Landscaping By Intuition

In the photo above, there's a deep purple clematis, surrounded by dwarf lavender as ground cover. To the right are irises. Behind them are boxwoods and a Rose of Sharon tree. In the foreground is yet another pesky blackberry vine that found its way into the picture.

Last year I had to tear out my red tip photinias because of a fungal blight. They were 20 year old shrubs that were in their prime, but there was no way to control the blight. It was a fight I was going to lose. Taking out those mature shrubs left my entire front yard wide open and bare.

For the first time in my life I had the chance to design a landscape from scratch. A smart person might've used a landscape architect, but I'm cash-poor so it has to be done on a shoestring budget. My desires don't always match my pocketbook so the best laid plans sometimes have to be put aside for improvisation. The trick is when to do each. Landscaping by intuition.

The Plan
  • Decide what I want and where.
  • Research plants and shrubs for size, growth rate, color, and hardiness. (This took the longest for me.)
  • Choose what is realistic for my budget and zone.
  • Keep costs low.
  • Do all the work myself--with a little help from a friend. :)

Starting A Landscape From Scratch: Our first task was to level the yard. Time and neglect had eroded the front yard so we added a truckload of dirt. Next, I trimmed the remaining trees and Greg took out two scraggly trees that brought nothing to the table. Now all I had was a blank canvas. A 60 by 50 foot canvas, not to mention a large border garden surrounding the house and two good sized island gardens framing the walkway.

My number one absolute? No Grass. I won't harbor a front yard that makes me do all the work. I believe lawn grass was created to enslave mankind to a mower. No thank you.

Foundation Shrubs: I knew I had to replace the photinias with comparable (deer resistant) shrubs to line the driveway. I chose Cleyeras. They'll never be the size of the original photinias in my lifetime but that's okay. All I want are foundation shrubs to emphasize the curve of the driveway.

Traffic Patterns: My next focus was foot traffic. Although I like the idea of an old fashioned and overstuffed English garden, I needed walking trails to get from here to there so I could trim, deadhead, or replace plants as needed. That, and I don't need a garden so dense that it will hide snakes. I've startled more snakes than I care to remember.

I started with a hardscape path. There was a dilapidated flagstone path emanating from the main walkway that was slowly being swallowed by the front lawn. We pulled the stones out, re-leveled the dirt, then put back the flagstone, this time with concrete to make it permanent and stable.

There wasn't enough stone to continue the hard pathways more than 10 feet, but that's okay since I hadn't yet decided where the plants were going. I did have an idea on where I thought the trails should lead though, so Greg brought in many tractor loads of wood chips and I created soft trails. If necessary, I could move them later without too much effort, but at least now I had a footprint.

Foundation Plants: This is where I ran into trouble. From many years of experience, I know that plants, even when the label says it should work in your area can sometimes be hit or miss. It's because we all have micro-climates even within the same gardening space.

For example I have one lantana that comes back beautifully and more robust every year. Yet the one I planted last year didn't survive the winter. They were 30 feet apart. Same water, same temps. The 4 year old lantana survived a pretty severe winter its first year, but the one-year old plant didn't make it through an average winter last year. The only difference between them is that the older lantana was protected on either side by bigger shrubs. Micro-climate.

So what's in my foundation planting? I started with roses, gardenias, weigela, rosemary, blackberry shrubs, one giant fig tree, and one baby hydrangea. It barely made a dent, but that's where I started. My job now was to pick plants (preferably perennials) that could work around what I already had.

Color and Toughness: I started with plants I knew were reliable. Lantanas, salvias, gauras, irises, and clematis. Although purple and blue flowers are my favorites, it can get kind of dull. I started surrounding the purples with yellow or red flowers.

Dianthas has been a tough little flower that came back with no trouble so I'm happy with it. The blood red ones are especially pretty so I might go for more of them to tuck into empty spots.

Catnip is hardy year round. It has beautiful purple flowers reminiscent of lavender.

Gerbera Daisies (sometimes known as African daisies) are also standup guys who can take full sun and little care. They have gorgeous color and are really tough plants. I love this flower! I plan to add a lot more for pops of color.

Lavenders: I tried a test plant in a raised bed, so I've decided to expand my efforts with different varieties. Plus, they're supposed to ward off scorpions so double bonus for me. :)

Bulbs: This is where I took a leap of faith. I'm always worried I'm going to forget where I planted bulbs and inadvertently pull out the shoots when I start weeding.

Right now, I'm trying to draw a map of where I put all my bulbs.

I've planted: Peonies, Gladiolas, Hostas, Dahlias, Aquilegia, Ranunculus, and Tigridia.

The hostas have been the hardest to keep alive. Damn deer!! I've since tried planting thyme and oregano near the hostas in the hopes it will dissuade Bambi and his mother from visiting.

Edibles: I think people don't plant enough edibles as ornamentals. They can be beautiful in the front yard among your shrubs and flowers.

I started with one giant blackberry bush that was overtaking the walkway leading to the house. Last year I dug it up and realized I could start seven bushes from one plant.

I didn't have anything to lose since it couldn't stay in its present location, so I pulled it apart and planted them in a line as a living hedge separating the front yard from the side yard. Every single one of them is growing beautifully and full of flowers.

On top of that, I still have more blackberry shoots coming up where I had dug up the original. Blackberries are tenacious and invasive as you can tell from the headline photo. I'm very tempted to plant those shoots in various spots on the property and let them take over. They're not thorny so that's a blessing. Plus, if it keeps the deer busy in the back, maybe they'll leave my front yard alone.

Other than blackberries, I also planted strawberries which seem to be doing quite well without any intervention from me.

My grapes--now that they have an arbor to climb, are also doing well. We'll see if they survive the deer though.

Herbs/Ground Cover: I've been on the prowl for good ground covers. I'm trying several, but I'm hoping my creeping thyme will work best since it should repel deer. (Are you sensing a trend with me?)

As I find them, I've also planted other ground covers. There's one called Red Stonecrop which looks nice. I've also planted Creeping Jenny. There are also a few trailing succulents that fill in the odd crag here or there.

I'm hoping I didn't make a mistake with one ground cover Yellow Moss Stonecrop, which doesn't look like the Red Stonecrop I mentioned above. It seems exceptionally invasive. I only put in one small plant and it's already cornered the walkway. I'm not sure, but I think it's also a stinging plant. My hands itched for hours after I weeded a spot where it grew.

The failures: Some plants simply didn't work for me. To date I have yet to keep echinacea alive which seems incredible because it's known as such a tough plant. I'm going to try again because I do like them.

Bluebells are another perennial that only lasted the season. I was so disappointed because they were gorgeous. I haven't seen them at the nurseries yet, but if they show up, I might try again in a more managed area with more irrigation.

Finally, my Yellow Carolina Jessamine just up and died. It was gorgeous all last year, but this past winter it gave up the ghost. It was one of my specimen plants so it had a little more care than most.

After all I've listed it might seem that my front yard landscape should be full, but I still have some big bare areas. On top of that all my foundation plants are still small so it will take them time to fill in the spaces around them.

It's a work in progress. I'm on year one of a three-year project. That should keep me off the streets for a while. :)

My landscape is part plan, part intuition, and part pocketbook. Except for the cleyera, I've bought every other plant on sale or clearance.

Do you landscape your yard? What's your favorite plant?


Strawberries, blackberries and grapes - yum!

I really need to find some stuff for our front yard, even just for the few pots we have out there. I keep putting it off because I'm pretty sure whatever I buy will die anyway. :(

Did you ever find that focal point - like a fountain or stature or something - you mentioned awhile back?
Maria Zannini said…
Madeline: Ask yourself what kills the plants. If you're anything like me, it's probably something like not watering enough or keeping them in too small a pot. I've had to force myself to visit all the areas where I have pots so I can spot problems before they occur. I still sometimes forget to water, especially in the winter. :(

re: focal point
Not yet, and it's probably too late now because I'm closing in on the spot where I wanted the focal point to be. I'll either put up a nice tree or a trellis, something with height.
jacabur1 said…
We do not landscape and my favorite plant will always be honeysuckle vines closely followed by trumpet vines because they attract bees and hummingbirds. Plus having grown up with the sweet smell of honeysuckle blooms they remind me of childhood summers Maria.
Maria Zannini said…
Jackie: I should put honeysuckle on my radar. It's very similar looking to the Carolina jessamine. i would like to have more perfumed plants here and there.
It sounds like you're headed on the right path to build out a nice work of plant art with your landscaping.

Interesting that the echinacea didn't pan out. When I researched what plants would be hardy for this zone, that plant cam highly recommended.

I haven't jumped into planting as I am still pondering if I will still stay at my current location or follow my wanderlust to a new place.
Maria Zannini said…
Angela: Greg keeps my wanderlust at bay. :(

Pots travel well though. If I had to move today, I'd be potting up every little specimen I could get my hands on. LOL!
Lisa Lombardo said…
Great job, Maria! I tend to buy things I like when I see them on sale and just figure out where to put them. It's not the best 'plan' but it usually works. Best wishes with the landscaping this year!
Maria Zannini said…
Lisa: I admit I do much the same, but this time I have to think ahead. If something is on sale or on clearance, I have to make sure they have at least three of the same variety.

I could've kicked myself for the other day though. I was feeling a bit cheap and didn't grab some pretty Japanese boxwoods that were on clearance. Today, feeling more clearheaded, I went back to get them, but too late. You snooze, you lose. And I did. :(
Michael Keyton said…
My landscaping is basic and dominated by hedges and damson trees with a small patch of 'green' (can't really call it 'grass) in the middle. A small vegetable garden hosting gooseberry and rhubarb sprinkled with poppies below the conservatory, and four bush roses to the left of the decking. I regard it as a semi tamed wilderness - good for insects and birds and small scurrying things. And me.
Michael Keyton said…
And before I forget, a recommendation, Vinca Major (the great periwinkle) makes fabulous ground cover.
Maria Zannini said…
Mike: For the longest time I thought vinca was an annual because that's how I've seen them at the big box stores, but your comment made me check again. There are both perennial and annual vincas. So now I'm on a search for the perennial. Thanks!
[…] left me with a relative blank slate. I mentioned in a recent post that I’m on year one of a three-year plan where I’m slowly adding plants and shrubs as […]