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Over-planting a garden design costs you money

Recently, we were called by a client in Oakville with zero gardening experience. She and her family had moved to Oakville and bought a single detached home in the Glen Abbey neighbourhood. Previously, they owned a condo in downtown Toronto.

They were excited about better schools for their children as well as more living space, both inside and outside their home. The previous home owners had been not only avid gardeners, but had also spent considerable money on professional landscaping, on the front yard, backyard, and side yards on both sides of the house—including a cold frame to start young plants and seeds in the spring.

Undaunted, the new homeowner called us for some garden coaching: How best could she maintain the garden? How to take care of the plants? How to prepare the garden for winter?

The garden design for the foundation planting in the front yard consisted of a smoke tree, three globe cedars, a mass planting of giant variegated Solomon’s seal, and a collection of large-leaved hostas.

We pointed out to the homeowner that the smoke tree was planted too close to the house and not only would the roots be a potential problem for the foundation of the house, but the smoke tree has a spreading habit; it tends to be as wide as it is high. It is a vigorous grower and tolerates poor soil. Its position right by the front porch would mean that it would constantly need to be cut back to avoid looking over-grown. There was also a young pear tree on the front lawn.

The garden design in the backyard had done a very good job of making the best use of the space available. There was even a level change, which made things even more interesting. All the lawn had been ripped out (no grass cutting!) and in its place were two seating areas, one for a large picnic table and chairs and another more intimate area for two chairs and a small table. There was also an arbour between the two seating areas that had clematis on it. The arbour felt like it was the “fifth wheel,” as there was already a lot going on in the garden.

The two seating areas were surrounded by garden beds with a variety of mixed planting including: wiegela, iris, roses, heuchera, Japanese blood grass, and echinacea.

The biggest problem, we told the homeowner, was that the backyard was over-planted.

In a very small backyard (about 36 feet wide by 25 feet deep), there was: a blue spruce, a catalpa, a rose of Sharon, a Japanese maple, a clump of white birch, and three columnar crab apples that were already infringing on the neighbour’s yard, as well as several other mid-size shrubs that had been strangely pruned, perhaps to keep them purposefully small. The Japanese maple was used as a foundation plant—a mistake—and has been pruned to just two large branches, so it looked odd and threadbare.

We advised the homeowner that the number of trees in the back yard was 50% more than the property could reasonably support. The three columnar crab apples were already a problem, both the crowns and the root systems. We advised the homeowner to take out two out of the three trees next spring.

Over-planting a garden design is a problem because it costs you money upfront to buy all that plant material and then it costs you more money in future, when trees become over-crowded and you need to chop some down. Too many trees planted too close to each other tend to crowd each other out; they compete for water, nutrients in the soil, and air. Plus, when a tree is planted too close to the foundation, it can seriously damage it, causing cracks and ultimately leaks into your basement—a very expensive fix! Removing a tree costs between $300 and $3,000, depending on the size of the tree and the amount of labour involved.

It is hard to say whether too many plants were suggested by the landscaping company, or whether the homeowner wanted “an instant garden.” Even many experienced gardeners want a full, lush garden with everything thriving immediately. A newly planted garden takes three or more years to look full and lush.

All plants need room to grow; it’s what plants do. The smart strategy is to base a garden design on trees and shrubs when they mature, and fill in the holes until they mature with perennials and annuals. Most perennials can be moved in either the spring or fall. Planting a garden design this way saves you a lot of time and money.

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