The Complete Guide to Landscape Design, Renovation,
by Cass Turnbull
HOW TO CHOOSE AND ARRANGE YOUR PLANTS
By now you should have a map of your hardscape and an idea of what
style you want and what will make your yard look good. Perhaps you
have decided to build raised or mounded beds or add rocks. You have
decided to take measures to control potential drainage and erosion
problems. You may even have already penciled in some circles on
your map to stand for tall trees, low masses of shrubs, a flower
"cutting" bed, or focal points. Or perhaps you've just
used the previous information to help you decide to run beds together
or to add something to your existing landscape. Now it's time to
select, transport, and arrange your plants.
The Easy Way
First, let's go over the easy way to pick your plants. As a novice,
I invited two knowledgeable gardeners to come to my house and look
at my hardscape map with me. They listed their favorite plants and
we discussed where they might go--how many to get. I got to listen
when they disagreed on things, which was very helpful. Then I went
to nurseries and looked at the plants they had suggested.
The Hard Way (But The Best Way)
That's the easy way. The other way takes patience, which is, as
we know, the greatest gardening lesson. You will have to do plant
homework. You get a notebook and start making plant lists. You visit
nurseries and jot down names of plants you like, you look at plants
in friends' and neighbors' yards you like--perhaps you go on garden
tours and ask the person standing next to you, "What's that?"
Beginning gardeners spend a lot of time asking, "What's that?"
Advanced gardeners ask, "Which one is that?" referring
to the particular named variety of a plant. Your local nursery people
have a wealth of information. You already know some gardenese with
which to communicate and interpret. Especially hardy, vigorous and
reliable. Ask your nursery people if they like the plant you are
If you have in mind a certain place for your nursery plant, another
good question is, "Would this be good to plant in such-and-such
a place?" Say, "On the parking strip?" or "Next
to my patio?" Another good thing to tell your nursery person
is on which side of your house you want to put the plant.
It is not apparent to the novice that a yard has micro climates.
Micro climates can make a life and death difference to your shrub.
The north side has less intense light and heat; so does the east
side. Pay attention to where the coldest winter winds come from
in your area. If you have a wall or slotted fence or grouping of
shrubs, this will help protect your plants from the freezing and
drying winter gales. The west and south sides have more intense
heat and sun. Walls and concrete intensify both the heat and the
shade. Shade provided by leaves of trees, especially deciduous trees
(drop leaves in winter), is less intense than shade made by buildings.
A hydrangea, for example, may enjoy some light shade, but if it's
trapped between condominiums, it will get leggy and may not bloom.
Conversely, if you plant a shrub next to the road, the driveway,
or against a wall facing south--well, it's in for a hot time. The
signs of a plant that is baking to death are yellowed, curled, or
crispy leaves. This may not seem obvious to you. I know it wasn't
when I started out. I thought I could just make plants grow wherever
I wanted them. Some shrubs simply love to bask in the sun. Put your
rose bed, your herb garden and rockery plants on the south wall.
It makes a huge difference if you give them what they like.
The First Piece of Advice
(Here's our map after making our choices.)
This brings me back to the first most-often-ignored-piece-of-essential-advice.
Select plants according to their cultural requirements. Examples
of cultural requirements are the kind of light they require (sun
or shade), the kind of soil they need (sand, loam, will take clay)
and their mature sizes. Verily I say unto thee--read thy plant's
tag, for by it ye shall know its name. Also ye shall know what it
requireth. Yea, verily, its light, its soil, and its size. And the
greatest of these is its size. In your notebook write down its botanical
name, and its common name. You will need its botanical name (Latin
name) so that you can look it up in your local garden encyclopedia
to find out more about it.
The tag on your shrub will give its name, height, and whether it
needs sun or shade. You should know that "sun" or "shade"
may not tell the entire story. "Shade" may mean it prefers
shade, but it may "take some sun." This means it can take
some sun without looking bad, but it won't like it as much as the
shade. In the marine climate where I live the heat of the sun is
less intense than only one hundred miles away over the mountains.
Therefore, I can get away with planting my pieris or astilbe on
the south side of the house. Information in your garden encyclopedia
may need further interpretation. A plant that "needs good drainage"
and a plant that's "sun, drought tolerant" may both do
well on the sunny side, but the first one's roots will rot in less
than sandy soil, it may also take some part shade as long as it's
planted in sandy or gritty soil. The latter may live in heavy (more
clay) soil, but will hate it if you move it into the shade. Confused?
Use your nursery person. Try to catch him or her off season when
things aren't too busy-- this means sometime other than spring.
In fact you should make a point of visiting your nursery during
other seasons to see the other "shows" and get an idea
of what blooms together. The "mature height" listed on
your plant tag is also somewhat misleading--your plant will not
stop when it reaches its mature height. It just slows down and eventually
stops many years later. In general, a plant's "ultimate height"
is about twice its "mature height." As mentioned in the
first section on pruning, plants vary in how much their "ultimate
height" can be affected with selective pruning. Some types,
the tree-likes, must be allowed to reach their ultimate height to
serve their proper function in the landscape. Others, like Japanese
holly and similar small-leaved plants, can be kept down almost indefinitely.
Speaking of slow, there's a general rule about trees. You can either
get fast, tall and weak, or you get slow, strong, and maybe not
so tall. Everybody wants a tree that grows fast to forty feet and
then stops. No such luck. Your "fast" tree grows fast
to eighty feet and then drops a limb on your car. Remember, patience!
In your notebook you have been collecting names of plants you like
and you put down their cultural requirements, especially their heights
and widths. To this you want to add the time they bloom, color of
bloom and other notes like "scented," "grey foliage,"
"gets berries." Also you want to mark down whether they
are deciduous, evergreen, broadleaf, or needled.
Wait! Time for more gardenese. Deciduous means the plant drops all
its leaves in the winter. Evergreen means it stays green all year.
(It sheds its old leaves every year though; you may not have noticed
the pile of old leaves under your pine or rhododendron.) Broadleaf
means it has a big leaf like an oak tree or camellia. Needled means
it's like a Christmas tree or many other conifers (has a cone, not
a flower) or like a cedar or juniper. Thus your oak tree is a deciduous
broadleaf, but your camellia is a broadleaf evergreen, and your
fir tree is a needled evergreen. There actually exist a few deciduous
needled things like the larch tree that looks a lot like a Christmas
tree all summer and then turns a nice soft yellow in the fall. Then
its needles drop for the winter. More than one homeowner has cut
down his or her "dead" larch only to find out that it
was just a deciduous needled tree.
You can divide your plants into columns according to height, S/Sh
(sun/shade), E/D (evergreen, deciduous) and perhaps Fl. (flowering),
and F.C. (fall color). You will use this information to plug them
in on your map. It is at this point that you will feel the first
pangs of phytophilia (plant lover's disease). There isn't enough
room for all your favorites. But you will avoid over planting and
fruit salad, won't you? Name your circles, put the evergreens in
first--this will be what you see in the winter. It is "the
backbone" of your yard. Also site your tall things, your trees,
at the lot corners and build down. A deciduous tree can stand on
its own, in the middle of the yard, too, especially if it has a
nice branch pattern, interesting bark or flower or fall color. Fall
color looks nice in front of a backdrop of dark needled evergreens,
too. Deciduous plants are good to have because they screen you in
the summer and keep things cool--but in the winter when you need
more light, they let more in. You can even put them in front of
windows for this reason.
Remember to plant shrubs and ground covers in drifts. Plant in groups
of threes and fives or repeat the same shrub. Plant low things next
to walks and under windows and near doors. Plant tall columnar things
in back, against tall walls without windows. Vary height, texture,
and color. Put scented flowers near the path, scented leaves where
you can snatch a leaf to crush under your nose. No tall trees under
power lines; no broad trees on narrow parking strips where their
branches get beaten by trucks or poke people in the nose. No messy
trees over cars or patios. Nothing prone to diseases unless you
can't live without that particular plant. Plant the shrubs on the
side of your house out quite a bit--there's no rain water under
the eaves of your house. They will grow back to the wall in a year
or two. When you site your plant, always look up. Will it get rain?
Put special things near doors, or where you look out windows.
What follows is a list of a few very general generalities. There
are exceptions to some of them, but they will help you assess plants
(1) Needled evergreens like the sun.
(2) Grey things like sun.
(3) Things with small leaves like the sun (big leaves shade).
(4) Flowers, especially deciduous flowering things, like the sun.
(5) There are not a lot of very floriferous things for the shade.
(6) Light colored or variegated (two-tone) things look good in the
shade (but they do not necessarily like the shade).
(7) It is almost impossible to grow other plants under needled evergreens.
Let firs, spruces and such grow to the ground for this reason.
(8) Things turn better autumn color (such as red) when a bit stressed
and when we have sunny days and cold nights.
(9) Trees get big.
(10) Shrubs get bigger, too.
(11) Landscape architects recommend that you should have no more
than seventeen different species or types of trees and shrubs in
your yard (not counting groundcovers, bulbs, flowers).
(12) The smaller the bed the less different types of plants should
be used. For example, use only three species in a four-foot by six-foot
I also encourage you to leave some unfilled spaces or unnamed circles
open on your map. This is not only because you will go broke if
you try to do everything at once, but because you will surely fall
in love with more rare and wonderful plants next year and you'll
need a place to put them. Leave borders along the outside of beds
for annual flowers, too. You will soon find out the truth about
nurseries. Unlike supermarkets, all of which carry oranges at almost
every time of year, your nurseries will only carry certain plants
in certain seasons, and one may have a particular type of tree or
shrub but not the other kind you want. That's why many people turn
to catalog shopping. All this is hard on impulse, immediate-gratification
types such as myself. But one eventually gets used to the enforced
delays. And in the end you will enjoy browsing through your nursery
to see what's new.
|Shown is the yard not too long after planting. This design
will hold up well over time.
Now that you know pretty much the plants you want to get, you go
to the nursery or nurseries and buy them. I suggest you be sure
to get your trees in first, since they need the longest time to
grow. If you are buying a lot from one nursery, they will deliver
to your home for a small fee. If you have a pickup truck yourself
and want to transport some things home, take steps to avoid desiccating
(drying out) your plants. This is serious business. Plants can't
handle fifty-five mile per hour winds blowing them around; the wind
at that speed is also likely to break some limbs. Bundle the limbs
of your tree together with twine or wrap the tree in burlap or something
and lay it on its side--secure the pot so that it doesn't roll back
and forth. Jam the rest of your pots in tightly together and towards
the cab. There is less wind just behind the cab. Invest in some
"Wilt-Pruf" ___ or similar stuff that you spray on the
leaves to keep them from drying out. Some say this liquid (anti-transpirant,
anti-desiccant) is also useful if you're planting things in the
summer, if you can't help planting in the summer.
When you get home, plant your plants as soon as you can. If you
can't get them in the ground right away, keep them well watered
(once a day) until they're planted. Keep them in the shade, together
in bunches. If they're balled and burlaped, keep the roots buried
(heeled-in) in sawdust or dirt. Many otherwise good gardeners bring
their plants home and leave them in pots for days. They're testing
them, pushing them, seeing how much they can get away with. I call
it the pot-requirement. Don't you do it.
When it comes time to plant, drag your plants over to where you
think you want them and arrange them sitting on the ground in their
pots. Stand back and imagine them full grown. An old movie called
"Little Big Man" had a scene in it where the gun fighter
showed the new guy how to shoot. He said you look at your target
with "snake eyes" and imagine yourself shooting. "Snake
eyes" is when you squint and everything gets sort of blurry,
and you can more easily imagine with your mind's eye. I want you
to look at your landscape with "snake eyes." That spindly
little tree says it will get fifty feet tall. Imagine it through
time, bigger, bigger, is it fifty feet yet? If you can't see it,
go look at a neighbor's tree that's fifty feet tall. Now walk back
and picture that tree there. Whoa! You'll have to move those other
shrubs farther away to make it all fit. Use snake eyes on all your
shrubs to make sure they're planted far enough apart. Also take
the time to turn the best side out on your plants. Walk back and
forth to see if everything fits together well. See to it that no
major tree branches head into walls or out into the way of foot
Once everything checks out in all four dimensions, you may plant
your shrubs. Mark the spot by pushing your shovel in where the pot
was, so that you don't forget where your plant goes when you move
it to take it out of its pot. Some people twist and push down their
pots so they leave a ring on the dirt to mark the location to dig.
When you plant a group of plants, start from the back or inside
and move out. When planted, the plants that looked so small and
vulnerable before, will now be about half the size.
I have warned about overplanting. Some people choose to double plant
and then remove some plants as they mature. But most people have
a hard time removing (killing) plants, period, especially when things
are just beginning to look good. But if you wait any longer a big
hole will be left when you finally must thin out crowded plants.
Cultivating patience is a chore. Some people fill in spaces between
tree-like shrubs with more understory plants which just get shaded
out as major shrubs and trees mature. This is better. I recently
encouraged a yard owner to surround her new laceleaf maple with
small leaved heathers. As the maple grows she can simply remove
the heathers, which will then be in too much shade. Certain plants
are much better than others for massing, or planting too close together.
These are not the shrubs with tree-like habits; they tend to be
small-leaved mounds. The truth is, you'll probably plant a little
too close now as a compromise and pay for it later. Gardens, after
all, go through stages and must be artfully managed and planned
wisely. A good garden manager can slow down the middle age of a
garden's life, which is when it looks best, before things get too
overgrown and need to be renovated.
||Be certain to arrange plants according to
their mature size. Avoid the most common gardening error
||This is the previous planting only a few
As you buy your plants, enter their names and location in a second
notebook. This is your garden book. It goes with the house. Trust
me, you will forget the names of things. And it will help you someday
when a new young gardener marveling at your yard, looking for ideas
for his or her yard asks, "What's that?"
- Read and believe your plant tags.
- Critical information includes: size, sun/shade, and name--common
- Ultimate height of tree or shrub is about twice the mature height
listed in books or on tags.
- Be careful that your new shrubs and trees do not dry out during
transport or while waiting to be planted.
- Arrange plants according to how they will look in ten years. Set
them where they will be planted while still in their pots and rearrange
them until you achieve the look you want.
Forward to More Unheeded Advice
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