As another new year unfolds, have you made any resolutions? Maybe it’s exercising more or eating healthier, but what about your yard?
Now’s the time to think ahead for projects that will bring joy to your landscape this year. That’s the message of a webinar presented by Carol Burke, a Penn State master gardener from Montour County with a knack for landscape design and plenty of related helpful hints to share.
If you’ve already resolved to update your home’s landscaping, your first action step is deciding where to start. Burke’s approach, “plan your work, and then, work your plan.” She said landscaping design is the art of developing a plan to assure the best use of your yard’s available space in an attractive fashion.
Step 1: Determine the goal of your landscape update. Are you redoing an existing yard or planning for newly created areas such as adding a deck or a water feature? Do you want to attract new bird and pollinator species, or is repelling deer a priority? After that’s established, determine your timeline. Will you be implementing your new landscape ideas in the spring, or is this a plan that will require several seasons to complete?
Step 2: Look at the bigger picture. Are there invasive plants or unwanted trees that need to be removed? Are you taking into account wet or dry areas that need special attention? Do you want to add upgrades like a patio, fence, pergola or pond? What will the area be used for? Adding an entertainment area involves different considerations than installing a play area for youngsters. Are you looking to screen an area for greater privacy, hide garbage cans or disguise a woodpile? Are overgrown shrubs hiding your home’s best features?
Step 3: Get a soil test. It will help determine which plants should be planted and where. Measuring the amount of soil pH, humic matter and exchangeable acidity is essential. Burke said you can purchase a soil test kit at any Penn State Extension office.
Step 4: Consider plants that provide seasonal interest. Envision a mixture of plantings that will provide interest throughout the seasons — bulbs that bloom in spring, evergreens that hold up well under a coating of snow or annuals that you can vary from year to year. Research plants that attract birds and pollinators to create an additional dimension of interest.
Step 5: Only plant what you can maintain. Think about how much time you want to spend caring for your landscape, and decide whether you plan to maintain it yourself or if you will need to hire somebody. These decisions will also affect the necessary tools and equipment required for good maintenance.
Step 6: Don’t leave tree selection up to chance. Deciduous trees work best near the south side of a house because they can provide shade in the summer and, after losing their leaves, will allow sun exposure during cold weather months, Burke said. Plant evergreens on the west side where they’ll block cold winds and harsh sunshine.
Step 7: Think ahead. How tall and how wide will mature plantings grow? Trees and shrubs that are tiny today will have both branches and roots that will spread. Be sure to allow adequate space to avoid overcrowding or possible damage from errant roots. Burke advised placing trees off the corners of your home where they will accent your home and add curb appeal while being less likely to block views or limit air circulation.
Step 8: Landscaping goes beyond vegetation. Adding permanent, non-living features (known as hardscaping), such as fencing, a pergola, an arbor, a wall, a walkway or a patio, can add both accents and functionality to your yard. Consider a walkway among flowerbeds for easy access to weed, deadhead, etc., as well as to create a pleasant place for strolling. Brick, flagstones or pavers are appealing alternatives to concrete. A pergola provides a shaded area that’s perfect for entertaining or providing a comfy spot to sit and enjoy your lawn. Water features, like small ponds or fountains, can be both attractive and relaxing. Fences and walls don’t need to be lengthy to provide eye-catching appeal.
Step 9: Put your plans on paper. You don’t need to be a landscape architect to map out your lawn or garden layout, but drawing it — even in rough form — will help you be more attuned to the realities of your site. Burke emphasized these basic principles of design: scale, balance, unity, rhythm, accent and repetition.
Step 10: Establish a budget. Keep things real by estimating the costs for your project. Explore prices for plantings as well as any hardscaping, and don’t forget to include the cost of equipment that you might need to buy or rent. This will help establish if you need to scale back your plans or perhaps spread them out into affordable phases.
Step 11: Stamp out invasive species. Some plants that look nice aren’t. Barberries are a prime example, as are oriental bittersweet. They might add pops of color, but they spread easily over a wide area through bird droppings and can gradually overtake a forest. Bradford pears are an invasive tree that spreads quickly. All three of these came from Asia and thus are not adapted to our local flora and fauna. For more information on identifying and removing these and numerous other harmful plants, Burke recommended consulting conservect.org.
Step 12: Use native plants whenever possible. Native plants are already well adapted to your climate and ecosystem, so they will be healthier and require less maintenance than more exotic choices. They typically require less watering and fertilizing, and they attract and support wildlife, native birds and pollinators. They come in all sizes and colors, so finding ones that fit your yard’s style isn’t a difficult task. To find native plants that meet your needs, Burke encouraged using the native plant finder nwf.org, which provides plant information based on your ZIP code.
Carol Burke’s closing words of advice were to choose a few plants you love and decide where they will fit best. Then ask yourself, “What do I need my yard to provide for me?” And have fun making those wishes come true.
Carol Burke’s complete presentation, titled “New Year’s Resolutions for Your Lawn,” is available on demand through Jan. 24, 2023 by registering here. There is a $5 registration fee.