Friday, April 22, 2016

Landscape Lessons Learned: I made the mistakes so you don't have to!

I jumped into my first DIY landscape project 5 years ago when we moved into a new house and had a nearly "blank-slate" yard to work with. While I still love our backyard and the many growing things that live there, I've learned a lot from the many design mistakes I made on that first project.

When I look at my backyard landscape, I'm reminded that every good gardener learns from their own experience, as well as the experience of other gardeners. So, it only makes sense for me to pass my lessons on to you. If you're planning on jumping into a DIY landscape or garden project, take a look at my List of Landscape Lessons Learned (alliteration is so tempting, forgive me), so you don't make the same mistakes that I did.

And then let me know what mistakes you make so that I learn from you. It's the circle of gardeners' life, you see.

1. Incorporate pre-existing shrubs and flowers into your design (if you're leaving them there). I didn't want to dig up the entire hedge of old lilacs along the back fence, so I left most of them and then seemed to forget all about them as I planted the rest of the area with Xeric, low-maintenance perennials. If I were to do it again, I'd work harder to integrate their tall structure and early-spring bloom into the overall design.

Pre-existing shrubs in background with a couple tall grasses in between. 

2. Create a "rhythm" or site line for the eye. I made the common noob mistake of getting super excited about all of the plant options and then getting lost in the variety. There is no real site line for the eye in my landscape. Your eye will be drawn to the purple flowers of the Salvia when it's in bloom, but they do not create any real rhythm in the garden. The garden looks like what it is -- just a bunch of plants that I wanted to try. In terms of a "rhythm", my garden just makes noise. No matter how small, every grouping of plants should have some sort of "rhythm". Whether it's grand and sweeping, slow and quiet, or energetically staccato, you can create a rhythm with texture, form and color.

3. Utilize groupings of plants to create the rhythm and structure of your garden. This is where I feel like I really went wrong. I did not adequately utilize groups of plants in my landscape. Instead, I put one type here and one type there, and spread them around the garden with other plants that I thought might look nice next to them.  The two tall grasses planted at the back of the garden are perfect examples. They'd make a much bigger impact if I had planted in groups of three, for instance. Of course, a few of the original perennials have died and been replaced, so the garden has morphed over time, but it still lacks any real continuity.

4. Consider bloom time and plant accordingly. The rhythm of your garden is created in part by the color of the flowers' blooms. If there's a time in the season where none of your flowers are blooming, then your garden will feel somber and silent at that time. You can create an all-season show by grouping plants together with similar bloom times and making sure you have groups of flowers that will be blooming at all times. When I see pictures of my garden in late summer, I realize that I made a huge mistake -- I created a garden that is lush and colorful for only part of the season, not all of it. In late summer, only the sunflowers and hollyhocks prevail, which makes for an unbalanced appearance in our backyard.
The garden in late summer

5. Forget the weed barrier and small river rock. Use some form of mulch (including gravel or rock for truly Xeric plants) and weed-resistant groundcover instead. Focus on using larger rocks throughout the landscape rather than spreading small river rock all the way through it. The weed barrier and small river rock in our backyard have both proven to be a huge pain in the ass. It took me forever to get the landscape planted because I had to cut through the weed barrier and move rocks every time I wanted to plant a plant. Five years later, the weed barrier pokes up in weird places and I'm always trying to pull the rocks away from a plant's new growth. I really wish I would have just gone without both.

Exception: If you're doing a manicured and structured landscape that focuses on the space between plants as much as it does the plants, then use a weed barrier. I like the look of a "meadow" planting, or one where all of the plants slowly start growing into each other and mingling in unexpected ways, so I like to allow plants to go where they want.

Now, as I jump into my next major landscape project, I'm trying to keep all of these lessons in mind, but I find myself making similar mistakes, even in the planning stages. I have a pretty good variety of plants waiting to be planted, and I worry it will look a little disjointed once it's all growing, but we'll just have to wait and see! I do feel confident that it will be an improvement on the backyard, even if a small one. I'm so excited to see how it turns out. Of course, I'll have to wait a few years to really see this garden in all its full-grown glory.

Stay tuned; we start planting our next big Xeriscape project tomorrow! Follow me on Instagram @mlefrances520 to see updates.


  1. I'm not sure if this encourages me or frightens me, but I love the idea of planning NOW for that wave effect ... assuming I can pull that off in my very shady walkway. Do you do site visits, Emily? TeeHee!

    1. Part of the fun of gardening is making mistakes and attempting to learn from them. I'd be happy to offer recommendations, but I'm a noob gardener, myself!