The Complete Guide to Landscape Design, Renovation,
by Cass Turnbull
This book was not written for gardeners, although I'm sure it contains
many hints and tips useful to professional and amateur gardeners.
This book was written for people with a problem. The problem is
what to do with their shrubs, their trees, or their yards.
As a professional gardener I get many phone calls from troubled
homeowners. I often hear, "It's all just gotten too big,"
or, "It's out of control!" They can't make any sense out
of the pruning books they buy, the illustrations don't look anything
like what's in their back yards. So, I've written this book to help
people renovate overgrown and overplanted yards, not just to show
them how to prune individual plants.
Frequently I work on yards that have been previously worked on,
or should I say, worked over, by homeowners or the people they've
hired to cut it all back. Unfortunately, this method of yard control
backfires. The trees and shrubs regrow rapidly and wildly. This
book includes information on rehabilitative pruning, that is, how
to get them back into good shape if they have been previously badly
Most people have mastered the fundamentals of daily life by age
thirty. They know how to buy a car, maintain a car, or where to
go to have it fixed. They know how to choose their groceries, fix
simple meals, and have located their favorite restaurants. But gardening
fundamentals are not as readily or commonly understood. So, I have
included general descriptions of how to successfully manage the
average landscape. For example, the HOW TO MAINTAIN section explains
what people need to know about weeding, watering, fertilizing, and
pest control. It is not the complete and final word on these topics,
but it should give the home gardener the basics upon which to build.
And I have, I hope, included enough information to help you make
intelligent choices when hiring work to be done.
Poor design is at the root of most yard owner unhappiness. Pruning
and fertilizing are often used, unsuccessfully, in an attempt to
compensate for poor design and bad plant choices. Also, many people
have empty or dull or disagreeable yards and wish to make improvements
themselves. They lack the money to hire a full service landscape
company, and they need more information in order to choose a designer/gardener
to assist with a do-it-yourself project. With some basic knowledge,
a little courage, and a lot of physical work, they could transform
their yards into true gardens. Remodeling the outdoor spaces can
be as easy and rewarding as any home remodeling project. Perhaps
"easy" isn't the word. Let's say "achievable."
So, this book is for people with overplanted, overgrown, malpruned,
poorly planned, or deadly dull landscapes. If you are one of these
people, this book is for you. It is divided into four sections:
HOW TO PRUNE; HOW TO RENOVATE; HOW TO REDESIGN, and HOW TO MAINTAIN
You may discover an added bonus. After you eliminate the clutter
and confusion of an overgrown yard or redesign and install a new
one, your yard may become a source of pride and solace, as it protects
you from the harsh urban world. Its greenness and aliveness may
serve to refresh and amuse you, and you may come to feel toward
your shrubs as you feel toward your pets--that they are alive and
do things that give you pleasure.
Beyond controlling it, is relating to it and understanding it (it
being Nature). It is truly the same Nature that exists in the forests
and jungles, and it can and does exist in your own backyard.
The public is, I am convinced, unaware of the source of joy that
exists in the 1000 square feet or so of land around their homes.
Joy being a commodity in short supply these days, that land may
be worth a second look. Your yard is action packed, in a slow motion
sort of way. It is full of sex, violence and mystery. You just can't
see it, yet.
Each section of this book includes mistakes to avoid. I feel that
a lot can be learned from this approach. People persistently try
to make plants do what they will not, thinking that shrubs and trees
are infinitely malleable. Plants will not, can not, be made to do
whatever we want. There are rules to the game of gardening. Once
you know the rules, you will find that plants are very forgiving.
If you merely stay away from the big mistakes in your yard, you
are more than half way home. After reading this book, you must be
bold and begin to make decisions on your own. There are no absolute
right answers (a situation that drives neophytes crazy); there is
only a series of choices. Prune this or that branch? Move this shrub?
Get rid of that plant? Prune the lower limbs of a tree or shorten
the shrub beneath it?
The principles of gardening are the same everywhere, only the names
(species) of the plants change. So, don't be stymied by unfamiliar
shrub or other names. If I make reference to a tree or shrub that
you don't recognize, rest assured that you have their counterparts
in your town which will respond in similar ways. Your local County
Extension Agent or nursery person should be able to help sort out
the particulars of your specific plant material. I have included
lessons on speaking and understanding gardenese to help you communicate.
I've tried to keep the book brief enough to get you through it before
setting you loose with loppers and chainsaw. After reading it you
will have, I hope, enough fundamental knowledge to keep you out
of trouble until practice and observation teach you the rest. For
those who just want to know what to do, not why or how, I have added
a summary for each chapter subject.
How to Begin: Things to Keep in Mind
When my former partner and I used to arrive at the scene of a tangled,
overgrown yard we had contracted to restore, we would be totally
overwhelmed and would invariably exclaim, "What a wretched
mess!" Then, like the cavalry, we would head in to do battle.
I've been doing this sort of work for years, and when I see some
places I am still at a loss as where to begin, and I certainly can't
visualize the end product in its final state of orderliness. I want
to turn and run. My head is swimming and I'm confused. At this point
I begin to pick out areas and jobs that I know must be done. This
narrows my focus and gives me a starting point. Like so much in
life, it's the getting started that's tough.
The Worst First Rule
You must make yourself begin. When you narrow your sights to a section,
a shrub, or a tree, you then begin with what is obviously wrong
or the worst. Forget the big picture for a while. Weeding and dead
wooding are great warm-up exercises until what else needs to be
done occurs to you.
I made up the "Head For the Worst First" rule, and I use
it a lot. With gardening in general and pruning in particular, it's
never all done. It's not like fixing a car or a house. Many times
you must wait for nature to fix her or your mistakes. This built-in
delay also drives homeowners crazy. If what needs to happen is a
healthier plant, or if a plant needs to grow and fill in, it cannot
be fixed with a pair of loppers. Still, if you follow the "Start
With the Worst" rule and then step back, you will, more often
than not, see dramatic improvement.
At other times you will be at a loss as to what to do and you may
think of the old saying, "Wander, ponder, and prune."
This refers to the time good gardeners spend walking around the
yard staring at plants and their situations, trying to see what
needs to be done next. When pruning and renovating the overgrown
yard, you should make tentative decisions while viewing from outside
the shrubs. You do the work from inside them. As you prune your
way through the shrubbery, remember to step back out to the lawn
every so often to check your progress.
Another adage used by pruners is, "The sign of a good job is
one that you can't tell has been done." This is because a well-pruned,
well-maintained yard looks as if it's naturally well ordered, not
chopped. I know of a landscape supervisor who once told his crew,
"You can do whatever you want to the plants as long as I can't
tell you've been there." This included dramatic size reduction
in some cases. Good pruning is invisible, which is one reason it's
not done much: in other words, it's hard to copy.
I define good pruning as pruning which generally enhances the plant's
health and promotes its natural form (and it indirectly makes the
plant more beautiful). Bad pruning is defined as pruning that runs
counter to the plant's natural habit or shape and is a drag on its
health, as evidenced by increased deadwood, abnormal suckering,
and decreased vigor. Such pruning eventually makes plants look unnatural
and sickly. At the edges of the science and the art of pruning are
those forms that are the exceptions to the rules--these are the
tight shearing of topiary (plant sculpture), pleaching (weaving)
of trees, pollarding (lollipop trees), bonsai, cloud pruning, espalier,
and the like. I recommend that all novices stay away from these
specialties until it becomes clear what they are doing, unless they've
inherited or want to design a yard specifically for these purposes.
These are generally high maintenance garden practices and look rather
pretentious or silly in the middle of an average yard.
1. You can't fix a yard all at once. Just go for the worst, follow
the rules, and it will look better. Come back next year and do more.
2. A good pruning and renovating job is invisible.
Forward to Pruning: Gardening is a Virus