Have you ever wanted to create or rehab a garden and thought, “Where the heck do I start?” We know exactly how you feel. After buying a historical property over 30 years ago, we were faced with a whole-house renovation at the same time we were planning to rehab the landscape outside. To make things easier (and affordable), we focused our attention first on the handful of existing trees, deciding which would go and basing the next design steps on the ones that remained. Using those trees as inspiration, we added layers of more woody plants with textural and color contrasts and then installed a hardscape with some heft to slowly create a landscape that required less maintenance and that looked great in all four seasons.
Install woodies for layers, focal points, and to fill problem areas
Initially we left in place the five biggest trees on the property because we couldn’t afford to have them removed, and we needed some shade. Leaving these trees in place created a natural jumping-off point for planting layers beneath. First, we focused on planting a graduated understory of small trees and larger shade-tolerant shrubs, including ‘Wolf Eyes’ dogwood (Cornus kousa ‘Wolf Eyes’, Zones 5–8), various viburnums (Viburnum spp. and cvs., Zones 4–9), and shorter Japanese maples (Acer palmatum and cvs., Zones 5–9). Although trees and shrubs take up a larger footprint than your average perennials, if you use woodies with an array of different forms in a designated area, you’ll naturally get a layered effect. We basically created a series of large-scale vignettes throughout our urban lot. Even when one of those initial five existing trees died, we decided to fill the open space not with a bunch of perennials, but with a few golden locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia* ‘Frisia’, Zones 4–9) because we were beginning to understand that a landscape filled with trees and shrubs is ultimately easier to maintain and often more visually impactful than one filled with perennials.
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