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Make a Plan of Action to Correct Garden Design Problems

NORTHFORD, Conn. - Sometimes a take-no-prisoners approach is needed to tackle bad garden design.

Gardeners should take time to sit and consider a battle plan before taking a shovel to the yard. Flag what needs to go. Now is the time to move, divide or evict plants.

"You need to be absolutely ruthless," said Nancy DuBrule, owner and founder of Natureworks. "We have lived with our garden all season - it's fresh in our minds. If you wait til spring it will not work - you won't remember."

When dividing or removing plants from a preexisting garden bed, do not move them to another spot because you feel bad about discarding them. "You don't need to start another bed with leftover plants," she said.

"We renovate either cause it looks nasty or it doesn't work well for us," she said.

Gardeners have from now until the end of October or beginning of November to move plants in the garden. "Get the major players moved first," she said.

Grab a tarp and systematically evict all the plants from the garden bed in one pass. "Nothing gets put on a tarp without a label," she said. "Create a holding area. Get them all out if they are in the wrong place." Weed the garden bed. Amend the soil. Keep the holding area in the shade with soil and mulch.

Plants in the wrong place can be
moved now through early November.
"Our soil is warm and it will be for a while," she said. "The roots are growing even if the tops are not." (To read more on dividing perennials, click here.) Placing mulch on the soil will keep the soil warmer longer.

This practice also applies to dividing perennials. Do not just chip away at the mother plant. "Get the whole plant out and on a tarp to divide," she said. "Underground, you will discover your plants have their own little world ... We normally cut the tops off to offset the damage from moving," she said.

In a recent lecture, DuBrule discussed common design problems that lead to garden renovation. Here are some of the biggest offenders.

A sign that there is not enough color built into the landscape is when the garden "grows green" because nothing is blooming.

"The most common gaps are August and now," said DuBrule. "You should have tons of color right now. You should be putting in fall bloomers now that will look great next year. Every plant I put in now comes back one hundred fold next year."

Wrong color combinations happen all the time, said DuBrule. If plants are too spread out and not concentrated in large color groupings, the overall color affect will be diluted. Even the gardener's color choices can change. (A garden that started out with a yellow palette may lose its attractiveness over time with a gardener starting to favor a new color instead.)

Lack of a color focal point occurs when plants are placed "wherever" in the garden.

"A lot of people think if they get [the color focal point] right they will have color all year - not true. You're going to have green spots all the time. Nobody notices green globs if you have a color focal point." In DuBrule's fall garden, she repeats blue-hued plants which are then accented by mammoth coral mums.

Lack of a color focal point "just happens over time, but you can correct it." (To read more about having color every month in the garden, click here.)

If left unchecked, anemones can self-seed
and ruin a garden's design.
Overgrown Plants
This category can really cause havoc in a garden's design. It includes scenarios such as invasive plants taking over in the garden (for DuBrule, this meant weeding out gooseneck loosestrife); having a large bed so filled with weeds that it is difficult to pull them out; and the plants you wanted are too crowded or self-sown plants "grown up willy nilly and ruin any sense of plan or continuity," according to the Natureworks handout.

"If I see babies coming up, I ruthlessly thin them out," she said. "The trick is not to be a bleeding heart gardener - your yard will be homogenous ... Your garden just gets clogged and you don't have any fun anymore."

"You tend to let [the plants] go because you're too tired," said DuBrule, citing examples such as anemone and Joe Pye Weed which will quickly take over garden beds if left unchecked. Daylilies are another plant that will lose its vigor if it hasn't been divided regularly. "If they are not showing any signs of wear, you don't have to divide them." Look for yellow leaves when the plant is blooming - this is a sign it needs to be divided.

In addition, DuBrule cautioned to find out a plant's growing habit before introducing it to the garden. "Be wary of what people give you - they give you the thugs," she said. Thinnings also make their way into many garden club plant sales at great prices.

Where's the Foliage?
"Foliage structure is the anchor that holds the garden together," said DuBrule. Beginning gardeners typically focus on the floral color and not what the plant looks like when it is not in bloom. "It's something that you learn over time - you want to know the whole plant," she said.

Remove seed heads from Joe Pye Weed to
discourage self-sowing.
For plants like poppies, bleeding hearts and yarrow - that look great in spring but lose their attractiveness and charm after blooming - the key is to place them in areas where other plants will hide them later in the season. "What you need to do is hide it and cut it back," she said.

Wrong Size 
Sometimes the garden you envision is too small for the yard. For example, tiny 2-foot beds rimming the yard filled with 6-foot-tall Joe Pye Weed just won't work. Plants need to be layered down; 6 foot tall plants need to be in the back, 4 foot in front of them, 2 foot in front of them, and so on. "Widening your beds is the secret to good garden design," she said. "Think less length, more width."

"I'm over it."
"I just don't like these plants." Really. It's OK to say that. "What's available will change and your tastes will change," she said. DuBrule said gardeners should be fussy when choosing plants. "The trend now is for more compact plants that don't get diseases as often and don't need pinching."

"Before you do renovations, do some brainstorming. Know what you want," she said. Sometimes the color of the plant is not what was expected due to mislabeling. Perhaps you thought you wanted a cottage garden style but changed your mind. Maybe the plant may require too much upkeep (think of that rose that looks pretty for one week every summer but is plagued by blackspot the rest of the year). "There are so many good choices nowadays," DuBrule said, so really, it's fine not to settle.

Right Plant, Wrong Place 
Maybe the light levels have changed: areas that once received sunlight are now shaded by growing trees. Or perhaps the shade garden is now scorched by full sun because a storm took out a tree. Gardens need to evolve with what Mother Nature changes.

Remember, correcting garden design will not happen overnight.

"It may take you two seasons, and that's OK," she said. "Take digital photos - print and make notes."

To read DuBrule's "Basic Principles of Perennial Garden Design" handout, click here

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