Betty Montgomery: Start with trees, then put 'icing on the cake'

Betty Montgomery

Landscaping a yard can be a venture in creativity. I am sure some might think it is overwhelming, but there are ways to approach the project that might make it less daunting and could help you make good choices. There are things that you need to think about before starting the task.

Knowing your garden and how it will be used is a good start. How will it flow and what type of garden do you want? Do you prefer formal, informal, English, Japanese, French, etc? Knowing a little about what style you want will help you get the ball rolling. You can get ideas by looking at gardens or magazines.

I remember well when my husband and I started thinking of building a house in the middle of a cow pasture where there was not a single tree within 1,000 feet. We were asked many questions and it made for a wonderful exercise that was also daunting at times.

The second thing to consider is do you have existing trees or do you plan on adding trees. Richard Webel, a landscape architect with Innocenti and Webel, once told me “you landscape with trees and you put the icing on the cake with shrubbery.” I think this statement is so true. Trees make a big statement and then you add some evergreen shrubbery along with other forms of plant material to get the look you want.

In choosing a tree, there are many things to think about. What is the purpose? You might plant an evergreen tree on the north side of the house to block the cold winter winds. If your house has a southern exposure, you could consider a deciduous tree that will give you shade from the hot summer sun. This deciduous tree will drop the leaves in the fall and let the sunlight come into the house and brighten a room.

Next consider how you will enter your home. How do you want your guests to arrive and will they know which door to take? Make the entrance inviting so visitors know where to go. It can make your visitors feel welcome to have a designated place to enter.

Maybe a hedge for privacy is an element to consider. There are a lot of plants and trees that will do a great job at screening out unsightly objects or the noisy neighbors or just to give you privacy.

Be sure to know the mature size of trees and shrubbery. Scale is important. If you have a large home, the shrubs and trees need to be a corresponding size but make sure trees do not get into power lines or come too close to your home. Also, if your house is smaller, do not plant shrubs that will become too tall for the house or you will need to prune often. This is a mistake that I see all too often where the mature size of a shrub is too tall for the front of the house.

Mr. Webel showed me his home and how well it was landscaped in the winter. He had enough green shrubbery to make the garden look lovely in the winter months and yet he had several flower beds that would add color and texture in the summer.

Do not fight Mother Nature. Incorporate the natural features of a property, including its topography, soil and rocks, etc. Do you have a large oak tree or large rocks or a steep sloping yard? Work around these. Ride around and see what others have done with an unusual feature and get ideas of what you like and do not like.

Study the sun, where it rises and sets. This can have an effect on what shrubs and flowers will grow successfully. Some shrubs require at least six hours of sun each day, while others like rhododendron and mountain laurel cannot take morning sun in the winter. Know the wind patterns. If you live on a hill where it is windy like we do, you could learn the hard way about shrubbery that needs protection from the wind.

Start small. You can always add later. Trees, gazebos, patios, pergolas and other hardscapes can create a dazzling effect and can help unify the landscape, but they are expensive and need to be carefully placed. If you are planning an outdoor seating area, think about the purpose and your climate. A place in the sun to enjoy your morning coffee might be nice and some shade from the hot afternoon sun will make the use in the summer more inviting. You also need to know if your yard will be used for recreation or do you want privacy and a place to relax.

How much time do you have to garden? Many lovely annuals and perennials require sun but flowerbeds in the sun require a lot more attention than shrubs in the shade. Weeds have the same requirements as flowers, meaning a sunny bed will have to be weeded more often than a shade garden.

Do you have time to mow a lot of grass? If not, you might want to fill your back yard with trees and have a woodland garden. A woodland garden can be cool and inviting in the summer with the shade of the trees.

Things change over time. Your garden can change with your needs. People now have more indoor-outdoor living spaces to grill outside — while some even have outdoor kitchens near where they entertain. These can come later if you need the space now for children and their needs.

Is your mechanical system close by where you have an outside seating area? Maybe plant a hedge around the machinery to help hide it as well as help absorb the noise from the equipment.

Spend some time thinking about your situation. Make a list of questions and then work to answer them. This will help you have a garden that will fit your needs and taste. Most of all, do not become overwhelmed. Work on it a little at a time. I often think of the bricklayer who lays one brick at a time and creates a masterpiece. This helps me when I am overwhelmed with yard work.

Betty Montgomery, author and master gardener, can be reached at