Yardsmart - Divide the garden chores

February 21, 2009|By MAUREEN GILMER / Scripps Howard News Service

Some of the best marriages result when you cross a slash-and-burn person with a bean counter. These very different approaches to life complement each other for a sustainable, well-rounded partnership. The slash-and-burn personality is spontaneous, energetic and gets things done, but is likely to overlook details. The bean counter tempers the slasher by cleaning up the mess, filling in the details and making sure any last-minute oversights get covered. When both work together, the result is a beautiful, functional and harmonious whole.

A marriage of these two polar types perfectly describes how you create your own backyard landscape. If you divide all the plants into two similar categories, it's much easier to do it yourself.

The slash-and-burn plants serve the big picture. These are the skeletons of the landscape that are used to solve problems. Some of the most common problems in the average homesite are lack of shade, ugly views, lack of privacy, abrupt-looking house, large bare walls and lack of focus to a space. These can only be solved with large woody plants such as trees and shrubs that live for decades, sometimes centuries. They may be evergreen or deciduous, flowering or not and offer all sorts of foliage qualities.


Bean-counter plants are small, soft and intensely beautiful. These are the decoration on the cake that gives a landscape its basic style and character. They live long but not forever, and will change considerably over time. Among these are perennials, ornamental grasses, vines, bulbs, potted plants and annuals. Nothing offers more intense, long-lived color. Nothing adds such incredible textures to a garden.

For couples who are faced with design of their home landscape, this may provide a workable division in how the job gets done. Divide the planting efforts in two, and work on them together or separately. The slash-and-burn part of the design must go first. One of the most common mistakes that trips people up is getting too focused on the bean-counter plants before establishing the overall landscape structure.

Designers always start with the trees because they are the largest and most important to the livability of the site. Decide where you need shade in the summer and locate your trees accordingly. Know the direction of the prevailing wind and use trees to temper it. Assess where a beautiful accent tree should go to best show off the front of your house.

The next step is to locate your shrubs, the real workhorses of the landscape. Many will grow, bloom and offer fall color with no help from you year after year. Select evergreens to plant around the foundations of your house to cover up vents and utilities. Spot in a few eye-popping flowering or fall color types to give it interest. If you need screens or barriers, position your hedges, whether sheared or natural, to block views and increase privacy. Then select highly variable flowering shrubs along fence lines to give you lots of seasonal changes.

Once you have accomplished all this, in theory the work goes to the bean counter, who must deal with all the remaining spaces. You must select plants for every inch to create a truly fabulous garden, and the more diversity you have here, the better it looks. Bean counters can study perennial books to find flowers that really pop. They can explore new and unusual perennials and experiment with large ornamental grasses for their fine textures and autumn flowers. This part of the process can take a long time because bean counters tend to be finicky about flower color. What they choose will have a huge impact on the overall character of the garden.

Sometimes, accomplishing a seemingly huge task is best done by breaking it down into smaller pieces. And if your relationship is a harmonious blend of polar opposites, now you know who does what.

Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist. Read her blog at E-mail her at

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