Landscape rehab - before your garden drives you to drink

Ken Muellers is a NYS certified Nursery/Landscape Professional
and can be contacted at 

As we emerge from winter and start to observe our world around us again, some of us may look around and notice that our landscape is a bit past its prime. Maybe the shrubs in front of the house are as big as the house, or you have to turn sideways to get to the door because the bushes have grown in the way. Maybe the plants have been pruned so much that they are starting to take odd shapes that look like something from a Dr. Seuss book. You may see gaps in the beds where plants have died or been removed because they got too big over the years. These are all telltale signs that your landscape is due for a renovation.

At this point you have several options ahead of you. You can leave it be (you didn’t really want to be able to see the house anyway). You can work with the existing plants by pruning or transplanting what is there to make the most of what you have. Some plants such as yews, ilex and euonymus can take severe pruning back to bare wood and recover over time. This “rejuvenative” pruning, when done properly, can reduce overgrown plants to a more manageable size. The downside to this approach is, it may take a few years for the plant to recover and look good again.

The other option for an overgrown plant is transplanting it to another location where it will have more room to grow. Unfortunately, the effort/expense to properly transplant a tree or shrub often outweighs the value of the plant. Also transplanting can remove as much as 90 percent of the fibrous roots putting severe stress on the plant. Sometimes a plant may have sentimental value that will make this cost and risk worth the extra effort.

If pruning or transplanting is not the solution, removal might be the answer. The challenge with that scenario is where do you stop? Often an overly mature landscape has plants that have grown together making it hard to remove only some of the plants without exposing bare sides of the adjacent plants.

Once you have removed any undesirable plants, you most likely will want to add new planting to fill the void. But before you begin randomly filling holes with new plants, make sure to avoid the problems that got you there in the first place. You should look at the landscape holistically and not just one plant at a time. Start from below the ground and make necessary soil improvements such as adding compost before planting. You may want to consider creating a progression of bloom throughout the seasons, so when one plant is finished blooming another starts to flower. Make sure to incorporate evergreen plants that will form a backbone of the garden year-round. Consider how the different colors and textures of the various plants will play off each other. 

I recommend planting battle tested plants that you know have a proven track record in the area. Pay special attention to matching the cultural requirements of the plant (light, soil type, moisture and ultimate size) to the site you are planting. This “right plant-right place” principle will help you avoid pest and disease problems and minimize the maintenance your landscape requires to look good for years to come. With good planning, you will greatly extend the lifespan of your landscape. 

If you are overwhelmed by all this, it may make sense to call in a professional landscape designer who will bring their plant knowledge and prior experiences, along with a fresh set of eyes to help solve your landscape woes.