Turning problem yards into fields of dreams


March 16, 1997|By Mike Klingaman

Every yard has its quirks, those little peaks and valleys in the landscape that define the terrain and give the place its charm. A gentle slope here, a soft depression there, an interesting rock -- all can provide the lot with a personality all its own.

Homeowners appreciate such features. Unless the front yard plummets like a slalom run. Or the back yard puddles up like the Chesapeake Bay. Or that "rock" is the size of Gibraltar.

Landscaping nightmares? Not necessarily. Many obstacles in the yard can be overcome, and some can be even be turned to advantage. Following are 10 top landscaping problems, according to several area experts -- and how homeowners can solve them:

Problem: Rocky soil

Solution: Remove the rocks -- an arduous task, at best. Or use the terrain to your advantage.

"Naturally occurring rocks can be left as striking landscape features, and appropriate [shallow-rooted] plantings designed around them," says Sally Robinson, manager of River Hill Garden Center in Clarksville.

Rock-garden favorites include dwarf conifers, junipers, cotoneasters, crocuses, species tulips and most herbs.

Problem: Dense shade

Solution: Trim or remove overhead trees. Or grow plants that appreciate a woodsy canopy.

Shade-loving shrubs and perennials include mountain laurel, rhododendrons, native columbines and day lilies. Old standbys such as hostas, ferns and pachysandra also thrive in a minimum of sunlight.

Keep shade gardens well watered, landscape experts say. No matter what else is planted there, trees will take the biggest drink.

Problem: Windy lot

Solution: Plant windscreens, especially evergreens, to the west of exposed lots.

"Yowling winds just tear through new subdivisions in our area, limiting the plant palette until a windbreak is established," says Alan Summers, president of Carroll Gardens in Westminster.

White pine, Norway and Serbian spruce, and Leyland cypress -- a particularly fast grower -- are good for screening homes and gardens from ravaging winds.

Problem: No space to garden

Solution: Landscapers say there's no such thing as a yard too tiny for shrubs and flowers.

"In Europe, small urban gardens are pretty neat things," says Rick Watson of Exterior Design Inc. in Glen Arm. So throw away the lawn mower and put in a rock garden, a cut-flower garden, or an arbor for roses or flowering vines.

And throw in a favorite bench or chair, Watson says. Such a sitting area "makes a great getaway spot where no one can find you."

Problem: Steep hillside

Solution: Plant fast-growing ground covers such as ivy or creeping phlox.Acute slopes can be erosion nightmares, says Robinson, who recommends covering the sharpest inclines with chicken wire first, to help anchor the plants.

Slopes can also be terraced, using timbers, stone or concrete retaining walls, which allow for more diverse plantings of trees, shrubs and perennials.

Problem: Eyesores in the yard

Solution: There is no perfect plant to block out that ugly heat pump, rusting shed or compost pile, but some come close.

"People want an evergreen screen that will stop growing at 10 feet and have nice big flowers like a hibiscus. Well, it hasn't been invented yet," says Summers.

He suggests spireas, large ornamental grasses, burning bush or landscape roses, some of which grow as tall as 8 feet. Trellised trumpet vines or climbing hydrangeas also make effective barriers. And consider deciduous plants, Summers says: "A lilac hedge can provide a visual barrier, even without the leaves."

Problem: Poor drainage

Solution: Improve soil by adding loamy topsoil or soil amendments. Raise height of garden beds to improve runoff.

Where soil is always wet, choose plants that tolerate moist conditions -- river birch, inkberry holly, hardy hibiscus, astilbes and asters.

Problem: Clay soil

Solution: Clay soil is thick and heavy, and retains water. For lawns, add a layer of good loamy soil, several inches deep, before planting grass seed. For gardens, mix topsoil with other additives (compost, greensand, etc.) to make a raised bed with adequate drainage.

Certain plants take to the tight clay soils common to Maryland. Perennials such as purple loosestrife, hardy begonia, gay-feather and black-eyed Susan are among them.

Problem: Sterile landscape

Solution: Increasingly, homeowners want wildlife in their yards, landscapers say. Butterflies and hummingbirds are favorites, and there are many food plants to attract them to your lot, including the butterfly bush, trumpet vine, aster, sweet pepperbush and hollyhock.

Yards with vine-covered walls and trellises offer protection for wildlife. Butterflies are also drawn to puddles of water, so create several small depressions in the landscape from which they can drink.

Problem: Planting around full-wall windows

Solution: These newfangled windows reach clear to the ground and create a landscaping challenge for anyone used to slapping a line of 5-foot yews against the front of the house. No more. Who wants to look outside at a row of gnarly roots?

To solve the problem, put some space -- 4 feet or more -- between house and shrubs, says Watson. Give your home room to breathe. "Planting shrubs away from the glass gives you the appeal of looking out at them, instead of being right on top," he says. Nearer the house, plant low-growing junipers or phlox, to keep mud from splashing onto the panes.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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