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Landscape Design: The Basics

Question:  I desperately want to make changes to my landscape.  There are areas that need redesigning, some plants should be replaced, and a couple of areas need more thought!  I’m a “hands-on” gardener who loves to learn, but could sure use some suggestions regarding a landscape makeover.  I don’t want to make costly mistakes, but want the results to be compatible with the way I live. What do you recommend?

Answer:  Gardeners love a challenge even though frustration is a given component of the activity.  That frustration comes when plants don’t behave as we think they should when weather creates havoc with our prized selections, or pests find our garden and no one else’s, or so it seems.  But we can certainly tilt the odds in our favor by planning and planting wisely.  And you don’t need a degree in landscape design to plan and plant, although that is an option if you’re willing to work with a certified designer and participate in the process.

Start by making an agreement with yourself: we don’t fail as gardeners – we learn as gardeners.  A sign in my office reminds me of this philosophy: “You’re not stretching yourself as a gardener if you’re not killing plants”.  J.C. Raulston   Based on Mr. Raulston’s theory, I am quite accomplished!

Get to really know your garden, landscape, or what surrounds you.  Too many times we see a plant that really gets our attention, we purchase and plant it in our yard, only to watch it decline and die. The garden mantra “right plant in the right place” should be engraved on every plant tag to remind us that we can’t force a plant to thrive where it’s not “happy”.  Go back to the “planning” phase of your landscape re-do: your landscape vision should be realistic.  If the plant of your dreams becomes the mistake of your nightmares, could it be the plant wasn’t “right” for the site, soil, sun or shade in the first place? So ask questions.  Lots of them.  But do use credible sources as your aunt’s neighbor’s cousin may have experience only with his or her landscape, and every site is unique.

There has been a growing trend toward edible landscapes, or “planting with a purpose”. Trees, shrubs or bushes, annuals, perennials include those that produce fruits, berries, nuts, herbs, vegetables, and more. During your garden makeover, why not try one, two, or a few plants that offer more than just a “pretty face”? Not that those are bad, but that multi-use plants are just that – they provide us with more than shade, flowers, fragrance, texture, and aesthetics.  Plant for butterflies, bees, birds if that is important to you.  There are so many ways to plan a garden, from a tiny patio with pots to an acre or more.

While you consider a redesign, consider a few key points. Know what you need and want.  A place for children to play, dogs to run? Want to spend a lot of time outdoors?  Know how sun and wind patterns will affect not only your plants but you as well. Take time to allow changes to develop.  Some arrangements and plantings may take years to mature – have patience. Start small, create at a pace you can handle – gardens are evidence that sound bites don’t apply to everything. Working around a focal point helps keep a design moving without overwhelming. That tree with wonderful bark, a grouping of shrubs, even a sculpture will work. Be open to change, realizing that our tastes change over time, why not in our gardens?

If you need additional assistance with your landscape, visit a nursery, go online, or contact your county Extension office.

“Garden Talk is written by Sallie Lee of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). She is housed at the C. Beaty Hanna Horticultural and Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. This column includes research based information from land-grant universities around the country, including Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities. Email questions to Sallie or call 205-879-6964 x11. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

ACES is committed to affirmative action, equal opportunity and the diversity of its workforce.  Educational programs of ACES serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or national origin.”