A colleague recently enlisted my advice about replanting the front and side yards of his Capitol Hill townhouse. Thankfully, there was little existing vegetation (or he had cleared it already) and it was spared the tired, overgrown fate of many small urban yards.
We are entering prime season for renovating landscapes, and his project got me thinking about what folks need to know about successful makeovers and why so many small gardens go wrong. Before speaking to the right way, let’s imagine the ravages of time on a city garden the size of my colleague’s. His corner lot features an entrance garden of about 20 by 20 feet, bisected by a brick path. The connected side yard is about six feet wide and 25 feet long.
This blank slate seemed primed for a wholesale replanting that would grow into a fresh, beautiful and deeply satisfying landscape. Such a garden would stand out too against all those urban lots whose plantings had grown to blur the original spatial relationships and design intent.
Typically, hedges planted when the “Jurassic Park” film franchise cranked up in 1993 have become themselves menacing dinosaurs. They were originally intended to define the property or to provide screening but are now too broad at the top and too thin at the bottom. Similarly, both deciduous and evergreen shrubs expand into paths and shade out other plants around and beneath them. Time flies, time fudges.
Large trees provide their own conundrum. You don’t want to take down a mature shade tree — and in some jurisdictions are constrained from doing so — but at the same time you shouldn’t live under a constant gloom of shade and tree litter. (The worst offender might be a Southern magnolia.) Often, you can remove the lowest limbs and thin out the canopy to reclaim space and light. This can go badly wrong in several ways, though, and is a job for a competent and qualified certified arborist.
All gardens sag with time, all gardens need constant tweaking and adjustment, but ones that are put together with careful consideration of plant choices will age slowly and even gloriously. After removing old vegetation from the site (and improving the soil) consider my general principles for planting in small gardens:
Don’t plant for instant effect. Perennials and grasses take two to three years to reach established size, ground covers can take as long or longer to fill in, and trees and shrubs should take at least five years to have any real presence. Anything rushed or planted too thickly will come back to bite you. Central to the last point is this: Don’t plant fast-growing trees and shrubs. A variety with an annual growth rate of more than 12 inches (high or wide) would raise a flag to me.
Reduce the number of prospective ornamental trees and shrubs, and regard each one you do plant as a piece of sculpture, to be positioned and spaced with utmost consideration.