There are two types of gardeners: those who believe that once a plant has taken root in the garden it should never be removed, and those who believe that some plants need to be sacrificed for the greater good. I fall into the second group. My favorite term for this comes from landscape designer and TV host Gary Alan, who likes to describe a shrub that has outlived its usefulness in a landscape as having “paid its rent.” We donate outgrown clothing to charity, we donate books we’ve read to book drives, and we recycle old magazines. Why would we want to keep every plant we’ve ever acquired? Let some retire gracefully to that Great Compost Pile in the Sky.
I had a great experience with this recently at my house. I rent an apartment in a duplex that changed ownership last year. The previous owners were of the let-it-grow-wherever-it-lands camp. The new owners, however, want a landscape that is attractive but also easy to maintain. So began the Great Cleanout.
My front yard is the size of a postage stamp (well, a big one, anyway; about 9 by 12 feet). But a lace-cap hydrangea had been planted about a foot away from the front steps and porch railing. That’s at least 2 feet too close, since that shrub would have needed a good 6-f00t-wide space to flourish. So, over the decades, the poor thing had been topped-and-sided until it was little more than several thick trunks and some struggling branches that produced few flowers. When allowed to leaf out fully, it loomed over the entrance like a specter. When cut back, it just looked sad. Next to it were three small conifers that had branches only on the front side, since the porch overhang blocked light and water from reaching the back side. In front of the shrubs was a patch of mostly bare soil with an occasional annual, which the weeds loved to colonize, and in front of that was a narrow strip of grass.
The overall effect was not welcoming. And it was not low-maintenance, since the shrub needed frequent pruning, the bare patch needed weeding, and the strip of lawn needed mowing and edging. So they all came out. In their place, the new owners planted a dwarf golden hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Aurea’), two small boxwoods, a drift rose, and a few clumps of yellow Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’). Surrounded with shredded bark mulch—goodbye, lawn!—they offer many different colors and textures while requiring very little maintenance (apart from regular watering until they get established). They will also offer color and texture through the winter, when the landscape can look a bit grim. Even once they reach maturity, they will not outgrow the space or need excessive pruning. Here’s the drift rose, which will eventually cover most of the surrounding mulch:
Colorful and easy-care
If my front yard is a postage stamp, my back yard is a whole roll of them. It’s only about 18 feet wide but more than 80 feet long. Most of the neighbors’ yards are equally long and skinny. The ribbony effect has typically been exaggerated with long, straight sidewalks and planting beds sidelined to the edges of each yard to make room for strips of turfgrass:
My neighbors' yards
I’ve always wanted to break up those strips, so when my new landlords asked me for input on what to do with my back yard, I jumped at the chance.
The yard had a planting bed that ran almost the whole length of it and then looped across the back end, creating two separate islands of turf. Anyone who mowed the lawn had to mow one patch of grass and then truck the mower about 70 feet to the other end of the yard to access the rest of the lawn. In this bed were many trees and shrubs that had outgrown the space, most of which never should have been planted there to begin with. Among them were a white pine—directly under the power line, of course!—three apple trees, a Douglas fir, a black cherry tree, a lilac, a forsythia, and a euonymus. These last five had been planted within a 15-foot space. The black cherry was removed a few years ago after it dropped one too many fruits on the neighbors’ flowerbed, but the rest struggled on until this spring. Here’s the fir, lilac, and forsythia, around which the euonymus was entwined:
Gasping for air
Properly spaced, these four plants would have required about 78 to 88 feet. (At maturity, the Douglas fir alone may reach 60 feet across). They were not happy, and poor pruning over the years had not made them any happier. “Bring on the chainsaw,” I said! And—presto—all of the trees and shrubs in the back yard were gone:
Here’s a rough diagram of the old layout:
Another factor complicating the backyard landscape was that the elevations aren’t level. the ground slopes considerably between the house and the back of the lot, dropping off several feet in one short space. It would be hard to justify the expense of hiring heavy equipment to come regrade the whole lot, so we had to work with what was there.
I drew up a new plan for the space:
Back yard, after: More curves, and a logical flow for the lawn mower.
I would have liked even more curves in this design, and I suspect I’ll work more in as the landscape matures. But this design gave us several distinct areas in the yard: A living-dining area, an herb garden, a “beauty” garden, a lawn, and a veggie garden. And I figured my landlords and I could do most of the work ourselves.
As it turned out, this plan will take more work than I thought to implement. More on that in my next post.