five or six feet tall and are hardy to Zone 4.

Rugosa rose, or beach rose (Rosa rugosa), bears two- to three-inch-wide pink or deep red flowers throughout the summer, followed by deep-red fruits known as hips.  The cultivar ‘Alba’ has white flowers. Rugosas grow as high as six feet and sometimes twice as wide. They’re hardy to Zone 2.

Creating Color with Flowering Trees, Shrubs, Ground Covers, and Vines: 6

Many Deciduous Shrubs Sport Colorful All-Season Foliage

In the section above, I described hydrangeas and other deciduous shrubs that are prized because they flower in mid- or late-summer, after most other plants have already bloomed. Still other deciduous shrubs are valued not, or not only, for their flowers but for their colorful foliage or fruits.

Unlike the green leaves of most plants, these special shrubs offer red, purple, or yellow foliage.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the leaves of these shrubs are actually more valuable than their flowers, because flowers are colorful for only two or three weeks a year, while deciduous foliage brings color into the garden from spring through fall—that is, not for just a few weeks each year, but for as much as six months.

Perhaps the most valuable deciduous-foliage shrub is red-leaf Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii atropurpurea)In full sun its intense red maroon foliage is as beautiful as a sunset—but unlike a sunset its heart-stopping beauty endures from spring to fall.  Its cultivar ‘Rosy Glow’ grows five to six feet tall. ‘Crimson Pygmy,’ which produces darker red or purple leaves, grows less than two feet.

Golden Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii ‘Aurea’) sports vivid yellow leaves, and it grows slowly to three or four feet high.  Like all Japanese barberries it’s hardy to Zone 4, so it can grow in most regions of the country.

Unfortunately, barberries are considered invasive.  Use them only in urban areas, where unwanted sprouts are apt to be noticed and can be pulled out.  Don’t plant them in the country, where there’s little to prevent them from infesting native habitat.

Happily there are many other red-, purple- and yellow-foliage shrubs that you can substitute for red Japanese barberry—though none, alas, is quite so beautiful.

One is purple-leaf sand cherry (Prunus x cistena), which is hardy to Zone 3.  In full sun, it’s covered with small, fragrant pinkish flowers in spring and early summer.  More important, its foliage is a rich, deep red purple from spring to fall.  It grows eight to ten feet high and wide, so plant it where it has room to expand.

Similarly, weigela is most prized not for its spring flowers but for the colorful all-season foliage of several cultivars. ‘Wine and Roses’ produces hot pink blooms and dark burgundy leaves and grows four to five feet high and wide. ‘Midnight Wine’ is a dwarf form of ‘Wine and Roses,’ growing just three feet high and wide. ‘Java Red’ has deep pink flowers and dark purple leaves and grows three or four feet high and wide.  ‘Variegata’ sports pink flowers and white-and-green variegated leaves and reaches five to seven feet. ‘French Lace’ produces bright red blossoms and variegated green leaves with gold edges; it grows six feet high and four feet wide.  Use it, however, only if you don’t mind mixing yellow and red.  ‘My Monet’ sports striking pink flowers and tri-colored pink, green, and creamy white foliage; it grows less than two feet high and wide.  All weigelas are hardy to Zone 4.

Named for its colorful exfoliating bark—most prominent, of course, in older (larger) specimens—ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) is a medium to large shrub favored not for its modest white or pinkish flowers but mostly for the colorful foliage of several cultivars,.  ‘Diablo’ produces creamy white spring flowers and reddish-purple leaves and grows eight to ten feet high and wide.  The leaves of ‘Coppertina’ are a showy coppery orange when new and a rich red by summer; the shrub grows six to seven feet tall and five to six feet wide. Named for its burgundy foliage, ‘Summer Wine’ produces tiny, pinkish white flowers in mid-summer, and it grows only four to six feet high and wide.  ‘Dart’s Gold’ is named for its yellow or yellow-green leaves, ‘Nugget’ for its golden yellow foliage; both grow five to six feet tall; unfortunately, the leaves of both shrubs turn green in summer.

Usually ninebarks should be pruned back to a tree shape or at least to a few big stems—both to eliminate their messy tangle of branches and to emphasize their colorful bark.

Two tall shrubs also offer long-lasting yellow foliage.  Golden vicary privet (Ligustrum x vicaryi) produces modest white flowers in spring, as well as bright yellow foliage all summer long if it’s grown in full sun.  It’s also a tough plant that quickly reaches 10 to 12 feet tall.  It’s hardy to Zone 5.

Golden American elder (Sambucus canadensis ‘Aurea’) offers clusters of tiny white flowers in June, cherry red fruits, and golden leaves.  It grows 6 to 12 feet tall and is hardy to Zone 4.

Burning bush (Euonymus alatus) has uncommonly brilliant red foliage.  Unfortunately, this foliage appears only in the fall, the shrub’s flowers and tiny berries are unremarkable (though its winged branches capture pretty patches of snow), and, like Japanese barberry, it’s considered invasive.

Other deciduous shrubs are valuable for fruits that provide color in winter, when—except for evergreen foliage and snow—the landscape is pallid.  The most colorful winter-berry plants are, appropriately, the cultivars of  . . . winterberry (Ilex verticillata).  Their berry-like fruits are so profuse that they can actually make the shrub look red—if they’re not eaten by birds.  Winterberries also tolerate—actually prefer—wetlands, and they’re hardy to Zone 3.

Create Color With Flowering Trees, Shrubs, Ground Covers, and Vines: 7

Unlike Grass, Evergreen Ground Covers Offer Flowers and Year-Round Interest

America’s most popular ground cover is grass.  But as I write above, grass is also one of the world’s highest-maintenance plants, requiring endless hours of mowing, watering, raking, etc.

Unlike grass, many other ground covers produce flowers and colorful foliage—but, unlike grass, require almost no maintenance.  Moreover, the foliage of evergreen ground covers provides year-round interest.  In fact, evergreen ground covers make superb lawn substitutes.

Perhaps the most colorful, and therefore most valuable ground cover is myrtle, or periwinkle (Vinca minor).  Its small, shiny, leathery, dark green leaves form thick, handsome carpets.  It’s also one of the few ground covers with showy flowers—its namesake lilac-blue (“periwinkle”) blossoms appear in spring—and several cultivars have variegated leaves.

Perhaps vinca’s showiest cultivar is Illumination.’   The bright gold centers of its leaves create brilliant color.  Less showy, green-and-white-leaf cultivars include Sterling Silver,’ ‘Argenteovariegata,’ and Ralph Shugart’; the latter two—as well as Bowles’—produce blue flowers.  Atropurpurea’ sports large plum purple blossoms. Alba’ and Miss Jekyll’ (or Miss Jekyll’s White’) grow white flowers.

Happily, vinca thrives in both sun and shade, and it’s hardy to Zone 4.  Like most ground covers, however, it grows so low (rarely more than six inches high) that it’s often covered with snow much of the winter; so it may survive even in Zone 3.

Unlike myrtle, pachysandra has only small, sporadic, pompom-like white flowers.  It’s often useful, however, because it tolerates—indeed prefers—shade, and its shiny, dark green leaves create thick, smooth mats that choke out weeds and create a nice contrast to shrubs above it.  The cultivar Green Sheen’ produces unusually shiny leaves.  Silver Edge’ has white leaf margins that bring color into the darkest parts of the garden.  Pachysanda is hardy to Zone 4.

English ivy (Hedera helix) produces insignificant flowers, and it can be difficult to start, especially in shade.  But once established it grows quickly and aggressively.  Because it’s a vine, however, it may climb—and quickly cover—trees, shrubs, or buildings that you may not want covered.   English ivy tolerates heavy shade, and its shiny lobed leaves are two to four inches long—large for a ground cover—and it has several lovely variegated cultivars. Glacier’ leaves have thin white margins.  Buttercup’ and Sulphurea’ produce green-and-gold leaves.  Gold Heart’ boasts dark green leaves with a large warm splotch of creamy white in the centers.  English ivy is hardy to Zone 4.

Like English ivy, wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei) is a shade-tolerant vine with inconspicuous flowers.  But it grows slowly—it’s not invasive—and it looks great climbing up buildings and big trees. Although its leaves turn shades of red in winter,  it’s valued most for its variegated cultivars.  Harlequin’ and Silver Queen’ sport creamy white-and-green leaves. Variegatus’ and ‘Sunspot’ produce yellow-and-green foliage. The white-and-green leaves of Gracilis’ are tinged pink in winter.

Wintercreeper is hardy only to Zone 5, though it may survive in Zone 4 if it’s buried under snow.

Four other evergreen ground covers—wintergreen, bearberry, American cranberry, and mountain cranberry—create attractive mats of small, glossy leaves, and they’re hardy to Zone 3.  They don’t have showy flowers or variegated foliage, however, so use them sparingly—only when you need a hardier alternative to splashier choices and where their colorful cold-weather foliage will be seen in winter.

The minute pinkish-white flowers of wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) appear only sporadically throughout the summer; its red berries, which appear in the fall, are not plentiful; and, like English ivy, it can be difficult to start.  Its best feature is its lustrous dark green foliage, which turns burgundy red in winter.  It also tolerates shade.

Similarly, bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) produces tiny pink-tinged white flowers in the spring, bright red fruits in the autumn, and, most notably, bronze-red leaves in the fall and winter.  Its cultivar Vancouver Jade’ develops deep red cold-weather foliage.

Both American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarbon) and mountain cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea minus) sport showy, one-half- to three-quarter-inch red berries.  American cranberry’s fruits appear in the fall, and in the winter its foliage turns reddish bronze or reddish purple.  The berries of mountain cranberry—also known as lingonberry or cowberry—ripen in August, and its winter foliage turns mahogany.

Create Color With Flowering Trees, Shrubs, Ground Covers, and Vines: 8

Perennial Ground Covers Provide Flower and Foliage Color

Unlike evergreen ground covers (described above), perennial ground covers don’t have shiny, leathery, dark green leaves; and they lose their leaves in the fall, so they contribute nothing to your garden in winter.

But a few perennial ground covers offer showy flower displays, and many bloom in late summer, when few other plants do.  Some also have variegated leaves that create welcome carpets of showy foliage color from spring to fall.

The most colorful perennial ground cover—by far—is ground phlox (Phlox subulata), which has grasslike, semi-evergreen foliage (in warmer climates) and many cultivars that produce solid sweeps of dazzling flower color in late spring.  Millstream Daphne,’ for example, sports rosy-pink blossoms, Millstream Laura,’  pale pink flowers, Millstream Jupiter,’ blue flowers, and Fort Hill,’ rich pink blossoms.  Red Wings’ is named for its red flowers, Candy Stripe’ for its pink-and-white flowers, White Delight’ for its bright white blossoms, and Blue Emerald’ for its blue-lavender blooms.

Snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum) is named for its mantle of white flowers in late spring or early summer.  It also produces attractive woolly, silvery gray leaves.  It’s shade-tolerant and, like ground phlox, fast-growing and semi-evergreen.

Dead nettle (Lamium maculatum) is most valued for the variegated foliage of several cultivars.  Besides pinkish flowers, Anne Greenaway’ boasts unusual variegated silver, chartreuse, medium green, and mint green leaves.  Beacon Silver’ produces silvery white-and-green foliage as well as pink flowers.  Chequers’ sports rose-colored flowers and green leaves with a wide white stripe down the center. White Nancy’ has white flowers and white-and-green leaves. All four are fast-growing and shade-tolerant.

Variegated goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria ‘Variegatum’) produces tiny white spring flowers, but it’s valued most for its crinkled green leaves with white edges. It too is shade-tolerant and fast-spreading.

Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) also grows spring flowers, and several cultivars have dark-colored leaves. Burgundy Glow’ produces blue or purple blossoms and, more important, complex purple, dark pink, white, and green variegated foliage.  Less colorful is Bronze Beauty,’ which bears blue flowers and dark bronze leaves.  All ajugas tolerate shade.

Golden moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) retains its golden summer-long foliage even in shade.  Its yellow flowers are an afterthought.

Veronica, or speedwell, produces striking cone-shaped flower spikes in spring or early summer; its cultivar Aztec Gold’ boasts brilliant gold leaves and blue-violet flowers.

Stonecrop (Sedum) is a tough, fast-growing, herblike, semi-evergreen ground cover with summer flowers and a knack for spreading over rocks.  Several of its cultivars also provide colorful foliage:

  • Two-row stonecrop (Sedum spurium, or Sedum stoloniferum) produces pink flowers in July and August and leaves that turn red in winter. Its cultivar Angelina’ sports brilliant golden yellow leaves.  Dragon’s Blood’ has deep rose-red flowers and bronzy purple leaf margins. Tricolor’ produces striking green-and-white foliage splashed with red.  Variegatum’ is named for its variegated white-pink-and-pale-green leaves.
  • Shortleaf stonecrop (Sedum album, or Sedum brevifolium) sports white flowers and grayish leaves with a red blush.

Creeping thyme (Thymus serphyllum) produces tiny, rounded dark green leaves and clusters of minute dark pink summer flowers.  It’s also fragrant, especially when touched (it’s a spice, after all). The cultivar Albus’ has white flowers. Roseus’ produces pink blossoms.

Goutweed, shortleaf stonecrop, and creeping thyme are hardy to Zone 4—although, with ample snow cover, they may survive in Zone 3.  All the other perennial ground covers described above are hardy to Zone 3.

Like perennial flowers (discussed below), perennial ground covers are part-time plants.  They’re interesting only from spring to early fall.  Use them sparingly and only when you need a substitute for an evergreen ground cover.

Creating Color with Flowering Trees, Shrubs, Ground Covers, and Vines: 9

Small Trees Provide Low-Maintenance Flower and Foliage Color

As I explain in the sections above, you don’t need high-maintenance annual and perennial flowers to bring color into your garden—you can also create color with the flowers, fruits, and colorful foliage of shrubs and ground covers that require little care.

You can also provide color with the flowers, fruits, and foliage of small trees, which require almost no maintenance except for occasional pruning.

Virtually all ornamental fruit trees put on brief but spectacular spring flower displays that seem to cover the entire crown of the tree.  Later in the season the flowers become colorful fruits.

The most colorful ornamental fruit trees, however, are ornamental cherries, crabapples, and plums that create color in four different ways: with flowers, fruits, summer foliage, and fall foliage.

The common chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), for example, produces both white blossoms and red fruits that turn dark purple.  But the dense green leaves of the cultivar ‘Schubert’ quickly turn reddish purple, thereby providing rich maroon foliage color throughout the summer and fall.  The leaves of the cultivar ‘Canada Red’ are a brighter red.

Two cultivars of European birdcherry, or common birdcherry (Prunus padus), also offer colorful summer and fall foliage: ‘Berg’ unfurls crimson leaves; ‘Summer Glow’ sports red-purple foliage that turns redder in the fall.  Like all birdcherries, they also produce white flowers and black fruits.

Big Cis purpleleaf sand cherry (Prunus x cistena ‘Big Cis’) is a tree-sized version of the purpleleaf sand cherry described in Section 4—(deciduous shrubs with colorful fruits and foliage).  ‘Big Cis’ also sports fragrant pinkish flowers and reddish-purple summer and fall foliage; but unlike the shrub it grows 14 feet tall and 12 feet wide.

All the cherry trees described above are hardy to Zone 3.

The most colorful crabapple is probably ‘Thunderchild.’  It creates rose-colored blossoms, purple or dark red fruits, and deep-purple summer and fall foliage.  Its cultivar ‘Royalty’ sports crimson flowers, deep red fruits, glossy purple leaves in springtime, purple-green summer foliage, and brilliant purple autumn leaves.  Both are hardy to Zone 4.

Three flowering plums (Prunus ceresifera) with purple summer and fall foliage are ‘Newport,’ which also sports pale-pink flowers and inch-thick purple fruits; ‘Mt. St. Helen,’ which boasts even richer purple leaf color than ‘Newport’; and ‘Thundercloud,’ which produces fragrant pink blossoms and deep-purple leaves.  All are hardy to Zone 5.

The Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata) doesn’t have colorful leaves, but it does produce very fragrant, very showy clusters of white lilac flowers in June.  It also boasts attractive reddish brown bark, and it’s hardy to Zone 3.

Five other unusually colorful small trees—Japanese maple, dogwood, sourwood, stewartia, goldenchain and goldenrain tree—are hardy to Zone 5.

The elegant Japanese maple (Acer palmatum)—sometimes called “the aristocrat of the garden”—is prized for the striking spring-to-fall foliage of several cultivars.  ‘Bloodgood,’ for example, has deep-red leaves; ‘Red Dragon’ bears dark purple-maroon foliage; and ‘Shindeshojo’ has scarlet leaves.

Dogwoods (Cornus) are graceful trees that produce beautiful white, pink or red blooms (actually bracts) for several weeks in the spring—twice as long as many other flowering trees.  Dogwoods also offer brilliant red fall foliage, red fruits (beloved by birds), and a handsome winter silhouette.

  • Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) has several cultivars with variegated foliage.
  • Kousa dogwood, or Japanese dogwood (Cornus kousa), blooms later than flowering dogwood, and it’s more resistant to both deadly dogwood borers and anthracnose, a fungal disease.

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboretum) is also called lily-of-the-valley tree after the long fingers of tiny white bell-shaped flowers that cover the tree in midsummer, when few other trees (to say the least!) are in bloom.  It also produces attractive gray bark and lustrous green leaves that turn brilliant scarlet or purple-red in the fall.

The foliage of goldenraintree (Koelreuteria paniculata) is purplish-red at first, then red, then bright green, then golden yellow in the fall.  Its midsummer flowers are a striking yellow, and its seedpods—which look like tiny Japanese lanterns—are red when new, buff-colored when older.  The cultivar  ‘September’ is especially valuable because it’s one of only a few trees that flower in (yes) September.

Stewartias are known for white camellia-like flowers that bloom for several weeks in July, as well as for deep-green leaves, colorful fall foliage, and attractive peeling bark.

Goldenchain tree (Laburnum watereri) doesn’t have colorful fruit or foliage, and it’s poisonous if eaten.  But in late spring it produces spectacular displays of fragrant yellow wisteria-like flowers in chainlike clusters as much as 20 inches long.

Create Color With Flowering Trees, Shrubs, Ground Covers, and Vines: 10

Big Deciduous Trees Provide Fall Foliage Color and Natural Air-Conditioning

Drive around New England in the autumn and you’re overwhelmed by this fact: If even the poorest, shabbiest, meanest homestead has just one or two big sugar maple trees, its landscape will be almost saturated with stunning orange-red foliage.  For just a few miraculous weeks each year it will have—thanks to nothing but the benevolence of nature—a surpassingly beautiful garden, more splendid than any other landscape I know.

Big deciduous trees with brilliant fall foliage do exactly what annual and perennial flowers do: create big bursts of color.  But they do so automatically, with almost no effort on your part. One of gardening’s most beneficent paradoxes is that the crowns of large deciduous trees, which require no care but annual leaf raking, create masses of color many times larger than even the most earnestly tended flower beds.

And that’s not all they do.

  • In the winter, the arching bare branches of big deciduous trees are striking natural sculpture.
  • Large deciduous trees can also shade, and therefore help cool your house in warm weather, thereby saving you hundreds of dollars in air-conditioning costs. (The immense, dense foliage crowns of maples, oaks, and beeches create the heaviest shade.)
  • But because deciduous trees lose their leaves in the fall, they won’t shade your house in cold weather. On the contrary, they’ll allow sunlight to help heat your house and thereby save you hundreds of dollars in home heating costs.
  • Deciduous trees also help make your property cooler by transpiring water vapor through their leaves—but only in warm weather, of course, when the trees are in leaf and the cooling is welcome.

Deciduous trees, in other words, are both natural thermostats and natural brakes against global warming.  By automatically providing free heating and cooling, they reduce burning of oil, coal, and other greenhouse-gas fuels.

Sun shines on your house from the east in the morning, the south it midday, and the west in the afternoon.  To block summer sun, plant deciduous trees on the east, south and west sides of your house—but especially the south and west, because the sun shines there in the warmest parts of the day, and that’s when shade is needed most.

Perhaps the most valuable large ornamental deciduous trees are maples.  They grow relatively fast, their foliage is dense—so they’re excellent sun blockers—and their fall color is spectacular.

Named for its tiny red spring flowers and brilliant scarlet autumn foliage, red maple (Acer rubrum) is hardy to Zone 3, so it can grow in the coldest regions of the United States.  The cultivar ‘October Glory’ holds its crimson foliage for weeks after other maples have lost their leaves. ‘Armstrong’ creates still more color with its beautiful silver-gray bark.

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) doesn’t grow as fast as red maple, and its fall foliage is sometimes the more common yellow instead of red or orange.  But sugar maples have an impressive signature shape: short, massive trunks and short, stout branches that form immense oval crowns.  Both the species and many cultivars are Zone-3 hardy; other cultivars are hardy only to Zone 4.

Most oaks aren’t as dazzling as maples.  But several offer rich red fall foliage, and their leaves tend to linger until winter, thereby providing welcome late-season color.  The stately red oak (Quercus rubrum) is named for its maroon red leaves.  Pin oak (Quercus palustris) creates bronze or scarlet fall foliage.  The handsome, spreading (but slow-growing) white oak (Quercus alba) produces purplish red autumn leaves.  Red oak is hardy to Zone 3, the others, to Zone 4.

American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is slow-growing, and its foliage is golden brown, not red or orange. But it’s hardy to Zone 4, and possibly Zone 3; it’s foliage (like oak’s) lasts until winter; its bark is a lovely smooth gray; and older trees develop handsome, gnarled, bulging trunks.

Even showier are cultivars of European beech (Fagus sylvatica), which unfurl colorful summer foliage.  The best cultivar of them all may be ‘Riversii’ (also called ‘Atropunicea’ or ‘Purpurea’), because, unlike other purple-leaf beeches, it holds its deep purple or red-purple hues all summer long.  European beeches, however, are hardy only to Zone 4 or 5.

Northern catalpa bean tree (Catalpa speciosa) is valued less for its bright yellow fall foliage than for its immense tropical-looking heart-shaped leaves, its two-inch-wide, trumpet-shaped white spring flowers, and its decorative 10- to 20-inch-long seed pods that dangle from the tree after the leaves drop, a bit like giant string beans.  It’s hardy to Zone 4.

With deciduous trees, size matters.  Bigger is better. The older, and therefore more massive they are, the more shade they cast, the bigger their splash of foliage or flower color, and the more impressive their sculpture: that is, the thicker their trunks, the richer their bark texture, the greater their root flare, and the longer, thicker and more impressive their branch structure.  If you don’t already have some in your yard, plant them now.

Create Color with Flowering Trees, Shrubs, Ground Covers, and Vines: 11

Plant Evergreen Trees For Accents, Privacy, and Year-Round Foliage Color

Unlike deciduous trees (described above), evergreen trees don’t have dazzling spring flowers or spectacular fall foliage.  But they do have other assets.

  • Their green or—even better—blue or yellow needles provide welcome color and interest in winter, when deciduous plants have lost their leaves and nothing is in bloom.
  • They’re strong accents and focal points.
  • They’re excellent year-round privacy screens; they’re especially valuable—sometimes indispensable—on lots that need tall barriers to create seclusion.
  • They’re ideal for year-round windbreaks.

Fast-growing evergreen trees will create tall privacy screens relatively quickly, and perhaps the fastest-growing and most versatile evergreen trees are pines.

Known for its soft, and soft-looking, blue-green needles, Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) grows relatively quickly—eventually to 80 feet high.  White pine—and every other tree mentioned in this section—is hardy to Zone 3, which means it’ll grow even in the coldest regions of the United States.

Red, or Norway pine (Pinus resinosa) grows slower than white pine—but that makes its wood stronger and its branches less apt to break off in windstorms. It’s also picturesque: It’s named for its scaly orange-red or orange-brown bark—which, in older trees, flakes off in large, flat, reddish-brown plates—and its long, dark green, exotic-looking needles grow tufted with age.

Scotch, or Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) is valued for its peeling reddish-orange or orange-brown bark, longish needles, interesting branching habit, and, when older, its impressive broad, umbrella-like shape. The striking needles of the cultivar ‘Aurea’ are yellowish green when new, golden in winter.

Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora) is named for its orangish to orange-red bark.  On young trees the bark peels.  On older trees it fissures into picturesque oblong plates.  This pine is one of the most decorative because it has a picturesque irregular shape even when young.  The needles of the cultivar ‘Aurea’ turn bright golden yellow in winter.

Both Japanese red pine and Scotch pine also grow slower than white pine, and no more than 60 feet high.

The thick needle foliage, tight branching, and strong cone shapes of spruces and firs make them powerful focal points—they can dominate any landscape, especially in winter.  They’re also denser than pines, so they make solid privacy screens.  Most spruces and firs don’t tolerate heat or drought as well as pines do, however—they prefer cool weather and moist soil—so if you plant them, make sure they’re well watered and well mulched.

The most colorful spruce is the Colorado blue (Picea pungens ‘Glauca’), named—and valued most—for its prickly steel blue needles. Its cultivar ‘Continental’ grows more slowly than the species, but it has intense blue needles.  Both trees can grow 60 feet high.

If you don’t need tall blue spruces for screening, there are many shorter cultivars, some of them even more colorful than the species.  Both ‘Hoopsi’ and ‘Thompsenii’ produce thick silver-blue needles and grow 50 feet high.  ‘Blue Select’ has silvery blue needles and reaches 40 feet.  ‘Fat Albert’ produces medium blue needles and grows to 30 feet.

Canadian or Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) isn’t as colorful as Colorado spruces. But like any spruce, this graceful, soft-looking evergreen can provide dense screening.  It’s also the only large shade-tolerant evergreen tree hardy in cold climates, so it’s the only tree suitable for privacy screens in the shade in those regions.

Large evergreen trees not only grow tall, of course.  They also get wide—at least 10 or 15 feet and as much as 30 or 40 feet at maturity, depending on the species.  If your garden is small, and you still need tall privacy screens, you’ll need narrower (and, alas, shorter) trees, such as fastigiate, or columnar, junipers or arborvitae.

The taller of these are Eastern or American arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis).  The cultivar George Peabody (‘Lutea’) grows 30 to 35 feet high but only 15 feet wide and—a bonus—it has golden yellow needles.  Dark American arborvitae (‘Nigra’) grows 10 to 30 feet high and 10 to 12 feet wide and produces dark green foliage. ‘Wintergreen’ grows 20 to 30 feet high, but only 5 to 10 feet wide.  Emerald Green (‘Smaragd’) grows just 10 to 15 feet high, but only 3 or 4 feet wide—it’s a real space saver.  All are hardy to Zone 3.

Because of their scaly foliage and tall, narrow profile, fastigiate arborvitae aren’t considered as lovely or as graceful as other evergreen trees with more typical shapes.  Use them only when you have to: when you need a high privacy hedge in a tight space.   Also, deer love arborvitae, so don’t plant them where deer like to browse.

Instead you can plant eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginia), which is also hardy to Zone 3.  Several cultivars, such as ‘Emerald Sentinel’ and ‘Hillspire,’ grow 15 to 20 feet high but only six to eight feet wide.  The skinny ‘Taylor’ reaches 20 to 30 feet high but only three or four feet wide.

Like most junipers, eastern red cedar is a tough, adaptable plant and seldom bothered by deer.

Create Color with Flowering Trees, Shrubs, Ground Covers, and Vines: 12

Vines Decorate the Walls of Outdoor Rooms

Most plants—annual and perennial flowers, ground covers and small shrubs—grow only on the floor (or what landscape designers call the “ground plain”) of garden “rooms.” Vines are different.  Like trees and tall shrubs, they grow—and can put color on—what would otherwise be the bare walls of outdoor rooms.

In fact, the delicious paradox of vines is that a vine no heavier than a big shrub can decorate a broader area than a tree much older and many times more massive can do.

Vines can do this because they cheat.  Unlike vines, trees get tall by providing their own support—by growing stout trunks and limbs.  Vines are parasites: Because they can climb, they can use fences, trellises, trees, buildings, or other structures for support.  They don’t have to waste energy growing thick branches.  They can spend their energy racing upward and outward on skinny, rope-like stems. Trees, shrubs and other woody plants have to be tortoises; vines are hares.

Because vines can climb, they can hide, or at least soften, eyesores like chain-link fences and homely garden sheds.  Annual, perennial or deciduous vines can hide them during warmer weather, when the plants are leafed out. But evergreen vines can hide them year round.

Unfortunately, only two evergreen vines are hardy to cold-winter climates such as Zone 4:  English ivy (Hedera helix) and euonymus (Euonymus fortunei).  Both are also ground covers, and they’re described in the section on evergreen ground coversEuonymus is also a shrub, and it’s described in the section on evergreen shrubs.

Both vines can cover even flat structures such as walls and board fences because they climb not by twisting (or twining) around things, as some vines do, but by clinging directly to them with tiny rootlets on their branches.  English ivy can be difficult to start, but once established it can grow fast to as high and wide as 40 feet—don’t plant it on anything you don’t want to smother.  Euonymus, however, is benign:  It grows slowly, and no higher than 20 feet.

Deciduous vines

Unlike most evergreen vines, several deciduous vines are hardy in cold climates.

Perhaps the showiest is wisteria, known for its massive twisting woody trunks and stunning chains of fragrant spring flowers.

Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda) creates 12- to 18-inch-long chains of violet or bluish-violet flowers.  There are also white, pink, and blue varieties.  One of them, longcluster wisteria (W. f. macrobotrys), grows chains of reddish-violet flowers that are two to three feet long and sometimes even longer!

The flowers of Chinese wisteria (W. sinensis) are less fragrant and their chains are only (!) a foot long.

Wisteria is hardy to Zone 5.  Unlike most vines, its woody branches eventually grow so thick that they can destroy all but the strongest support.  It needs either a massive pergola or occasional pruning to keep it in check.

Clematis is known for its long, elegant petal-like flower sepals.  Its dozens of large-flowered hybrids, hardy to Zone 5, produce five- to eight-inch-wide blossoms, in many different shades of red, pink, purple, blue and white (plus striking multicolored varieties), from as early as May to as late as October.  The blossoms of the small-flowered hybrids are usually only one to three inches wide, but they have wonderful fragrances and they’re hardy to Zone 4.

Clematis have dual personalities: They like cool, moist, shaded soil around their roots but lots of sun on their crowns.  Also, they’re twining vines, so they need a trellis or other support to twist around. Its many cultivars grow as high as 20 feet and as.low as four feet.

Trumpet vine, or trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans), is named for its clusters of three-inch-long, orange-red trumpet-shaped flowers that bloom from June to October.  Several cultivars produce red or yellow flowers.

Trumpet vine isn’t as showy as wisteria or clematis, but it flowers most prolifically in mid-summer, after many other plants have already bloomed; it climbs by rootlets, so it can climb almost anything; it can quickly reach 30 or 40 feet; its flowers attract hummingbirds; and it’s hardy to Zone 4.

Silverlace vine, or fleece vine (Polygonum aubertii), is named for its showy hanging clusters of tiny, fragrant white flowers, which appear in late summer.  It’s also known as mile-a-minute vine because it can grow 15 to 25 feet in a year and can quickly reach 30 or 40 feet high; it’s handy for covering a large structure quickly.  A twining vine, it also produces attractive glossy foliage, it tolerates some shade, and it’s hardy to Zone 4.

Porcelain vine (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata—say that fast five times!) is named for the unusual porcelainlike glaze on its multicolored berries.  As they ripen in the fall, they becomes an amazing collection of red, green, blue, pink, lavender, and purple fruits that look like marbles. The cultivar ‘Elegans’ offers still more color with its variegated green, white, and pink foliage.  Hardy to Zone 4, porcelain vine climbs with tendrils and quickly reaches 20 feet or more.  In its tendrils, berries, and coarsed-toothed three-lobed leaves—which turn yellow in the fall—it resembles its cousin, the grape.

Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala petiolaris) is valued for many things: six- to twelve-inch-wide clusters of white summer flowers; large, handsome, shiny dark green leaves, which nicely offset its flowers; golden fall foliage; Zone-4 hardiness; tolerance, indeed preference, for partial shade; and its ability to climb almost anything (because of its aerial rootlets) and to grow 50 to 75 feet high— higher perhaps than any other cold-hardy ornamental vine.

Don’t grow any vine directly on a wooden house.  A vine will block sunlight and trap moisture, especially in shady spots.  That, in turn, can cause peeling paint, mildew, and rot.  Some vines will penetrate clapboard siding.  Plant it on a trellis or other structure instead.

Create Color with Flowering Trees, Shrubs, Ground Covers, and Vines: 13

Perennials and Annuals Are Part-time Plants—Use Them Sparingly

When many gardeners think of “flowers” they’re thinking about annuals and perennials.  But, as explained in the sections above, the flowers of blooming shrubs and trees can create much bigger splashes of flower color than most annual or perennial beds—and do it with almost no maintenance.

Similarly, when many gardeners think of gardens, they’re thinking about annual or perennial gardens, when, ironically (as also explained above), they could create much more colorful gardens while using no annuals or perennials at all!

If, however, you’re still tempted to use at least a few of these flowers in your garden, remember:

  • They require much more work than trees or shrubs—planting, watering, weeding, deadheading, dividing, trimming, etc.
  • They’re herbaceous: They die back in the fall.  The ground in which they grow is bare before they emerge in the spring and bare after they disappear in the fall.

So unless you like looking at barren ground—and spending hours on your knees—use them sparingly.  And pick species that can do your garden the most good. Keep in mind:

 

  • Most perennials bloom for just a few weeks a year. It’s their leaves, not their flowers, that you see from spring to fall. Unfortunately, the leaves and stems of many perennials are unremarkable at best, homely at worst.  Choose exceptional perennials whose foliage is handsome, colorful, or, ideally, both.  Unlike flowers, this foliage will provide color and/or interest all season long.
  • Like most plants, most perennials bloom in the spring. Choose species that blossom in the summer or fall, when they’ll create much-welcomed color.
  • Plant perennials that bloom for a relatively long time.
  • Pick tough, hardy species that will reliably return year after year.

Photo by Eileen Oktavec

A sweep of showy variegated hostas

Perhaps the most valuable perennials are hostas.  They thrive even in heavy shade.  Their thick clusters of large, elegant, gracefully arching leaves give them uncommon presence.  Most important, many cultivars unfurl white, yellow, and/or blue leaves that provide literally months of color.  So important, in fact, is their foliage that the flowers are virtual afterthoughts.

Among the showiest hostas are white-and-green cultivars with as much as 50 per cent white in their leaves.  The celebrated Hosta undulata ‘Mediovariegata’ has beautiful wavy leaves with a big ragged white splotch in the center. Other hostas with lots of white in their foliage are ‘Patriot,’ ‘Night Before Christmas,’ and ‘White Christmas.’

Other colorful choices include ‘Blue Cadet,’ ‘Blue Moon,’ and Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans,’ which have blue leaves; ‘Blue Wedgewood’ and ‘Kossa Royal,’ which produce silver blue foliage; and ‘Gold Standard,’ ‘Fanfare,’ ‘August Moon,’ and ‘Piedmont Gold,’ which sport yellow leaves.

Hostas are beloved by slugs, but fortunately they can be deterred by pesticides and other techniques.

 Many coral bells (Heuchera) also have colored foliage.  ‘Palace Purple’ sports mahogany red leaves. ‘Plum Pudding’ boasts plum-colored foliage with silver veins. ‘Raspberry Ice’ produces silver leaves with purple veins. ‘Key Lime Pie’ is named for its striking bright chartreuse leaves. ‘Snow Angel’ has variegated creamy-white-and-green foliage.

Other perennials with colored-foliage cultivars include beard tongue (Penstemon), bergenia, bugbane (Cimicifuga), Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium), Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium), lungwort (Pulmonaria), sedum, and yellow flag iris.

Perennials with interesting (though not colorful) foliage include lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), which sports unique, very large quilted olive leaves (as well as small yellow-green spring flowers), and shield-leaf Rodger’s flower (Astilboides tabularis), which grows amazing two-foot-wide umbrellalike leaves (as well as creamy white flower plumes in July and August).

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), blanket flower (Gaillardia), coneflower (Echinacea) and.coreopsis are all tough, tall or mid-size plants with daisylike flowers that bloom for long periods in summer, when little else is blossoming.

Other summer bloomers include astilbes, bee balm (Monarda didyma), globe thistle (Echinops), hollyhock (Alcea), plume poppy (Macleaya cordata), spurge (Euphorbia) and yarrow (Archillea).

Daylilies (Hemerocallis) thrive on neglect, and different cultivars bloom as early as June and as late as September.

Other plants blooming in late summer and/or fall include asters, false chamomile (Boltonia asteroide), false sunflower (Heliopsis), goldenrod (Solidago), and Joe-Pye weed.

All the perennials discussed above—or at least many of their cultivars—are hardy to Zone 3—which means they can grow in the coldest regions of the country—and they’re just a few of hundreds available.

Create Color with Flowering Trees, Shrubs, Ground Covers, and Vines: 14

Keeping Your Garden Moist: How to Reduce Watering Chores

One reason annuals, perennials and grass are high-maintenance plants is that they require frequent watering.  Trees, shrubs and ground covers are low-care plants, mainly because—once established—they require little, if any, watering (or, for that matter, few of the other chores required by flowers or grass).

Trees, shrubs, and ground covers do, however, need regular watering during the first year they’re planted.

Here are some ways to reduce watering—and thereby reduce both the amount of water your garden needs and the time it takes to apply it:

  • Like compost or dehydrated manure, peat moss is an excellent soil amendment. It’s also a natural sponge.  Both to improve your soil and to help keep it moist, add one shovelful of peat moss to every three or four shovelfuls of backfill before you refill a planting hole.
  • Create low, saucer-shaped depressions, two to three inches deep and one to two feet wide, around a newly planted tree or shrub. These so-called planting wells capture and hold water.
  • Spread two or three inches of mulch—shredded bark, pine needles, leaves, etc.—on the ground around each plant. To ensure that moist mulch won’t rot the plant, keep the mulch at least an inch or so away from its stem.  Mulch is a many-splendored thing.  It’s so valuable that you shouldn’t even think of not using it.  It does three things:
  • It helps keep plant roots moist by insulating the soil from sunlight and wind, thereby reducing evaporation and, in turn, the need for watering.
  • It suppresses weeds and makes them easier to pull out when or if they appear, thereby reducing weeding time substantially.
  • It enriches the soil by adding minerals and humus as it decays, thereby reducing (and sometimes eliminating) the need for additional fertilizers or soil amendments.
  • Let nature give you free mulch—and help you avoid raking—by letting fallen leaves remain around trees, shrubs and ground covers where they drop.
  • Plant sweeps of shrubs and ground covers close enough together so they quickly grow into each other and form a solid mass. (Set shrubs no more than a foot apart, and plugs of ground covers no more than six inches apart.)  Like a mature forest, massed shrubs and ground covers create their own canopy that shades the ground below it.  Like mulch, this shade keeps the soil moist, which reduces the need for watering; and it suppresses weeds, which decreases the need for weeding.
  • Water new plants deeply—that is, with enough water the soak the roots—during the first year they’re planted.

The larger the plant, the larger and deeper its roots, so the more water it takes to soak them. That, if you will, is the bad news.  The good news is that the deeper the roots are, the farther they are from the surface, so the longer they take to dry out, and the less often they need watering.

Newly planted trees and shrubs need (deep) watering no more than twice a week—especially if the plant is mulched and peat moss has been added to the soil.  Shallow-rooted ground covers (as well as perennials) might need watering three or four times a week, especially in dry weather.  If you’re lucky and rain soaks your plants, you won’t have to.

How to tell if a plant needs water?  Stick your finger in the soil, below the mulch.  If the soil feels moist, it doesn’t need water.  If it feels dry, it does.  If it’s merely damp, you’d better water, just to be sure.  (If the site is well drained—as it should be—“too much” water is harmless.  Too little, however, is fatal.)

Should you buy an irrigation system?  It’ll reduce your watering time to nothing—but it’ll also cost you several thousand dollars to install.

Before you make your decision, remember this:  The smaller your lawn, the fewer your annuals and perennials, the better your plants are mulched, and the more your shrubs and ground covers have massed in, the more it can be watered solely by rain and snow melt, and the less you need to water it yourself.

Save More by Building Less: 1

Avoid Unnecessary Decks, Walls, and Driveways

You can save thousands of dollars by avoiding unnecessary decks, retaining walls, and driveways.  By eliminating or at least cutting the size of this expensive infrastructure, you’ll free up money for more valuable things like privacy barriers and plants.  Plus you’ll have a greener, more natural-looking yard.

Build Terraces Instead of Decks

Wooden decks are expensive to build and, with rising lumber costs, becoming more expensive every year.

They may also be the most difficult part of your property to maintain.  Because nearly all decks are uncovered, they’re totally exposed to the weather and thoroughly soaked when it rains.  Much of the deck—the floor—is level, so rain water lingers until it evaporates.  Snow, of course, hangs around until it melts (or until you shovel it off).  Unless the deck is painted (and many aren’t), water penetrates the wood and slowly rots it.  In cold weather, the water expands as it freezes, literally breaking the wood apart.

Damage can be reduced by annual applications of water sealer and stain, but even decks made of pressure-treated wood need regular repairs.  New composite materials last longer than wood, but they’re too weak to be used on anything but flooring; the rest of the deck must still be wood.

Decks have other limitations:  They can be enjoyed only in warm weather—which, in cold-weather climates is only a few months each year.  And even then they can’t be enjoyed when it’s raining or when it’s too hot or when mosquitos or other insects drive you indoors.

Wooden decks are useful, of course, because they provide a smooth, firm, and level surface for outdoor living. But other surfaces can be smooth, firm, and level too.

Grass, for example, can be as level and almost as smooth as a deck.  Plus it’s softer than wood and, unlike wood, pleasantly cool on a warm day.  As long as it receives relatively light use—by just a few people for only a few hours a week, for example—the grass will remain thick.

To avoid wear caused by too many feet in one place (in front of chairs and tables, for instance) simply move the furniture to a fresh spot and let the grass recover.  If the traffic is light enough, you should usually be able to keep your furniture one step ahead (no pun intended) of footwear.

But if traffic is so heavy that the grass gets too much use for its own good, consider a masonry terrace.  A terrace is a smooth, hard, level surface—just like a deck—but it costs less to build and, more important, it lasts indefinitely with virtually no maintenance.

While a wooden deck consists of a floor (or deck) supported by an elaborate framework of posts, beams and joists, a terrace is a simple structure: concrete, brick, and/or stone paving on a sand, gravel and/or concrete base.  (See  How to Build a Masonry Terrace, below.)

When building a terrace, you first have to decide where it should go and how big it should be.

Its size depends on what you want to use it for and what you want to put on it.  Do you want just enough room for one or two people to read or sunbathe? Or do you want enough space for a big crowd—and enough chairs and tables to hold them all?  And what about a large barbeque, fireplace, or other features?  (Unlike decks, terraces can support virtually anything.)

Where you build the terrace depends on its use.  If it’s for entertaining, it should adjoin the public areas of your house, such as your living room.  To make food service easier it should also be as close as possible to your kitchen.

Any terrace, no matter how big, should go in a quiet, private spot and, if possible, one with a good view of your garden or other scenery.  If you want it to be in the sun, it should go on the east, west or, ideally, south side of your house.

Save More by Building Less: 2

How to Build a Masonry Terrace

I explain above how concrete, brick, or stone terraces are lower-cost alternatives to pricy wooden decks.  This is a short description of how to build them.

The first step is preparing the base.  The base—usually crushed stone or gravel—protects the paving from the settling, heaving, and eventual cracking that would otherwise be caused by the freezing and thawing of water underneath it.  Six to ten inches of base, carefully watered and compacted, is usually enough.

Building a base is simple enough so you can probably do it yourself.  But check with a mason or other professional to be sure it’s deep enough and properly prepared.

After the base is ready, install the paving.  Your choices include concrete, or brick or stone set in concrete (known as “wet” paving), or brick or stone set in sand (known as “dry” paving).

As you may imagine, dry paving is easier for the amateur because you don’t have to know anything about working with concrete—a skill that takes a while to master.  Also, dry paving is more forgiving because there’s no concrete that might eventually crack.  The absence of concrete also makes dry paving look a bit more natural.

Wet paving, on the other hand, is monolithic.  Except for occasional cracking of concrete, there’s no settling or heaving of individual bricks or stones—the entire surface stays flat and smooth.  Because there’s concrete, not sand, between the bricks or stones, the entire surface is hard.  It’s easier to walk on in high heels and easier to level tables on.  It’s also cleaner than dry paving—and easier to keep clean.  Concrete is the cheapest wet paving but brick or stone set in concrete is the handsomest.

Wet or dry, however, a masonry terrace is still less expensive than a deck—as one of my clients was surprised to learn.  A divorced woman on a tight budget, she told me she wanted a small wooden deck behind her house for cookouts, and she was discouraged when a carpenter told her it would cost $2,500.

I told her to forget the deck.  Instead I told her to spread a load of gravel where she wanted the deck, cover it with two inches of fine crushed stone, and lay large flagstones in the stone.  Instead of a $2,500 deck that would suffer regular water damage, she would have a handsome, maintenance-free terrace for about $500.

Save More by Building Less: 3

Avoid Unnecessary Retaining Walls

Perhaps the most expensive gardening mistake is building retaining walls.  They’re usually costly (especially if they’re hand-made of brick or stone).  They’re frequently unattractive (especially if they’re built of poured concrete).  And, worst of all, they’re often totally unnecessary.

Even a steep slope usually doesn’t need to be “retained” by a wall.  If the slope were unstable, it would have collapsed long ago.  The fact that it’s holding up is usually a good indicator that it’s at what civil engineers call the “angle of repose.”  That’s the angle—usually about 45 degrees—that fill, loam or other material will assume when it falls freely and comes to rest, or “repose,” without any retainer or support.  True, the steeper a slope, the more likely some of it will erode.  But erosion can be all but eliminated if the slope is well planted.

Think of how civil engineers build a major highway.  When they cut the road through a hill, they simply make a big, V-shaped cut in the earth, making sure the resulting slope is gentle enough to be stable; then they spread crushed stone or plant grass or other ground cover to prevent erosion.  They don’t build walls to “retain” the slope.

Similarly, when they build the road across a low spot, they dump fill in the depression and build the road on top of it.  They don’t build walls at the base of the fill to hold it up—they don’t have to.  They just plant it or cover it with rocks to prevent erosion.

The only reason to build a retaining wall is when you need to add fill and you have no room to let it spread out at the angle of repose.

Suppose you want a masonry terrace (described above) for outdoor barbecues, etc. and the only place you have to build it is on a slope.  If you spread fill to make a level area for the terrace and let the fill fall at its angle of repose, the slope created when the fill falls will be at least as wide as the deepest part of the fill.  (See diagram.)  Many, if not most lots will have enough room for the fill to spread, and you can simply cover it with loam and plant it with shrubs, ground covers, and other plants.

Smaller lots, however, may not have enough space to let the fill fall—the space might already be taken up by a building or a vegetable garden or something else.  Then—but only then—the fill has to be retained by a wall. (See diagram.)

Here’s how two clients of mine saved about $3,000 by building terraces without walls.  They couldn’t use the space behind their house for occasional entertaining and other activities because it sloped steeply away from their home.  The-all-too-common solution to their problem is to create one or more terraces by adding fill to the slope and retaining the fill by one or more walls.

I told the couple that walls would easily be the costliest and least attractive way to support the terraces.  Instead of walls, I told them to let the fill fall at its angle of repose at the edge of each terrace, then add top soil to the slope and plant it with sweeps of colorful shrubs.  The slope would be an excellent showcase for the shrubs, and the shrubs would contrast nicely with the grass on the terraces.  Instead of $6,000 worth of walls they would need to buy only $2,300 worth of shrubs.

Photo by Eileen Oktavec

An excellent showcase for plants, this handsome low fieldstone wall cost only $2,800.

If you already have a retaining wall, and it’s unattractive or needs repair, consider taking it down and letting the soil behind it fall to its angle of repose.

I saved $2,200 by taking down most of a retaining wall at Evergreen and made the site more attractive at the same time.

Here’s how it happened:  What’s now the basement of the Garden Cottage at Evergreen was once a two-car garage, and the driveway, which once led to the garage, was (and still is) about ten feet lower than the front entrance of the building.  To keep the front yard from falling into the driveway, an immense fieldstone wall—about 25 feet long and 10 feet high at its highest point—had been built between the driveway and the yard.  When I bought the property, the wall was starting to break apart, and it was leaning precariously over the driveway.  It was only a matter of time before it crashed onto the driveway—possibly when somebody was walking by.

I could have simply rebuilt the original wall.  But that would have cost about $5,000 (in the 1980s) and would have recreated an unattractively large mass of rock wall.  Plus the gigantic wall would have hidden many of the plantings in the front yard from anyone walking in the driveway en route to the front door.

So I decided to rebuild the wall to only about half its original height.  With a lower wall, some of the front yard did indeed spill into the driveway, and a steep slope was left on top of the wall.

But I planted the slope with a Mugo pine, junipers, vinca, ground phlox, and other perennials.  The plants held the soil nicely, the steep slope was a perfect showcase for the plants—it displayed them in full view—and the handsome new gray fieldstone wall made a rich contrast to the vinca, junipers, and phlox, which softened the wall as they spilled luxuriously over the top of it.  What’s more, the low wall cost only $2,800.  The better solution was also the cheaper one.

(To create a sunny slope to plant more shrubs after the fire of 2015the driveway in front of the former garage was filled in, and the wall nearest the building was buried under fill and loam.  The new shrubs, however, create much more color than did the plants on top of the wall.)

Save More by Building Less: 4

Make Your Driveway Smaller—And Eliminate Circular Ones

Just like a lawn, a driveway needs to be maintained.  It has to be patched and resurfaced periodically, plowed or shoveled after a snowfall, and swept or raked free of leaves in the fall.

Worse, driveways add nothing to the beauty of your yard.  No matter how neat or nicely paved, they’re still long beds of gravel or big slabs of asphalt or concrete, and no one has ever claimed that they look as good as trees, flowers, or shrubs.

Also, driveways usually have cars parked on them and, despite what slick automobile advertisements would have us believe, cars add no more to a garden than concrete and asphalt.  The longer and wider your driveway is, and the more cars parked on it, the more your yard looks like a parking lot and less like a garden.

Obviously, your driveway has to be long enough to reach your garage—if you have a garage and if you park your car inside it.  And you surely need some kind of parking space for your vehicles and those of your guests and other visitors.

The idea, though, is to make driveways and parking areas as small and unobtrusive as possible.  For the smaller and/or less visible they are, the less time and money they take to maintain, the greater the ratio of plants to paving in your yard, and the greener and more attractive your property will be.

Here are two ways to make a driveway smaller:

  • Wherever it’s more than one lane wide, and you don’t need the extra width for parking, make it narrower.  A paving contractor can simply saw off the extra width and carry it away.  Then you can lay topsoil and install plants where the pavement used to be.
  • If you have a circular driveway, get rid of it.  A circular driveway is good for just one thing: Driving up to your front door and out to the street again without having to turn around.

For that occasional convenience, however, you pay a large and continuous price: Your whole front yard is bifurcated by a strip of paving at least ten feet wide and 50 feet long.  The focal point of your front yard isn’t a tree or sculpture; it’s a giant semicircle of concrete or asphalt, with perhaps a car or two on top for emphasis.  Instead of a garden, your front yard is a linear parking lot.

Most houses with a circular driveway have another, smaller driveway leading to the garage, as well as a side door to the house that’s very close to (if not inside) the garage.  That means the circular driveway can be removed and replaced with a walkway leading from the smaller driveway to the front door.

Yes, that means the owner would have to walk a few feet to get to the front door, but he could also drive up to the garage and enter the house from the side door—which many people routinely do anyway.

One client complained to me that her home had no outdoor living space.  She was right: Her back yard was private, but it was a long, narrow, hallway-size corridor along the crest of a steep slope.  Her front yard, in contrast, was a spacious lawn.  Unfortunately, the lawn wasn’t level.  It sloped rather sharply up to the street—too steeply for outdoor activities.  It was also exposed to the street, so it had no privacy; and it was broken up by a wide, circular concrete driveway.

The solution was obvious:

  • First, tear up the driveway and, in the lower two-thirds of the slope, scrape out a roughly semicircular level area, centered on the front entrance, and plant it with grass.  The new, level semicircle of lawn would make a commodious outdoor living room.
  • Use the fill removed from the new lawn area to build a berm on the upper third of the slope, along the street.
  • Plant the berm with rhododendrons and other broadleaf evergreen shrubs, which would create year-round privacy and embrace the outdoor living area with a semicircle of flowering plants.

This solution had wonderful bonus: The front entrance of the house, in the center of the new, semicircular lawn, was framed by a large, handsome porte cochere, complete with built-in benches.  With the driveway (and vehicles) removed, the structure would become, not just the main entrance to the house, but also a grand open garden house furnished with classic outdoor benches.  It would also be a beautiful garden focal point, planted with clematis, wisteria, and other luxurious flowering vines.

Photo by Eileen Oktavec

A large, evergreen-planted berm creates a large private garden at this Manchester, New Hampshire, home