Neil Sperry

Has your garden been changing (for the worse)? Now’s the time to plan the adjustments

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.

Landscapes are moving targets – they’re never finished. Plants, like people, change with the years. Since it’s been too hot to do much outside, this might be a good time to jot down some notes of things that have been changing in our gardens (usually not for the better). They may be changes that will require us to make mid-course adjustments. See if any of these is going on in your gardens.

Old shrubs have become bare at their bottoms

This is usually a sign that we’ve been pruning plants at the same heights year after year. It’s also a good clue that we might be pruning them too short in the process. You’ll see boxwoods, hollies and ligustrums suffering this fate. All of the new growth is at the tops of the plants. All that you see down below is a network of sticks and stems.

Some of us let this go on way too long hoping that some miracle will let the plants fill out below. But then we remember that lesson from high school biology that “apical dominance” sends all the new growth hormones to the tops of the stems. And that’s where we’re pruning.

You might try a severe pruning late in the winter to see if the plants are able to start over and fill in from below, but it’s going to be slow and unsightly. You’d be far better off taking these leggy plants out this fall and establishing new, curved and more natural beds so that you can plant in clusters and groupings of shorter plant types. That would get you away from the need to prune formally.

Some of your shrubs have become yellowed and weak

This is usually a sign that you’re trying to grow an acid-loving plant in extremely alkaline soil. This can happen to azaleas, gardenias, barberries, ligustrums, wisterias and a host of other plants, but the place I see it most often currently is with loropetalums (Chinese fringeflowers).

Fringeflowers are lovely small to mid-sized shrubs, most with deep purple foliage. However, they require highly acidic soils, and what we have here in the Metroplex is just the opposite. You have to plant them much as you would azaleas: morning sun and afternoon shade and in 18-inch-deep beds filled with a mixture of half sphagnum peat moss and half finely ground pine bark mulch. Few of us go to that expense or trouble.

Even with that special help, however, our even more alkaline irrigation water will eventually overcome all our hard work and conquer the loropetalums. It’s rare here to see one that still looks great after five or six years. It’s best to replace struggling fringeflowers with something else that will be happier with local conditions.

Some of your plants have browned leaf tips and edges

That’s due to moisture stress. Usually it’s because they got too dry one or more times, but there can be other causes.

• Variegated plants are especially prone to leaf scorch. Variegated abelias, liriope and nandinas, for example, will suffer scorch in afternoon sun.

• Too much nitrogen can actually draw water out of plants’ roots by reverse osmosis – concentrations of salts are greater outside the plant than they are inside the roots.

• If your plant suffered root damage during transplanting or trunk damage due to borers or mechanical injuries, the conducting tissues that carry water up to the leaves will be interrupted and browning may occur.

• And if you try to grow a plant that prefers 70 degree daytimes (like a fuchsia) in Texas heat, it’s bound to brown. Japanese maples will do this as well, especially if they get any sun.

Ornamental grasses are wearing thin

We’ve seen a huge surge of interest in these perennial grasses over the past 25 years, but the problem is that we used them to excess. Instead of planting them as occasional highlights in a perennial bed, we’ve used them in lieu of shrubs as anchoring plants across the fronts of our houses and along our driveways. Now, a few years down the road, many types have started to die out and we’re left with bare spaces and weedy looking gardens.

It’s just one guy’s opinion (and one that will probably stir uncomplimentary responses), but maybe it’s time to give ornamental grasses a bit of a rest. Continue to use them, but do so in moderation. Plant small groupings instead of massed plantings. Go back to low shrubs for the structural elements of your garden design.

Turfgrass is also wearing thin

“Thin” grass seems to be the trend here. But in this case, it’s your lawn, and it’s often due to lack of sunlight. St. Augustine is our most shade-tolerant turfgrass, and even it requires five or six hours of direct sunlight daily if it’s going to hold its own as a lawngrass. If your lawn is thinning, and if you see that it’s thinner near the tree’s trunk, then shade is your culprit.

Fall is the best time to establish a new game plan in shaded areas that used to be turf. You can clearly see where the grass has failed you. Nurseries are well stocked with the proper choices for replacements, and the weather is just about to become fabulous.

Some of your best plant choices for this shaded landscaping solution would include mondograss, liriope and purple wintercreeper as groundcovers and the various hollies (there are 20 or more types from which to choose – and not all have thorns), oakleaf hydrangeas, aucubas, viburnums, Italian jasmine and smaller forms of Japanese maples. You can create a beautiful landscape design using only plants from that list.