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I Wonder What This Plant Will Do?

Updated: Sep 13

strange looking planting bed
A small planting bed with struggling plants.

For the last 34 years, I have designed landscapes for hundreds of homeowners. Some take my advice as law, while others only consider me the guy doing the drawings. The ones who took my recommendations have had much better results over the years.

One of the biggest problems for a landscape architect who does residential design is the misinformation fed to people. Over the years, consumers have learned to apply more stuff to achieve a beautiful landscape. Most of the magic solutions don't work, but people will continue to buy the latest garden fad because that's what they've learned to do.

The local nursery's primary goal is selling plants. Unless you take the time to find and ask a knowledgeable staff member questions, you're just taking a shot in the dark with your purchases. Some of the questions you want to ask are: what are the light requirements? How big does the plant get? Can it handle wet soils? Your best resource is someone who knows how a plant will perform over the years in your yard and not just the production plants for retail.

The planting bed in the image is a perfect example of a homeowner doing planting design. She probably bought plants at the nursery that she liked without understanding what they would do and their needs. Plants are installed right against the foundation of the house. Weeds compete with ornamental plants and win because the builder didn't prepare the soil, and it is hard-packed clay, subsoil with no nutrients. Shade-loving plants are in full sun, and those needing full sun are on the house's north side. The owner spent money on plants, but only some looked healthy.

The biggest problem the landscape had was that it needed structure. The owner didn't like shrubs, so everything was tiny and low to the ground in front of the two-story house. The solution was to dig up the existing perennials, prepare the soil with compost and worm castings, and organize the existing perennials to be in the proper location horticulturally. Then add newer, more prominent, broadleaf perennials to act as shrubs and ornamental trees. Once the ornamental trees mature, they will provide some structure.

The plantings must look better already growing in healthy, living, organic soil. We'll see how this one turns out in a few years.

People need to get out of buying a few plants over time and inserting them randomly around their homes into the soil from the basement excavation. What often happens in new home construction is either the existing topsoil is scraped off and sold or when the basement is being dug early in the construction process, that excavated material is dumped on top of the topsoil and spread out. So what's left on top to plant your ornamental plants is the lifeless subsoil. You end up with a disconnected landscape with shrubs that must be hacked down to keep them from covering windows (if they grow) and several plants just hanging on.

Before you buy a single plant, turn the soil with a round shovel or a tiller. Spread an inch or two of compost over the broken ground. Next, one or two more passes with your tiller 8" to 12" deep is enough. You want to avoid turning the soil into powder. Rake the surface of the newly created planting bed so that it drains properly away from structures. If you have good topsoil existing, this can only make things better for newly planted material to establish.

Making planting beds in hard, compacted, clay soils is challenging but worth the effort. Ornamental plants are expensive; give them the best chance of thriving. A homeowner can then figure out the ideal design over time by transplanting plants to better locations as you learn about them. Moving plants around in planting beds prepared well is much easier. Without the back-breaking work, you can enjoy gardening.

Another option for DIYers is to hire a landscape architect to design the landscape, hire a contractor to install the hardscape and prepare the planting beds. Then you, the homeowner, can install the planting plan over time. The results should be a cohesive landscape that works.

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