The many practices lumped under the umbrella of “landscaping” are varied and complex. There’s a vast difference between what some in the industry unflatteringly refer to as “mow-blow-and-go-Joes” and a landscape architect using wise plant choices to create a seamless connection between indoor and outdoor living spaces. Yet both fall under “landscaping.”
In the context of landscape design, complexity is expressed in different types of plant material, climates, and vastly divergent goals of landscapes associated with different situations — home garden, public space, utilitarian, garden paradise.
Novice designers typically work with a palette of about 15 plants; experienced designers may be knowledgeable about hundreds of plants, enabling them to create a landscape that functions well and meets aesthetic goals. Manipulating the complexities of landscape design into pleasing, functional landscapes boils down to one green-industry mantra: right plant, right place. The following suggestions can help those seeking to improve their home landscapes to avoid some of the most common mistakes, most of which involve the wrong plant, the wrong place, or both.
Plant for the long term
The shrubbery that appears to be choking the house it was planted around, the specimen tree dominating the entire front of a house, the conglomerate “five-in-one” grouping of shrubs that have melded into a single monstrosity — all are examples of woody material planted with only its current size in mind. The two-gallon, two-foot-tall arborvitae planted next to the front door could grow up to 40 feet. Is there really room? Or will it need to be removed in fifteen years because roots are buckling the sidewalk? Not planning for the mature size of woody material is easily the most common landscaping mistake that novices make. Be sure to understand the anticipated mature size of woody material and plant accordingly.
Remember your pollinizers
Not to be confused with pollinators, pollinizers are trees with pollen compatible with desired trees, used to ensure fruit set. Most fruit trees require more than one variety blooming at the same time to set good fruit. In growing regions with cold, wet springs and short growing seasons, even fruits that are self-fertile (not normally needing a pollinizer) will benefit from having a pollinizer. The presence of a pollinizer typically results in higher a percentage of blooms resulting in fruit and larger fruit.
Named cultivars (cultivated varieties) of plants have distinct characteristics, including size. For example, the University of Minnesota Press’s "Growing Shrubs and Small Trees in Cold Climates" — an excellent woody plant material reference for our climate — lists six cultivars of Norway spruce suitable for our area — from ‘Nidiformis’ at three feet tall, to ‘Aracona’, which grows to 15 feet. Serviceberry, native to much of the US, has cultivars ranging from five feet (several options) to 30 feet (Downy Serviceberry). In addition to size, specific cultivars can deliver the correct shape, leaf color, bloom color or winter interest to the landscape. Cultivars can also vary drastically in drought tolerance.
Plant to enjoy the results
A difficult mystery that plant-centric horticulturists ponder is why people will pay $200,000-$300,000 for a house without questioning the value but are reluctant to spend a proportional amount on the landscape that surrounds it. The result is large homes with tiny, out-of-scale “meatballs” lined up along walkways.
Too-small material is of little benefit to the current owners — possibly better enjoyed by generations to come? Fast-growing trees that will grow into the scale of the property within a few years are a good place to economize.
Slow-growing and specimen trees are worthy of considerably more investment per unit: for example, investing in a larger tree enables the homeowner to enjoy the shade it provides much more quickly. In many cases, one large tree can make a larger impact than several smaller ones.
“Salt and pepper” is for the dinner plate
The unending variety of plant choices makes it difficult for some to stick to a theme. “Salt and pepper syndrome” is an imaginary malady describing a gardener’s need to have one of every cool plant out there. There is much to be said for biological diversity, but in order for it to be a “design,” there must be thoughtful choices and some repetition.
One of every kind of plant leads to challenges. Aesthetically, the eye is confused and jumps around the landscape looking for respite. Some plants outgrow others, outcompeting slow growers and contributing to the visual chaos. Maintenance is more easily achieved when plants with similar water, light, and space needs are grouped together.
Visual impacts are stronger when some plants are grouped into masses, with singles reserved for plants of special interest. “Salt and Pepper” can also apply to the practice of randomly dropping new plant material into holes dug into unprepared lawn rather than prepared beds, increasing maintenance exponentially.