When Is It Time To Say Goodbye To Your Landscape?

Seems like everyone strives for a colorful, well-managed landscape with curb appeal, but poor planning and a few years of neglect can result in scraggly plants and overgrown shrubs that obscure the house rather than enhance it.

Is it time to say goodbye to your tired, worn-out landscape, or are there some elements that can be saved or re-used? What makes an attractive landscape? To find those answers I took an unofficial poll and spoke to some homeowner/neighbors, a landscaper and a Realtor. The homeowners said beautiful landscapes are nice to look at and easy to work in. The Realtor said it’s all about curb appeal, meaning it has to be pretty, it has to look low-maintenance and the wife has to like it. The horticulture expert said healthy plants make a beautiful landscape. Based on their comments, let’s look at two landscapes. We will call them “Beauty” and “The Beast.”

In the world of horticulture, beauty is well defined, with little room for error. At its core, a beautiful landscape has beautiful plants, which fundamentally are healthy plants. Healthy above ground means healthy below ground. Conversely, unhealthy plants are not attractive; they have poor leaf color, are not structurally strong and have inadequate roots. A plant that doesn’t look right may have  something wrong at root level. 

In the world of landscape design, the goal is to group healthy plants in an environment where they will happily mature. Each plant will have enough sun, but not too much sun. Enough water, but not too much water. It will be trimmed appropriately and cared for if it needs extra attention. It will have plant friends, for we know that when plants are grouped with other plants that like the same conditions, their immune system is boosted and they live longer than plants planted singly in isolation. In the beautiful landscape, the plants bloom, have a lovely scent and are a pleasure to be around.

The goal of landscape design is to group healthy plants in an environment where they will happily mature.

The beautiful landscape is also welcoming. The path to the front door is clearly defined; it is aesthetically  pleasing, without potholes or dangerous conditions. If there are steps, a railing is provided. The beautiful landscape is appropriate for the size, shape, age and style of the home. A beautiful landscape embodies the motto “Right Plant/Right Place.”

The beautiful landscape accentuates the positive and eliminates the negative.

Conversely, in the tired, worn-out, beastly landscape, plants are not healthy and look stunted and unnatural, often with poor leaf color, weak leaf structure and little foliage. This is often caused by poor maintenance that leads to disease. Once disease takes hold of a plant, the whole group is affected.

About 90 percent of landscape failure is because of poor watering practices. Too much water or too little water delivered in the wrong way will kill a plant. Overfertilization with chemical fertilizers is also a hazard. Also, changing conditions can have an impact. For instance, when a large tree is taken down, the shrub bed below may struggle in full sun. When summer temperatures stay warm, even at night, trees often suffer because they do not have a period to cool down and rest. And when winter temps spike up and down, the freeze-thaw cycle is interrupted, trees start to wake up too soon and then get zapped at the next downward spike.

And sometimes a landscape needs updating because the plants have been there so long that they are overgrowing their allotted space. It could be time to take a hard look at your landscape with enhancement of your home and the environment as the goal. What is a realistic expectation for the life of shrubs and trees? More important, how long do they look fresh and inviting?

Larger, fast-growing shrubs can provide needed shade quickly while a new tree grows.

Well-placed trees are the jewels of the landscape.  A towering oak is a treasure, and the understory trees thriving below it often add character and charm with spring bloom and beautiful habitat. Oak trees can live for 200 years, while landscape shrubs have a shorter lifespan. A healthy American dogwood (Cornus florida) can live to 80 years, and a healthy redbud (Cercis canadensis) can live 50 to 70 years. But lifespan and useful lifespan are two different things.

Jerry Goodspeed, a horticulturist from Utah State University, says the typical lifespan of a landscape is seven to 10 years. In the first five years the landscape plants fill in their assigned area. But after 10 years, plants can outgrow their space, and crowding can become a problem. Evaluate each plant individually. Some may need replacing while others might be saved. He also suggests consulting a professional to help identify which trees and shrubs should be removed and help develop a plan for enhancement.

Planting a tree too close to the house guarantees you’ll be cutting a huge tree down a few years later before it falls on your roof.

Cast a critical eye. If you find your shrubs are more dead than alive, the flowering trees you planted years ago have not grown as gracefully as you hoped and overgrown bushes obscure your windows, it might be time to say goodbye, or perhaps there’s another choice. Here are a few questions to ask:

Are my plants healthy? Poor plant health is characterized by irregularly shaped, discolored or wilting leaves, insects clinging to stems or leaves, general wilt and root disease. Crowded beds often can lead to poor pruning, and plants that have been overly trimmed, leaving bad cuts, may have bacterial, fungal and viral diseases. Many diseases can be treated successfully—for instance, lacebug on azaleas, or woolly adelgids on hemlocks, both common pests in our area, simply needed to be treated. I urge you to try.

Is my landscape overgrown? With one or two exceptions, it is impossible to trim a tree to keep it small and have it remain healthy and beautiful. Or to keep a large shrub whose natural size is 12’ X 12’ small enough to thrive under your picture window.
A beautiful tree planted too close to the house will have to come down if it grows too large. Heartbreaking. Healthy overgrown shrubs, on the other hand, can be moved to a more appropriate location—perhaps a shrub border on the property line—where they can grow to their true size and develop beautiful branch structure, blooms and healthy foliage. And good news: There are dwarf varieties for practically everything. Query the nursery, look on the internet and search for the right plant.

My beautiful tree died—what now? The loss of a major player in a landscape can be devastating to the entire design. Especially if plants that once thrived under that tree are shade dwellers. Problem is, we can’t replace a mature tree with another mature tree. Consider planting a new tree but also putting in larger fast-growing shrubs to provide needed shade quickly while the new tree grows.

It’s only half dead. Can I save it? If it’s half dead and a major player, take it out. Your entire landscape will be judged on that one tree or large shrub.

My lifestyle is changing. Should my landscape change, too? Perhaps an addition to your home has changed the character of the facade. A new pool or hot tub necessitates a fence and perhaps some privacy. Maybe you have a new puppy and want him to have more room to run. Or you’re a new parent or grandparent who needs room for a play set. Having a special place outside to relax with friends and family is important. Any of these lifestyle changes is  a good reason to change your landscape, adding or removing plants to achieve your goal.

Beauty wins hands down over the beast. For many of us, our homes are our biggest single asset. Beautiful trees and landscapes enhance property value (and also provide us with outdoor space that enhances our mental and physical well-being.) Bartlett Tree Experts say a beautiful deciduous shade tree can enhance property value by as much as 30 percent and reduce our AC bill by as much as 50 percent. Those are serious numbers.

Lovely to look at, easy to maintain. If you decide to start over, plan carefully.

Landscapes are too expensive to ignore. So keep your trees healthy—it’s a good idea to have them trimmed correctly by an arborist. And if you haven’t already done so, plan a landscape with trees, shrubs and plants that not only will enhance your quality of life but will prove to be an investment that improves your pocketbook!! 

Claire Schuchman is a local landscape designer and Phipps Master Gardener. Find her at Claire.CS@ExceptionalGardens.net