What could I do with this yard?

hollan(7)February 28, 2010

I am daydreaming about landscaping our new yard. I'm not an experienced gardener and would LOVE ideas. Browsing photos, I like English garden & cottage style, and the idea of using native plants. Not prim and proper but a planned wild look. I want some berry shrubs that birds like. I am in the mountains of NC, zone 7a, acidic soil. Most of our yard is on the side of the house. The pictures are in afternoon sun/shadows.

The rock wall has wisteria at one end and a dogwood at the other. Either or both could go and I wouldn't be upset. I was thinking of an English garden look on the top of the wall. The only idea I have had is burgundy helianthemum.

I don't like the hostas or the shapes made of mulch around the trees. What about a row of 6' evergreen bushes with berries for the birds and for privacy in the very back? Maybe natives like mountain laurel or rhododendron between the trees to the right of the chairs? I don't know what would look good in place of the hostas/mulch shapes. Ferns and herbs are nice.

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Thinning out even more trees is my first thought. In the rear a small grove is happening, but along the border the fence post row of trees does not seem as keepable.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2010 at 8:26PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

The words that come to mind when I look at this yard are "amorphous" and "random." The only bit of structure you've got is the wall, other than the few woody and evergreen plants that is, one of the latter of which you've removed. The few linear aspects are awkward to say the least, a flowering tree at each end of the wall, and the fencepost trees that Isabella points out.

The things you are visualizing to add are also amorphous.

Cottage gardens are billowy, messy things that to me are only tolerable when they occur in conjunction with hardscape, straight lines, or some form of containment, even crisp edges in a bright green lawn, ideally with a wide section of bare soil or mulch - frame and matting, as it were. Not a coincidence that English cottage gardens are often planted with a backing of severe hedges or fences.

People do tend to fall in love with the idea of native plants, but not with the plants themselves. Burgundy helianthemum, for example, is the antithesis of a native plant; highly selected for qualities that appeal to humans. That aside, native plants are often also amorphous, having little shape or other garden-worthy attributes. That's why they've remained largely untapped for gardening use until it became politically expedient to do so; it has never been expedient for decorative purposes. Random placement of amorphous bushes and plants creates a certain effect, it may or may not be what you want.

Question for you is, do you want more of the style that's already there, or do you want to change it?

You say you're not a gardener.... what you do have here is lots of room to try some stuff out before you fall into some very common traps that non-gardeners trying to landscape often do. For example, putting a flower garden, in which everything looks good for about 15 days of the year but almost nothing looks good at the same time, in a prominent position. Or putting something that needs sun and moisture under those trees (I'm guessing the hostas are there for a reason - not much else will likely grow; sadly the hostas are planted in little rings at the base of the trees which looks silly). Ferns yes, but herbs, no.

In short, you've got some spaces to plant the things you want, but put them where they will grow well - herbs and flowers in sun, ferns in shade - and think about the 350 days they aren't doing exactly what you select them for before you do.

To start, you might put a small cottage garden at the wall where it will be easy to maintain, a berry bush or two behind the mailbox with the hostas there, and some ferns under the trees. The grass will be dying out under the trees gradually due to root competition so you might reshape the beds with that in mind.


    Bookmark   March 1, 2010 at 11:12AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Sorry, missed your item about the row of evergreens at the back. That would probably provide a nice background/framing effect. Berrying is always good; I like putting things that attract birds where I can see them from the house.

I'm really not sure you'll get anything to grow under the trees to the right of the chairs. Depends how deep the tree roots are. And the bed behind the mailbox probably was the home of a tree until recently, one that left its hostas behind. That bed has potential, with a better shape, to be sort of a purposeful bed. Could screen you from the road and look nice.


    Bookmark   March 1, 2010 at 12:58PM
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Yes KarinL, I definitely want to change the style, just trying to figure out how to do it tastefully. The wisteria is a big ugly mass of vines for most of the year. I joke that the mulch shapes look like giant amoebas. I laughed out loud when I read about the hosta loosing it's tree. The mulch is mostly gone and the black weed blocker underneath is very old and tattered. It will have to be removed or replaced which makes it a perfect time for change. Moss is growing through the weed block in the back (small grove area).

The white azalea bush was a casualty when the maple fell on it. Sounds like I should put another evergreen in it's place for hardscaping. Would you put the small cottage garden below the wall, on top of it, or a little of both?

I'm not sure what would make the yard less amorphous. Would that require shapes like conical evergreens? Creating rectangular or square beds?

In the summer, the 10 fencepost trees screen the view of the highway at the bottom of the hill, but I see what you're saying about them looking out of place. I'm sure the neighbor would appreciate them being removed. Thank you for the ideas.

    Bookmark   March 1, 2010 at 3:21PM
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queerbychoice(USDA 9a/Sunset 8 (CA))

KarinL wrote: "That's why they've remained largely untapped for gardening use until it became politically expedient to do so; it has never been expedient for decorative purposes."

This statement glosses over the other reasons that native plants have remained largely untapped. Many California native plants, in particular, have been widely used for landscaping purposes in England for centuries, but have rarely been used in California. This originated due to the fact that back when most Americans' yards were newly converted from wilderness areas, having non-native plants was an easy way to signify that some effort had been put into planting things that hadn't originally been there. In more recent times, large corporations have promoted continued use of non-native plants because it's more profitable for them to grow a smaller variety of plant species and be able to sell them across a wide geographic range.

    Bookmark   March 1, 2010 at 7:28PM
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Product driven design is never as good as purpose driven design. Figure out how you use the property, how yu want to use it, and the experiences you want and don't want to have while doing your things. That will go a long way to removing "amorphous' from the description.

Then you can use all of the "products" (plants and amenities) that you may have on your list when and where they make sense. Enhance the good experiences and mitigate the bad and all will be well.

    Bookmark   March 1, 2010 at 9:21PM
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This originated due to the fact that back when most Americans' yards were newly converted from wilderness areas, having non-native plants was an easy way to signify that some effort had been put into planting things that hadn't originally been there.

Good explanation!

There are many beautiful native plants available in the nursery trade now - many of them having taken a tour of European gardens before making their way back over here as "worthy" plants.

Natives are an important part of the ecosystem around you and I always encourage people to consider using them - and using them just as you would any other garden shrub/tree/perennial. Native insects nibble on them, native birds eat those insects - they are the backbone of what supports native life in your area (and you likely have some natural areas around you).

Of course understanding the sun/shade environments that you have will be important to determining what plants will do best once you decide on the approach you want. Attracting and supporting birds means that you need the food and cover plants that they need - and food includes insects. Sun loving plants like Wax myrtle, viburnums and hollies (check into native viburnums and hollies, including deciduous hollies) will provide food and cover. In a small out of the way area, let a casual brush pile build up - that provides cover too. Native azaleas would be nice - choose a fragrant one like R. canescens.

The link below is for Georgia, but there is lots of overlap with NC, so you may find it helpful.

Here is a link that might be useful: Native plants in the Piedmont

    Bookmark   March 2, 2010 at 7:24AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada

I'm not familiar with the needs of gardening in your zone but that property looks like it has a lot of potential. There are three things I would focus on. The first is what you want closest to the house re patio space for dining and seating etc. and other recreational space needs re lawn etc. Second, I'd bring that wisteria under control and make it easier to manage. Third, I'd make a woodland garden in the tree zone. An understory layer would ease the abrupt transition between the short lawn and tall trees.

Only you can decide what it needed in the entertainment/living areas near the house.

I'd prune the wisteria to be a small tree rather than a messy tangle of branches. You will need to control (eliminate) root suckers and seedpods to prevent it spreading (I'm assuming it's likely a Chinese wisteria...?) If it's kept as a tree with lawn around it, mowing the grass will keep the root suckers under control. Later, as you become more experienced at gardening and perhaps want to develop flower gardens near it, you may be more confident about recognizing and removing suckers that appear in flowerbeds. But for now, keep it simple and use the lawn mower for control. When the leaves drop in the fall, remove all seed pods that you see to prevent it seeding around. Keep the tree pruned short enough so you can easily get to the seed pods. Discard the seed pods in the garbage, not into compost or just drop to the ground. There are lots of complicated 'rules' for pruning wisteria but my experience has been that they do just fine if you prune all season long as whippy new growth arises. A bonus is that the Chinese wisteria contiues to produce flowers all summer - not profusely but noticeably - from where it been pruned.

I'd lay out paths in the tree zone and then plant understory trees, shrubs, perennials and grouncovers. The paths give structure, add interest and make maintenance easier. You want plants with interesting flowers, foliage and mass because, if it's like my woodland garden, there will be mosquitoes in summer so you want to admire things from a distance in peak bug season! (Get a bug suit for gardening in bug season...!) Be generous with the width of the woodland garden - you want 20-30', not just a skimpy bit at the base of the trees.

Have fun - it looks like lots of potential to have a beautiful garden.

    Bookmark   March 2, 2010 at 9:24AM
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Everyone's responses have really gotten me thinking. I have a lot to learn before I start planting. I went to the library and checked out a bunch of books, several on shade gardening.

Woodyoak, I love the idea of a woodland garden!! The information you gave me on creating that is very helpful. We would love to have a picnic table or concrete table in that small grove of trees. (The chairs were the previous owners.) Along with a brick grill or fire ring so we could cook out and feel like we were at a campsite. The problem with that vision is no privacy. It would feel like we were on display because of the openness to the road. Could anyone suggest plants that would screen between the road and small grove without looking like we are unfriendly?

I especially appreciate the tips on pruning the wisteria. Such a weird plant with giant, furry seed pods. If you want to see something really scary, the link below shows the wisteria in the backyard.

Here is a link that might be useful: Backyard Wisteria

    Bookmark   March 2, 2010 at 5:44PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada

For privacy - I'd continue the woodland garden around to the road side - i.e. plant trees, shrubs, perennials that continue in an L from where you'd create the woodland area from the existing trees. You might want to buy as large shrubs and trees as you can afford so they'd fill in fast.

Get rid of those furry wisteria seed pods - they will explode in the first warm days of spring and fling their seeds around. Then you will have lots of seedlings to contend with too. Be ruthless in cutting back the wisteria to one or two trunks and keep it limbed up and new growth pruned back. Be particularly vigilant for root suckers and remove any that you see. Ideally you rip them off to remove the bud wood on the roots but, practically speaking, it may be easier to just control them by mowing if there is grass all around tree. We keep our Chinese wisteria 'tree' to about 8-9' tall which is a nice size that still alows easy access for pruning and seed removal. It'll take a bit of work to get yours into decent shape but then - if you don't neglect it - it would become easy routine. One thing that comes in handy is long arm pruners to make it easy to reach the top of the tree.

You can see our Chinese wisteria 'tree' at the far end of the bed in the picture. It's not quite 10 years old and we'll not let it get any bigger. The stake at the near end has a young Japanese wisteria that will also be kept to a tree form of about the same size as the Chinese one.

Here is a link that might be useful: long arm pruners

    Bookmark   March 2, 2010 at 8:34PM
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Thanks for all the helpful info and the great idea of the L-shape, woodyoak. That would definitely look better than the amoeba shaped bed in the middle by itself that is there now. I love the border in your picture. Is that partially buried rock?

    Bookmark   March 3, 2010 at 3:17PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada

It's paving brick as edging (backed with a metal edge to keep the grass from creeping between the bricks.)

    Bookmark   March 3, 2010 at 4:43PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Yes, edging would be a huge improvement even if you didn't change a single other thing. But you should make sure the shapes of the bed and the lawn suit you before you install any edging. Woody's looks maaahvellous. Maybe you can find her old thread about making this bed, as making the grass path was a central impetus.

Since privacy is a preference, a bed similar to this (but wider in your case) along behind the mailbox seems like an obvious idea, maybe with your berry bushes.

Frankly, what Woody describes as being needed to control the wisteria would have me taking that thing out with utmost haste. You'll have to decide if you have the attention span for such a sustained workload. The word "suckers" is enough to have me getting out my shovel.

Sorry to have set the rest of you off with what I admit was a spiteful reference to native plantings. While there is truth in what you both say, QBC and Esh, it should be noted that I live in the PNW, where a single salal plant colonizes most of the coastal areas from Port Hardy to Portland, forming understory to some of the world's largest trees and underplanted in their turn with the ubiquitous and uninspiring sword fern. OK, I'm kidding a bit. But I've been gardening throughout the time in which native plant nazis have emerged, and in an area in which much of the native flora that they have been nagging me to grow simply isn't all that garden worthy for one reason or another - too big, too aggressive, too finicky, too ugly. And this may be the case almost anywhere. Native plants are, after all, evolved to succeed against whatever odds exist in your area. When you create a garden, you usually mitigate those odds, and so the plant, once protected from those odds, may well overwhelm your other tender or modest specimens.

Specimens which, in my case by the way, are almost always natives of someone else's area. One vendor of rhododendrons referred to me as a "species snob," so I'm like a global native plant afficionado. But that means I like the rhodos that are less likely to have those big trusses of aggressively coloured flowers. In other words, less likely to be considered garden-worthy by other people. The plants are less likely to be spectacular, less likely to have the attributes that we need for landscaping, and more likely to be space hogs.

I mean, that's why more of us grow Chamaecyparis or juniper cultivars than the species, right? The Chinese wisteria really sort of exemplifies the issue.

That's why I said most people fall in love with the idea, but not necessarily with the plants. Cultivars didn't just arise to serve the industry, but became popular because they met a gardening need that local native plants in many areas did not meet.

Sorry for the detour.


    Bookmark   March 3, 2010 at 8:03PM
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Being new to landscapeing you do have one advantage over plant collectors and that is not having to own lots of them and trying to find a place for them all. This will allow you to concentrate more on the functions of the site and the forms (most likely evergreen and hardscape) needed to bring your vision to life. Starting from this vantage point allows you not to be tied to a particular plant or plant groupings.

    Bookmark   March 3, 2010 at 10:31PM
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queerbychoice(USDA 9a/Sunset 8 (CA))

There are certainly some native species that I wouldn't allow in my yard; poison oak would be the most obvious example. But from my perspective, having identified 45 species volunteering in my yard that I didn't plant, and finding that only 4 of them are native, it seems to me that the non-native invasives are the ones gardeners should worry far more about being unable to control. Native plants are not showing much evidence at all in my yard of being able to outcompete the non-natives.

The 4 native species that have volunteered in my yard without me planting them are:

1) two cottonwood tree seedlings, which I pulled because the yard isn't big enough for them;

2) yellow nutsedge, which had taken over half the yard before I realized it wasn't anything I'd planted, but which I dug up all of about a year ago and have had hardly any volunteers of since (I wish I could say anywhere near the same thing about the non-native Bermuda grass!);

3) common bedstraw, which I have a few of in some out-of-the way corners but which doesn't seem to spread into my regular gardening area, so I've only occasionally pulled one or two and just ignored the remaining one or two; and

4) tall annual willowherb, which I've never pulled any of because even though it's not terribly pretty, at least it's green and doesn't take over the yard like the non-native weeds do.

None of these are desirable plants in my yard, but every single one of them - even the yellow nutsedge, which is by far the worst-behaved among the four - is a million times easier to control than the worst of my non-native weeds: Bermuda grass, annual bluegrass, hare barley, Oxalis pes-caprae, bindweed, spotted spurge, prostrate spurge, common knotweed, low amaranth, common and mouse-ear chickweed . . . I could go on. And on. And on.

For all I know, maybe you get native weeds that are even harder to control than my non-native weeds. But without knowing what your weeds are, I'm inclined to suspect the reverse. I'd like to offer a trade: my weeds for your weeds, even though I don't know what yours are! Because in my experience, the adaptations of native species are really not anywhere near as formidable as the adaptations of the invasive aliens: plants that evolved to survive in even more harsh conditions elsewhere and that, when brought into my yard where they get more rainfall or fewer insect pests or whatever than they're used to, become absolutely unstoppable. I can match your single salal plant taking over the PNW with a single yellow starthistle, a single gigantic mat of Bermuda grass, a single humongous forest of Chinese tree-of-heaven, and so on, that have taken over half the continent or even more than that. I'd rather have the salal, which at least only takes over a few states instead of a majority of them.

    Bookmark   March 4, 2010 at 12:10AM
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I'm learning a lot from everyone's opinions on natives. Sounds like I need to get rid of all the wisteria because it's on the list of plants that can crowd out native plants and harm the local ecosystem. I've identified another invasive in my yard, the Tree-of-Heaven. From what I've gathered, I can have helianthemum without upsetting the balance, even thought it's not native.

I did manage to find woodyoak's post talking about the edging, and pictures of a fabulous woodland garden with mulch paths! What a beautiful yard.

Curious, how do you create a bed with no edging, like in the link below? Is it a lot of work to maintain? Seems like you would damage some of the plants at the edge of the bed when mowing.

Here is a link that might be useful: grass path

    Bookmark   March 4, 2010 at 4:15PM
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Native plants are, after all, evolved to succeed against whatever odds exist in your area. When you create a garden, you usually mitigate those odds, and so the plant, once protected from those odds, may well overwhelm your other tender or modest specimens.

Certainly there are aggressive plants in the right conditions. Plants which sucker or produce large amounts of seed are the candidates for that. By and large, I don't find that native plants in my area (the southeast) have these tendencies - that is, most of them are well behaved in a garden. I think you unfairly paint natives with a broad brush of distaste in saying this. Whenever someone is choosing plants for a garden, characteristics should be evaluated. Resources are available for people to do this, especially with the internet. If you look up common elderberry, for example, suckering is noted as a characteristic.

Chinese privet, japanese honeysuckle, mahonia, callery pear, elaeagnus ... those are the ones seeding into my yard, the ones that would happily overwhelm any thing I have should I let them. I have the native butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa, host of the Monarch butterfly) producing large amounts of seed - unfortunately none of those seeds has successfully germinated in my yard, even when I pluck them and put them directly on the ground (rather than let them drift on the wind).

in an area in which much of the native flora that they have been nagging me to grow simply isn't all that garden worthy for one reason or another - too big, too aggressive, too finicky, too ugly.

This of course is just one person's opinion. And "finicky"? I thought you said they might overwhelm in ideal conditions? Anyway, I think you're being a bit harsh and I wish you could see the good in using some natives.

hollan - maintaining a grass edge is easy or difficult depending on the type of grass. If you have a creeping grass like bermuda or zoysia, it is more work. For a clumping grass like fescue, it is not so hard at all. You just use a sharp shovel to tidy it up as needed. I have zoysia and I have to tidy up the edges due to runners once a year. Bermuda is more aggressive.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2010 at 11:03AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

On the subject of native plants, I want to try to fill in the blanks in my position, which I feel has been unnecessarily and unhelpfully miscast. Fortunately, you have been given some good advice on plant choices as well, in keeping with Laag's excellent and succinct advice to look for plants that meet your needs.

My original remark was intended to address the usefulness of native plants specifically in landscaping, not the merits of planting native plants in general, and definitely not the issue of what plants are the most aggressive weed species. While I appreciate the merits of planting natives in any given area, I stand by my original remark in general, and for landscaping in particular: that native plants are not always as exciting to grow as is the idea of growing them. I realize that the validity of my views will vary from region to region, but from what I've read and from what I know of the plant world, there is likely to be some degree of truth everywhere to the fact that native plants are not as likely to meet common landscaping objectives to the extent that their romanticizers suggest.

I hope that this revisitation of the subject will be useful to the OP as well as to lurkers, although I admit to being driven to deliver it by a need to vent some spleen at being treated like an ignoramus and a bigot by people playing the role of native plant zealots. That doesn't help the cause any more than does idealizing the plants.

The quality of the responses from Esh and QBC are very typical of the degree to which native plants are romanticized without regard for what people wanting to landscape typically are after: plants that perform a certain function for human purposes. In fact, I won't even have some of my native plant books in the house anymore (I have them in storage) because they exude a supercilious attitude just sitting on the shelf. An exception is Kruckeberg on plants of my region, although he is also in storage at the moment so I can't check my reference, but he writes with refreshing honesty that not all native plants are gardenworthy. It is to him that I owe my earlier observation about Salal, and I believe he also makes the point about its irritating corollary, which is that it is also hard to establish. So... yes, both finicky and aggressive, though I did mean to apply the terms separately, as I'm sure you understood, Esh.

Many plants of the Pacific Northwest are very finicky. They are so specialized to their micro-environments that growing them in gardens is often not possible. Alpines are an obvious example, but even excepting those... Garry oaks, for example, gorgeous trees which thrive on Vancouver Island, do not do well just across a narrow straight in Vancouver where I live, although I can and do grow some of the Garry oak meadow plants such as Camassia. The fascinating Arbutus menziesii, with its peeled red trunks, grows only clinging to rocks on the coast and is not a fan of what one might consider more favourable growing conditions in gardens. And don't get me started on Erythroniums, Dodecatheons, and Cornus canadensis. The number of times I've bought those plants...!

More or less when Esh posted his/her last remarks, I was outside giving a small whoop of triumph at seeing that my Trillium luteum/sessile (supposed to be one, looks more like the other) is up. Though not native to my area, this is another species plant (ie native to somewhere) I've tried more times than I care to have paid for, but my current success is not going to help my landscaping any. Why? Because this lovely little plant goes summer dormant, as do many woodlanders as a mechanism to cope with their very dry summer conditions. This is why they are called ephemerals. Sadly for the aspiring landscaper, though they may cover the ground with some of the prettiest foliage there is along with bewitching flowers, Dicentra cucullaria, Anemone nemorosa, Sanguinaria canadensis... all native in some part of North America - are thus of no use in landscaping at all. For me, they are anti-landscaping: to avoid losing them I keep them in pots, which stand around looking empty all summer (and attracting weeds). In other words, I actually compromise the overall look of my garden in summer to grow them (and interplanting with something that grows in summer works only rarely. Your hostas or whatever will outcompete the ephemeral, plus you'll inevitably lose track of where it is and dig it up with a weed or damage it while dividing the hosta).

As for aggressive... Species shrubs, in contrast to the ephemerals, are often not suited to urban gardens because they are all too present. Take for example, Holodiscus discolor. Here's a typical sales pitch description from a King County website: "Oceanspray is an under-utilized plant in northwest gardens. It does exceedingly well on dry slopes and at the edge of deciduous forests of alder and cascara. It can also stand alone as a feature plant in a garden (best as a big, fountain like cluster), or at the back of a border. More tolerant of sun than many other natives, it can even survive on the edges of freeways without any extra watering. It does grow slower in full shade, but still survives well. The large, white to cream, lilac-like flower plumes are dazzling in late spring to early summer gardens. The flowers then turn a tan to brown color and last on the plant through winter." Now, Holodiscus is a huge, rangy shrub that flowers white for a brief period, and then... thats it. Totally unspectacular foliage, annoying dead flower heads, and no form or structure to speak of, not even good fall colour. Now, if you have a large property that you want to fill in or where you need a privacy screen, Holodiscus is a great choice. But if you have a typical 33 foot lot in the city, this plant is big enough to be your entire landscaping (back of a border - are you kidding? This plant won't leave room for a border), and it will thrill you exactly one week of the year (and that only mildly) and you will hate it for the rest of the time. No wonder people prefer, say, Rhododendrons. Even a butterfly bush is an improvement; at least it flowers at a time when bloom is welcome. "underutilized?" I don't think so. Important for the ecosystem to grow it? Maybe. Does that make it a great landscaping shrub? No.

One reason I suggested that native plants might be a disappointment to this OP was that the look the OP wanted was suggested by the mention of the cottage garden and the burgundy helianthemum. The long flowering period, heavy flowering, and designer colour are simply not typical of native plants that grow easily. (Perhaps California plants are an exception, but most of us don't live there).

The OP also had an expressed wish for berrying plants, for the birds. Now, there are probably birds that are specialized to certain types of berries, but my birds are definitely not native plant snobs. They do not disdain my designer elderberry (Guincho purple) and our local hummingbirds are quite keen on my Baptisia australis, native to an area as far from me as you can get without leaving North America. Not that it's a berrying shrub, but I hope it helps to illustrate the point. My bees are also ecstatic to encounter the blooms of Cimicifuga/Actea dahurica, native to the other side of the Pacific; they are on this plant almost full time while it blooms and they stagger away absolutely loaded with pollen. Believe me, I am all for attracting and sustaining birds and bees, but a plant doesn't have to be native to do that, and non-natives may not be the best way to do that in any case. A flourishing non-native plant will offer more food to birds than will an anemic native struggling to grow (and not berrying much) in an environment it does not relish. Though the point made by a writer at this link (http://www.stanford.edu/~rawlings/birds.htm) is relevant (native plants attracting a greater variety of birds and sustaining them in different ways) note that one plant he recommends for birds is poison oak, one that even QBC won't grow. This is an example of the fact that growing native plants often requires compromises, aesthetic or otherwise, that many people are just not going to want to make.

As QBC (ironically) pointed out, most people landscape as a way to make their gardens different from the surrounding wilderness. That is perhaps why plants from elsewhere have always appealed to people. And then the specific needs of the tended landscape have driven the development of plants that meet year-round human needs better. Of course, nowadays the surrounding "wilderness" is more often suburbia, and people are driven to differentiate themselves from that, thus the option of a native plant garden appeals to a lot of people. More power to them if they pursue that on their own. But before advising that approach, I think one needs to respect the objectives of the people one is advising.

While there are excellent reasons to plant native plants in all areas, I don't think people should be encouraged to believe that native plants will meet their aesthetic needs as well as the more cultivated plants are likely to do. That will only lead to disillusionment with the whole concept. What works best for me is to be willing to try plants from everywhere and to settle on the ones that seem to enjoy my conditions, respect my boundaries, and meet the needs that I, the bees, and the birds all have.

PS I'll let some others jump in on both where to put the English cottage garden and on maintaining woodland paths; you'll get better advice from people with that experience.

Here is a link that might be useful: On growing Arbutus

    Bookmark   March 8, 2010 at 5:42PM
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linda_schreiber(z5/6 MI)

Yep, function first. How do you want to use specific areas of the property? You've made a good start on that with the woodland/shade area. Keep thinking in the same vein on other parts of the property.

Re the grass path in the picture, Esh is right that it depends on the kind of grass, and also on how much time and effort and money you want to spend maintaining the absolutely perfect sod shown in the picture. Most normal lawns include runnering grasses and weeds.

If you are looking at mowed grass paths, there are a couple of ways you can go, depending on how much 'garden edge' you are dealing with. (And in designing the garden areas, keep this in mind.... A longer edge that encloses a larger area is a *lot* easier to maintain against incursions of grass than a number of smaller areas. Plan small continents, not island chains.)

One method, you can sink edging. Doesn't have to be obvious or unsightly, but don't stint on depth. Edging that goes down only 3 or 4 inches might as well not be there at all. The runner grasses just giggle, hold their breaths, and dive underneath.

Another method, fairly heavy mulching of the garden areas with a once-or-twice-a-year shovel cut deep along the edge, and weed out any incursions.

You will still have to do weed-outs with the edging in place. And will still want to mulch the garden areas, even with the edging. It's just that there are always complex trade-offs between money and time. There will probably be more yearly weeding time without the edging. I skip the edging, but that's me, and in my environment.

And, no, the plants should not be damaged by the path-mowing. You always want to leave a 'mowing edge'. That is, the edging or the mulch should always be a little farther out than the planting area.... Maybe 6 inches. I've usually used bricks laid flat and sunken half-way about 4 inches away, as something for the mower wheels to actually ride along. But you will have a lot more space to deal with, and the brick edge will probably be to expensive and unwieldy.

    Bookmark   March 8, 2010 at 7:38PM
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mjsee(Zone 7b, NC)

I would tell you to eradicate the wisteria...but you probably won't be able to get rid of it entirely. It's a pest in our neck of the woods. Dig it up...cover it with glysophate...it will be back.

I work at a garden center in the Piedmont. We always suggest people try to live with what they have for a year before making big changes. There are LOTS of "english garden" type plants that will do well in 7A...you need to find a good, local, independant garden center and make friends with the staff. They will help you. You also need to figure out whether deer are an issue. It can make an ENORMOUS difference in what you plant.

    Bookmark   March 8, 2010 at 8:42PM
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karin - I didn't mean to come across as a native plant zealot (which has a negative connotation) any more than you meant to come across as advocating that people should not use native plants at all. Of course not all plants are garden worthy and one should not expect to pluck any plant out of it's specialized habitat and use it in the garden. Trilliums are a perfect example of lovely plants that can only be appreciated in certain places and only for a certain amount of time. Your example of having Trillium luteum as a plant in your garden - far from it's home in the southeastern US - illustrates how you cannot just have any plant thrive wherever you want it. Some plants are more adaptable than others! The non-native garden plants that fill nurseries are those which explorers discovered, brought back and cultivated. These are the ones that survived. For each one that survived and can be purchased today, many more didn't make it.

I don't think people should be encouraged to believe that native plants will meet their aesthetic needs as well as the more cultivated plants are likely to do. That will only lead to disillusionment with the whole concept.

I can only speak for the natives in the southeastern US, but there are plenty of garden worthy native shrubs (just to pick one category): Fothergilla, Itea, Rhododendron, Kalmia, Physocarpus, Clethra, Viburnum, Illicium, Vaccinium, Ilex, Callicarpa, Aronia/Photinia, Calycanthus, Hydrangea, Hypericum, Sambucus - to name a few that I can find in better nurseries. Most of these have been cultivated and improved cultivars are now available. You can buy them in 1, 3, 5 gallon containers - all ready to plant.

Just as you seem to want people to believe that natives cannot satisfy a need for beauty and good behavior, I want people to know that the choices are there and they can be just as beautiful.

growing native plants often requires compromises, aesthetic or otherwise, that many people are just not going to want to make

Thanks to cultivation programs, I think that this opinion is becoming less true. Unfortunately, many folks aren't even tuned into thinking about native plants as a characteristic to consider. If they have a design done, most of the plants chosen won't be native; if they go to the store to buy plants on their own, most of the plants they will encounter will be non-native and 99% of the time any plant tag on them won't even mention where the plant is indigenous. The average consumer won't even know unless he/she does research outside of the store. And these days the two drivers of plant purchases seem to be: flowers and privacy. It either has to have non-stop flowers or be evergreen. And that's as far as some people get.

Anyway, sorry to hijack your thread, hollan, but just as karin wants to make sure her point is clear, I also like to make sure that the native "cause" (as it has to be called) is accurately represented. Properly selected natives can be just as beautiful as their non-native counterparts.

    Bookmark   March 8, 2010 at 9:34PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada

mjsee - given that it's difficult and frustrating to try to eradicate the wisteria, I think controlling it is the easier option. It appears to be in an easily accessible area which will make it simplier, especially if the root suckers can be controlled by mowing. If the OP takes the same approach to pruning as we do (i.e. pinch/cut off all whippy new grow as it arises), it takes very little time to do. Our wisterias are where we walk past them several times a day so we just pinch out the growth as we pass by. If we missed for some reason and the growth has stated to become woody, or if the growth is on the top of the tree, it might take a minute or so to go to the garage and get the secateurs or long-arm pruners to snip it off. It's certainly not an onerous task but you do need to be diligent about it. While the bloom period is not long (about 10 days here), it is so over-the-top spectacular when it blooms that it is worth the small amount of effort required to keep it controlled. And control is the easier option by far!

This is one of my favorite pictures from the garden - a young friend dropped by, perfectly color-coordinated with the wisteria which was in peak bloom. Beauty has a price and a little pruning effort is a small price to pay!

    Bookmark   March 9, 2010 at 1:49PM
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I had no idea the mention of natives would turn this into a hot post.

That definitely is a beautiful wisteria!! I can tell you really know how to care for it. The one in our back yard looks more like a huge blob of vines, held up by five or six 4x4 posts. It looks like a science fiction creature in the winter, but I recently saw a whole flock of birds hiding inside it during a heavy snow. I didn't even know what the plant was in the fall, so I didn't remove the seed pods. Now they are broken apart all over the yard so no telling where it will try to pop up now.

For the landscape design, everyone's ideas have brought me a lot further along, but I am still stumped about the layout near the road. As far as the side yard's purpose, right now it is just a basement workshop entrance. It needs to function like a back yard since it is the largest part of the lot, but it has lack of privacy like a front yard. Soon we will have a table, chairs, and lighting for eating outside in the area that will be the small woodland garden, with grass paths that lead to the front and back yards. In the next few years, we would like to build a deck off the side of the house, over the basement door, with stairs down, toward the outdoor table area. I plan to remove the mulch shapes and the hostas. The purpose of the part of the side yard near the road (the rectangle from the mailboxes to the edge of the rock wall and over to the fence post row of trees) would only be for privacy and curb appeal. In that area, could someone suggest a design that would have all of this:

- privacy from the road
- an attractive and friendly layout (as opposed to a line of thick, solid hedges)
- using very little or no mulch (I assume that would be planting only shrubs or trees with low branches.)
- a balancing effect where now it is just tall trees or tiny hostas

Plant ideas don't have to be native. I would prefer lower maintenance than privet and wisteria because I don't spend time in the yard every day. Evergreen or deciduous doesn't matter because we wouldn't be out there in the winter.

    Bookmark   March 9, 2010 at 2:56PM
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mjsee(Zone 7b, NC)


Your wisteria is lovely. I tend to overreact to wisteria. Our former home had wisteria growing wild in the empty lot behind us. Took a LOT of my time keeping it out of my yard. We bought our current home13 years ago. Its garden was let go by the previous owner...and 13 years into it I'm JUST bringing some of the more egregious plants in line. No wisteria, thank goodness...but plenty of microstegium and honeysuckle. Not to mention the English ivy. I hate English Ivy in a landscape situation. Pots are a whole 'nother thing.

Lots of vinca minor as well...but it isn't too bad to keep under control. It's evergreen and the deer leave it alone...so I've made my peace with it.

    Bookmark   March 9, 2010 at 3:47PM
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linda_schreiber(z5/6 MI)

Consider some kind of fencing? Doesn't need to be ugly straight-line solid fencing.... Lots of variability that you can put together yourself. A 'divider' but not a wall.... Do a little browsing.

Something in a casual, sort of open, wood fence, with variable heights and either curves or angles to tie the rock wall to the end of the treeline, might give you some structure along this too-open area.

You could then plant different kinds of shrubs or perennials to either side, and create something friendly and attractive from both the streetside and the yardside, but still have the sense of privacy. A separate 'room'.

The inside of this fencing as it ties into the rock wall might be a great place to do your cottage garden. These usually are easier to manage with some sort of solid background.... The base of the rock wall, and spread it around along the inside of the fencing. This could be very good.

Just a thought....

    Bookmark   March 9, 2010 at 7:43PM
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