I’ve been out in unfamiliar neighborhoods recently, helping my wife in her bid for re-election to a local office in a North Texas city. I might have seen every street and alley in her district, some of them several times. (My truck’s old GPS thought we were in cornfields most of one afternoon — apparently, those particular streets are younger than my truck.)
Time spent on this task has given me a firsthand view and a better understanding of some of the specific problems people face when they try to design landscapes in their small urban lots.
Much of the past week has been spent placing signs in yards of people who had requested them (as opposed to along roadsides). I found that some of those people are living atop thin slivers of topsoil — like 1/64-inch — and the hardest, stake-breaking chalk imaginable.
No wonder I get so many calls on my radio program and questions from Facebook followers with concerns about how poorly their plants are growing. What can grow in soil like this?
The solution is to bring in more soil. Adding 6 to 8 inches of well-prepared bedding mix will allow all manners of shrubs, ground covers, annuals and perennials to thrive. If that’s a possibility, please look into it. It will be well worth the effort.
Also, you’ll want some form of erosion control until your new plants become firmly rooted.
Shade trees in every yard
Another thing I noticed during my sign-hammering assignment is that many urban neighborhoods are dark and shrouded. In newer developments, it seems to be a common requirement to plant two shade trees in each front yard. Live oaks, Shumard red oaks and Chinese pistachios are dominant choices, but there are others.
While many of these trees are great species choices, and not just for small urban lots, some smaller types of trees might have served their needs better by opening up the look of the neighborhood. But those big trees are there now, and they’re growing larger. No one will want to remove them, so plans need to kick into a new gear, since shade landscapes can be challenging.
Some of the prettiest landscapes were where people had removed the trees out front. Some had been Bradford pears. Builders often love planting these, but ice storms from recent years have left many with broken limbs and split trunks. And that’s why those landscapes stood out so dramatically. With all that daylight, they were like skylights to the heavens above.
Shrub choices in newer developments seem to fit the same criteria as the big shade trees. It’s common for builders to choose six or eight varieties of shrubs and landscape entire neighborhoods almost exclusively with them.
When those initial plantings are of mostly large types that need full sun, the end result is that they have been enduring almost weekly shearings in order to keep them beneath windows and away from entryways — leaving many shaded, sheared shrubs now dead or dying.
What to do?
In these sorts of urban settings, what can be done to give landscapes a fresh look and a new start? Here are some suggestions.
Collective solutions: Hold a neighborhood party, or meet in a nearby park shelter or church to see if others have a similar vision. Develop overall thoughts of what homeowners could do as a group to spruce up the appearance of the street. Try to have one central focus. Allow creativity, but encourage people to stay fairly close to the mission.
It never hurts to bring a landscaping contractor into the process to give the group expert advice and help residents with some of the heavier jobs that will crop up.
Develop a list of good smaller trees and dwarf, shade-tolerant shrubs and ground covers — plants that won’t require frequent pruning. Do your homework beforehand to be sure they’re all compatible with soil in the area and the level of sun exposure they’ll have once planted.
Whenever it’s practical, pool your resources so that you buy in larger quantities. You’ll save a lot of money individually, and you also might be able to order special plants that nurseries might not routinely stock, since larger numbers would be purchased.
On your own: When you’re landscaping a small space for your own home, it’s usually best to limit your number of plant types to just six or seven. That could be one or two trees, three or four types of shrubs and one type of ground cover to tie it all together. If you have enough sunlight for St. Augustine, you could certainly include it. (Bermuda requires almost full sunlight.)
Whatever your plant choices, simplicity is always in style. A simple design becomes your best friend when it comes to small spaces. Large, decorative pots are great for annual color — much easiest to prepare and maintain than in-ground beds. Perennials may work, but since most types only bloom for a few weeks, there will be a lot of down-and-drab time with flowering perennials. It’s harder to hide that in small gardens.
Neil Sperry publishes “Gardens Magazine” and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: http://neilsperry.com.