University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Anytime News Article

EVALUATING YOUR GARDEN

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
 
 
When is the last time you stepped back to take a good look at your garden and landscape to assess if changes are needed, and to make plans if so?  Just as plants grow and gardens change physically, our lifestyles and physical needs change as well.  Perhaps it is time to evaluate whether your gardens and landscape need physical changes regarding soil, pruning, bed renovation, the addition of raised beds, lawn reduction, or even adding new landscaping.
           
You should begin your evaluation with the soil, as it is the key to all your plant growth.  The type of soil likely hasn't changed, but the fertility may have.  The acidity in many eastern soils slowly drops over time, so you may need to add some lime.  The fertility may be low, or if you've been fertilizing it may be high, with no more needed.  This is especially true for perennials, and for phosphorus that tends to stick around in soils or wash off into streams.  If you haven't done a soil test in the last couple of years, you can find kits for this at garden stores and local Extension offices.
           
Have those cute little shrubs and trees you planted a few years back, perhaps too close together, now grown together?  If so, some may need removing or cutting out, or transplanting if not too large.  This is often the case for foundation plantings that now obscure windows and block doors. 
           
If shrubs are too large, you can prune some such as forsythia and red-twig dogwoods back to the ground and they'll resprout (blooms may not return for a couple years).  Or you can remove a third of older branches each year.  Some gardeners like the clipped look, in which case you can shear some shrubs such as yews back yearly (or plant new ones with this desired shape).  If too large, you may want to shear shrubs a few inches a year to avoid a scalped look.
           
If trees have gotten too large, and you want more sun, you can either pay a professional to have them removed if large, or thin out branches to allow more light.  You may need to change the plants growing under them to shade-lovers, especially if existing ones there are tall and leggy with few blooms-- signs they get too little light. 
           
Then there is the physical aspect of landscapes that have gotten too large.  It is easy to add a bed or two each year, plant more plants, or expand the vegetable garden.  Over time, especially if you have less time or energy to garden now, your landscape may be out of control and getting the best of you.  Consider whether it is time to transplant some key perennials or shrubs, allowing the beds to "go natural", or else take them out all together.
            
The same applies to lawns.  Is yours too much to maintain, both in time and cost?  Perhaps you want to mow less to have less pollution impact on the environment.  Consider putting in some groundcovers in masses, especially under trees where grass grows poorly.  Turn sharp corners into smooth ones that are quicker and easier to mow.  Adding some beds of shrubs, underlain with weed fabric and covered with mulch, will reduce mowing and maintenance.
           
Consider allowing areas to just grow-- not really "no mow" but just mowing once or twice a year.  The key to having such areas not look weedy is to define edges, and have maintained lawn around, so they are obviously a "natural zone" with a purpose.  You can explain to guests that such natural areas are much better for beneficial insects, pollinators such as butterflies, and many other good garden lifeforms as in the soil.
          
Deer have become a major issue in landscapes in recent years, perhaps more so than when you began gardening or planting.  If so you may need to evaluate if you can just add some deterrents such as smell or taste (sprays for instance), or need to go for some kind of fencing to exclude them.  Perhaps just an observation of main entry points to your landscape by deer, and putting barriers there will help.  At such sites, or around special plants, consider plants they don't like such as daffodils around tulips, and herbs around annuals. 
           
Then there is the aspect of your own physical energy, and perhaps time.  If these are less, perhaps you need to pull back on the gardens and focus on main interests and key areas.  I've done this, only planting annuals now in a few highly visible spots that are easy to water and to maintain.  Consider low-maintenance plants, either for replacements for existing ones or new plantings.  Putting the right plant in the right place (matching soil and light in particular) goes a long way to less maintenance and better success.  Raised beds usually are easier to maintain that larger gardens, and are easier on aging joints and backs.
           
The physical changes needed may not be to reduce or just change, but to expand landscaping and plantings.  If you added a structure recently such as deck, patio, or walk, does it now need landscaping?  Containers are an easy way to have mobile landscaping on paved areas. 
           
Gardens are one of the main places one can retreat to from a stressful life and to recharge.  You'll find that having a garden and landscape that is manageable and under control, as you want it, will be much more satisfying.  Even if it is, evaluating it for changes to aesthetics and trends can make it more interesting and fun.

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