State of Our Landscape Address
November 8th, 2007
I get to see upwards of 100 Harrisburg-area landscapes in my horticulturist and garden-writing travels every year.
I get to talk to the owners, hear what’s on their mind, see what kind of problems they’ve been having and discuss what changes they’d like to make.
For what it’s worth, I thought I’d share some of the observations. Think of it as a “State of Our Landscape” address…
* Widespread under-confidence. The majority of homeowners limit plantings to narrow beds around the house with maybe a tree or two out in the yard and a line of evergreens along the border. When you see wider foundation beds and sweeping island or border gardens, it’s almost always the work of a professional.
I think this is because very few people know much about plants or how to use them, and so they’re reluctant to take a chance – especially in the front yard. This is slowly changing.
* Limited plant selection. Despite the huge palette of plants we can grow here, most yards are loaded with the same few plants: barberries, azaleas, rhododendrons, arborvitae, yews, burning bushes and daylilies.
This is also understandable. We tend to grow what we know. And those are familiar plants.
The good news: I’m seeing much more openness to try new things these last few years. Most people are willing to try something different if they have some assurance it’s going to work.
* How to care for the landscape. This is our biggest need. Different plants require different care at different times, and when nobody’s told you what that is, you wing it. Or you ignore the whole thing.
Even when a pro installs a landscape, few tell people how to care for what’s been planted. Even a great design quickly falls apart with bad care.
People don’t need to learn how to care for everything… just the plants they’ve got. Better education is needed.
* Steep slopes. If plant care is our biggest need, planting on slopes is our biggest and most common problem. It seems most of the flat land is gone, and so builders have turned to hilly tracts lately.
That means people end up with graded slopes in the yard that are too steep to mow. There’s no cheap or easy answer.
Stacking boulders, installing terraces or building retaining walls help, but all are very expensive. Hill gardens are doable, but it takes good plant selection and determination. Many try low groundcovers, only to run into weed problems.
* A disdain for annual flowers. These are the flowers you plant each spring and yank each fall after frost kills them. Many people don’t want any of these because they don’t want to replant and water to get them established.
The down side is that annuals are the only plants that give you color wall-to-wall all season. Skip them and you’ll have dead times and mediocre color. Ironically, more color is high on most people’s wish lists.
One solution: You don’t have to plant whole sweeps of annuals, but at least tuck in a few pockets of them for spots of color. Or get color by using them in porch pots.
* Exaggerated expectation of perennial flowers. When people find out there are flowers that don’t have to be replanted every year, they shift completely from annuals to perennials. What novices often don’t realize is that most perennials only bloom for several weeks out of the year and most require annual cutbacks, occasional division and possibly mid-season cleanups, staking and other primping.
It’s possible to have a colorful and changing yard with perennials, but it’s not easy to orchestrate the varying bloom times. And perennials take a fair amount of know-how and work… about the same as annuals, I’d estimate.
* Hanging on to the slackers. Most people are reluctant to remove plants – even if they’re spindly, bug-infested, lop-sided and/or dwarfing the entire front façade. If a plant is still alive, the belief goes, you can’t get rid of it.
I’m not a plant-killing fan, but sometimes the landscape looks a whole lot better when you move or remove an ugly plant. Even if you don’t replant with something better, a bare hole looks better than an eyesore.
* Less spraying. It’s almost universal now. Most people would rather not spray anything anytime.
This isn’t all environmental altruism… the time, expense and general hassle of spraying pesticides is probably a bigger reason. The days of spraying the whole yard “just in case” are gone.
* Where are the vegetables? Two generations ago, just about everybody had a vegetable garden. Now, I see very few of them. Maybe one in 25 yards has anything more than a tomato plant or two.
I’m seeing inklings that this is changing, though. Twentysomethings are at the forefront. It’s pretty much them and the old “Victory Garden” veterans. People in their 30s, 40s and 50s are widely vegetableless.