Neil Sperry

If your garden beds have become stale, make some fresh changes with these design ideas

Want to plant a garden but aren’t trying to rip up your whole yard at once? Try this strategy

Learn a simple, add-as-you-go strategy for building a backyard oasis.
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Learn a simple, add-as-you-go strategy for building a backyard oasis.

Changes are tough. We get used to the old shoes. They’re comfortable, so why put ourselves through breaking in something new? And what’s with these folks who feel they have to remodel every 30 years? What’s wrong with shag carpet anyway?

I must be one of those people. Oh, we don’t have shag carpet. That went out a long time ago. But I love my old shoes. And my old plants.

Deciding when it’s time to upgrade our landscaping beds is one of the most difficult things we do in gardening. Plants grow old and misshapen. Sometimes they’ve been ravaged by insects and diseases. Sometimes they’ve been ravaged by us and our poor planning and subsequent pruning. But for whatever the reason, there comes a time when we need to take a new look at old plants and start over with our landscape designing.

If you’d permit an editorial observation, one of the most evident places where landscapes could be improved is in bed shape and proportion. We gardeners don’t need to feel locked into elongated, rectangular beds that do little more than repeat the lines of our houses.

Let’s start with a new slate. Picture how elegant your gardens would be if the beds were free flowing, curved and graceful. And while you’re doing that, bring them out several feet farther from the walls of your house. Let them be 4 or 5 feet wide, broadening to 8 or 9 feet (or more) as they wrap around the corners. If a shade tree has caused your turf to thin or die out entirely, bring the beds out to encompass the tree – tie it into the landscape as well.

From a practical standpoint, I use a really flexible rubber garden hose to lay out my beds’ contours. I work on a sunny, hot day so the hose will bend easily. I have someone work with me – someone whose chief responsibility is to stand on the end of the hose while I whip it around into an elongated, gentle curve for the bed. As I get the form that I like, I have my friend move forward, closer and closer to me until the entire bed is laid out. Before anything can happen to the layout I like, I stake out the bed boundaries and I start planning on paper.

There’s a good chance that your new bed design will encompass plants from your old landscape. We often want to work some of these plants into our new design, and that’s entirely fine as long as we’re not trying to save the old and unsightly ones. Decide which ones will stay and how they’ll be featured (or if they’ll have to be transplanted come winter).

Odds are that you’ll be doing beds on both sides of your entryway. Resist the urge to make them symmetrical. Most houses are not mirror images, so neither should our landscapes be.

Determine what the focal point of your new garden design will be. Generally it’s the front door. Whatever it is, figure the best way to draw attention directly to it. Create a visual funnel by planting taller plants to the left and right. That will guide the eye down toward the door. Another way is to plant a dramatic accent plant to the left or right of that focal point. Perhaps it’s a small flowering tree such as a crape myrtle or a lovely winter-fruiting, multi-trunked yaupon holly. In shade it could be a red-leafed Japanese maple.

In all of those examples, you would need to plant the accent far enough out from the house that it would never grow to be a problem – 10 or 12 feet or more. That’s going to put it near the front edge of the bed.

Professional landscape planners don’t use every plant that they like in every garden they design. For any given part of a landscape they limit their choices to a handful of shrub types, one or two groundcovers and maybe a vine.

Let’s start at one of the corners where you’ve planned a tall accenting shrub or small tree. You’ll want a cluster of smaller shrubs at its base. Choose a type with contrasting texture, and group an odd number (7-9 or more) into an elongated oval starting where they surround the trunk of the accent and extending toward the front door in a curved line that follows the bed’s contour. These are going to be dwarf shrubs such as dwarf yaupon or Carissa hollies of dwarf nandinas as just a few examples.

You’ll want one or two similar clusters of shrubs near the entryway at the base of the accenting tree. Again, they need to be of interesting textures and of small stature. And you may need an additional cluster or two between the corner and entry if that distance is long. But each of these clusters will be made up of just one species and the shrubs will be set out in rounded or oval plantings, not in straight rows. Do something similar on the opposite side.

Groundcovers provide a nice transition from shrubs to turf. They tie the looks of your landscape together, although you don’t have to fill the entire bed with groundcover. Bark mulch or small river rock can both be attractive ground-covering materials as well.

Let your favorite nursery professional help as you’re selecting your plants. Ask for types that aren’t likely to have problems. Know their mature sizes and be sure you have room for each type that you buy.

You can hear Neil Sperry on KLIF 570AM on Saturday afternoons 1-3 pm and on WBAP 820AM Sunday mornings 8-10 am. Join him at www.neilsperry.com and follow him on Facebook.

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