From the February/March 2010 Issue:

Long Live Your Landscape

  • Writer: Mary Vinnedge

Smart planning and planting can keep that overgrown look at bay for years

Article Photo
enlarge | About 10 years after installation, this Somerset County landscape complements, but doesn't dwarf, the structures. Because the site slopes and experiences high winds, water management and windbreaks were incorporated. Installation of plants that can withstand harsh sun, wind, and deer have enhanced the landscape's longevity. These include dogwoods, catmint, spirea, ornamental grasses, irises, mazus, boxwood, 'Pigmy' barberry, viburnum, deutzia, red and pin oaks, spruce, and ginkgo. Photo courtesy of Cross River Design.
“Long-limbed” is a compliment to thoroughbreds and Vegas showgirls. As a landscape label, uh-oh: Plants are overgrown, and the site could need an overhaul.

“The landscape speaks to you, but it takes a trained eye to recognize what it’s saying,” says Howard Roberts, vice president and co-owner of Cross River Design Inc. in Annandale and Red Bank. “If it’s overgrown and disproportioned, then it’s time.”

John Butler, a partner in Arapahoe Landscape Contractors in Allendale, agrees that proper proportion is crucial. “You don’t want your landscaping to be too big, too monolithic,” he says. “Keep it at a human level depending on the house. A grander house can have a bigger landscape. The landscape should step down to the house, so the house blends with its environment.” Butler also warns that overgrown tree limbs may interfere with gutters and enable animal or bug invasions.

Randi Friesema, a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects with Cording Landscape Design in Towaco, says overgrown plants will be “growing into other plants, growing against the house, or posing security threats, such as blocking windows and sightlines.” Security issues include tall shrubs that could hide a prowler or prevent escape from a fire. Sightlines come into play if they obstruct views of traffic near the driveway, says Friesema, a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, indicating expertise in green building and sustainable design.

In Whole, In Part

These landscaping specialists occasionally update plantings in just one area of a landscape: the front, back, or side yard. Overgrown plants, for instance, sometimes can be transplanted elsewhere. Partial makeovers also work when “people have nice hedging and they just need a color overlay, something that blooms at different times,” Butler says. “You put things in front to accent and create color.”

But the pros discourage replacing just one bed within a yard because it creates an unappealing disparity in plant sizes, and removing only overgrown plants leaves unsightly gaps.

Now for the good news: Evaluation (at least seasonally) and maintenance can increase a landscape’s life span. “Every season you want it to look its best,” Friesema says.

Roberts advises homeowners to call in a professional “if you have a brown thumb or lack the time or knowledge of plants and landscaping to do an evaluation yourself.” This person is not a “lawn cutter,” he emphasizes, but someone who plants and designs landscapes. “Hire someone whose work you like. A good indicator of their talent is how long they’ve been in business.”

Friesema calls for maintenance to “keep diseases and pests in check; irrigate as needed. Prune one time a year and fertilize shrubs two times a year.” Sometimes extra TLC is in order. “Aeration can be important to get air down to the plants’ root systems,” Butler says. “And a professional can do a deep feeding that doesn’t run off, so nutrients reach plants’ root zones.”

Article Photo
enlarge | Five years after a makeover at a Summit home with an overgrown, unimaginative landscape, a colorful split-leaf maple, tall Hinoki false cypress, yellow-blooming 'Happy Returns' day lilies, and 'Preciosa' hydrangea (pink) brighten the scene. Terraced beds edged with Pennsylvania fieldstone make the steep slope of the lot appear more subtle. Photos courtesy of Cording Landscape Design.
Diagnose the Problem

Just because a plant has an off year doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to pull the plug. “Plants give you signals that something is wrong,” Roberts says. They go dormant too soon; they bloom poorly; they’re leggy instead of bushy; they wilt. They’re reporting soil, sun, and/or moisture problems that you might be able to fix.

Soil is critical. Don’t build a landscape until you understand the soil, which is the foundation,” Roberts advises. “Have an on-site evaluation before you buy, before you build.”

Don’t knee-jerk and feed a sluggish plant; get a soil test, Butler adds. Simply adding fertilizer is a bad idea, he says, because “runoff of excess nutrients ends up in lakes and rivers and causes serious algae problems.” Learn what’s missing and add only those nutrients to save money and protect the environment, he says. Amend soil as needed — with loam, organic matter, sand, or even gravel — when installing plants.

As for sun, assess whether conditions have changed. If a tree died, sun may burn shade-loving plants below, Friesema says. Or trees can mature, shading full-sun plants, Butler says.

Wilting announces a moisture issue, Roberts says: “supple leaves when plants wilt because they’re too wet, crunchy leaves when they’re too dry.”

Living, Prospering

For a long-lived landscape, choose your plants and landscaper wisely. “Many landscapes were built to fail because of bad decisions made years ago,” Roberts says.

Site plants based on their mature height and width, Friesema says.

Consider native New Jersey plants; they’re proven. “With today’s global marketplace,” Roberts says, “people see something exotic and they want it. But it may not work with their climate, soil, and sunlight.”

To find a landscaper, get referrals; the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association is one source, Butler says.
And examine the landscaper’s body of work, Roberts says. “See the landscapes they did three, five, eight, 10 years ago. By five years, plants are acclimated and growing. You can assess the work. You can see if grading and drainage were done properly … Landscapers must have a cohesive understanding of how materials coexist. Architecture is static, but a landscape is not.”

Mary Vinnedge won a national writing
award for an article about the challenge
of overhauling her landscape.