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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.

Some shrubs that are given to suckering can be cut to the ground, and they will spring back with vigor and health while reducing their mass. It may take two years for them to look full again. Candidates include forsythia, winter jasmine, flowering quince, red- and yellow-twig dogwoods, abelia, deutzia, spirea and mock orange.

Other shrubs can handle this drastic approach but, as landscape designer and author Gordon Hayward points out, their recovery is slow and painful to look at. It is better to remove or cut back up to a third of the oldest branches each year for three years. This reduces the canopy, opens the plant to light and air, and encourages bushy growth.

The fourth option is to remove the shrub. Overgrown junipers, for example, are difficult to rejuvenate, and some privet hedges are pitifully thin and rank, especially in shade.

Shrub pruning is best done in March before the spring flush of growth. A heavily trimmed shrub will benefit from extra care this year: Water during dry spells and apply a slow-release fertilizer.

Hedges. Hedges large and small, from Leyland cypress to English boxwood, can be reduced in height, but you should make tidy, clean cuts, best achieved with hand pruners, loppers or a pruning saw, rather than electric shears. The cut stems will be shrouded in new growth in a few weeks. While you're at it, taper the sides of the hedge a little, making it narrower at the top, so that the lower foliage receives sunlight and remains full. Tightly clipped or sheared hedges look good in glossy magazines, but they need two or three cuts per season and are stressed in our hot climate.

Redefining Lines

Edges. Trimmed shrubbery returns space to the garden; clean edges restore harmony. One of the most simple and effective techniques is to define the line where the lawn meets a planting bed through regular edging. Hayward uses a straight-edged spade; I use a long-handled tool called an edging knife. A shovel is too curved for the job. Use string to guide the edge. If you try to eyeball it, the line will look amateurish.

The edge will lose its definition in time and should be redefined about every six weeks through the growing season.

Paths and patios. Installing these can be costly, so work with what you've got. You can transform a concrete front walk by framing it in brick, cobbles or clean-cut bluestone, Hayward says.

If you have a dry-laid brick or flagstone path or patio that has sagged and bowed, you can have it reset at a lower cost than installing a new one, says Katia Goffin, a landscape architect at Scott Brinitzer Design Associates in Arlington. The masonry can be power-washed to look new. You would save on materials, delivery and design costs, which could reduce the expense by 30 percent compared with a new patio, Goffin says.

Drainage problems. These should be fixed if they are compromising structures. However, an area of the yard that is low-lying and constantly wet -- bad news for any lawn and most ornamentals -- may be replanted with perennials, shrubs and trees that can handle such conditions.

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