A Guide to Sprucing Up the Yard on a Budget

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, March 19, 2009

Part 1: The Garden Makeover

The silver lining to the recession? The chance to take control of your overgrown yard by getting out there and bringing it back to life yourself.

Stephen Anderton put it succinctly in his 1999 book, "Rejuvenating a Garden": "Good gardening can be very expensive or extraordinarily cheap. If you have plenty of time and energy, it is amazing what you can achieve with very little money."

The first step is to reduce or remove vegetation. The second is to redefine the lines that frame lawns, beds, fence lines, paths and patios. Together, these measures will yield a neater, cleaner garden that works better aesthetically and bestows a profound sense of satisfaction that transcends the momentary aches and pains of the work. A tip: You don't have to tackle the whole garden at once.

Some aspects of renovation may need intervention by experts whose advice can save money in the long run. A tree that has died from neglect can cost thousands of dollars to remove. Remember that tree work is hazardous and best left to professionals.

Trees and shrubs typically grow one to two feet per year before reaching maturity. Often, a 12-year-old plant is twice the desired size. Sometimes it is obvious when a plant has outgrown its space, such as when it is covering a window or blocks a path. Sometimes the bulkiness is less apparent but needs fixing because a shrub has lost its outline or a patio tree is casting too much shade for the plants beneath it.

Reducing Vegetation

Shade trees. Removing the lower branches of shade trees, especially evergreens, is an effective way to lighten the whole plant. This should be done before the tree is mature and must be achieved in a way that allows the wounds to heal. Consult an arborist.

Shade trees should be shaped when young to create a single trunk and an open framework of healthy main branches. This adolescent shaping, called formative pruning, can be done up until a tree is 15 years old, says Peter Deahl, a certified arborist in Sterling. A 10-year-old red maple, for example, may have a dense canopy that can be reduced through formative pruning.

The rules are different for mature shade trees. The leafy branches should be left alone, but the deadwood and dying branches should be removed to keep the tree open and healthy. This should be done every three to five years, Deahl says.

Ornamental trees. The same principles of formative pruning apply, though ornamental trees' scale allows the homeowner a crack at it. The biggest sin is in cutting back branches to stubs simply to lower the height of a tree. The practice, called topping, will promote rank regrowth and permanent disfigurement. You see it done on crape myrtle trees that should have been either shaped when young or not planted at all.

If you cut back most conifers to bare wood, they won't regrow.

Shrubs. You have four options for renovating shrubs, depending on the species.

Shrubs may be turned into a mini tree, especially if they have a single trunk before branching. It takes a good eye to see a shrub's inner tree, so proceed slowly and conservatively. I have seen this done effectively with overgrown burning bushes, arborvitae and yews.

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