Roots and Shoots: Garden Plans and Tweaks

jack-o’-lantern

Asters, honeysuckle and mountain mint bring in the bees while the jack-o’-lantern stands guard. (Photo by P. Doan)

Fall opens up the landscape as plants and trees go into dormancy. Without all the foliage and exploding vegetation of spring and summer, it’s easier to see where you might want to add height, texture or structure to the landscape. It’s a valuable moment when things go on pause to observe and imagine. 

Walking with our hound in my yard can involve a lot of standing around while she follows the scent of whatever she picks up and needs to cover every bit of ground with her nose. As I patiently wait for the dog, I’ve noticed lately that the path going up our slope to the next level of the yard needs more curves. There are three disjointed sections that could flow as well as stabilize the hillside. Winding paths prevent erosion better than straight paths, which is a huge consideration as the changing climate brings heavier rainfall to the Hudson Valley. Just this past week, my simple gauge measured nearly 4½ inches of rain in about 24 hours. 

I have a vision of winding paths and curves outlined by shrubs, grasses and perennials, a cross between a formal hedge and a meadow-style planting that absorbs the angles and lines of the short hillside. A non-linear hedge can frame many views and tuck away visual nuggets that can only be appreciated by walking the path — going into the landscape instead of being separate from it. 

Sounds like I have my work cut out for me this fall and winter! Here are some guidelines for how to approach an assessment and planning project for your own landscape. 

Draw it out 

Take out a pencil and piece of paper and spend time in the yard capturing its main features. At this stage, measurements aren’t necessary: This exercise is to focus on the general layout and spacing. While I think there is value in having an overall landscape map, if that seems intimidating, work on one section, like the front foundation landscaping or the patio area — some part where you spend a lot of time or that you look out on from your windows. 

Work with photos 

Maybe you took photos of your garden this year. These can be useful to show how it looked in different months. If you haven’t photographed it, start now. In the spring, it helps to review what fall seasonal interest was there. 

Shaping 

This is not a good time for pruning trees or shrubs. Of course, if a woody plant or tree is causing risk or is a nuisance, pruning can be done, but it opens a wound going into winter and that isn’t ideal. 

However, when the foliage is gone, it’s easier to notice where pruning should be done when the time is right for that species. Crossed or dead branches go first. Then think about how to shape it for better form. Is it asymmetrical? Does the form reach an apex in the middle or off to one side? You can mark branches with string, colored tape or a dab of paint as a reminder of what you want to do in the future. The Morton Arboretum website at mortonarb.org has helpful resources on pruning different trees and shrubs. It can be tricky but following advice for the specific species leads to the best results. 

Feelings matter 

There are some areas of my landscape where I just feel exposed, and that doesn’t lead to a relaxing connection with nature. Living on a slope means that the neighboring houses are above and below our yard and the height of plantings has to be balanced between privacy and creating shade. I want a lot of sun to grow vegetables and fruit, but I want to feel like I have privacy in my yard, too. Planting tall trees on the highest slope would create too much shade, so I have to work within those conflicting desires. 

Notice how you feel in different parts of your yard and think about how you want to feel instead. Traffic noise might make a front yard feel stressful if you’re close to a road. Landscaping can mitigate noise and change the view. Plants and trees can make a patio feel more cozy and intimate, but in other areas you might want a more open feeling.

Questions? Email me at [email protected]. 

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