Darlington Designs

Right Plant, Right Place

When I first meet with clients, I often hear apologies—apologies for the look of their landscapes. The reason I am there, to begin with, is to help solve problems with their properties, so it always strikes me as funny that clients begin this way.

Many times, it has to do with the sad condition of the plants and lawns. In this blog post, we’ll address plants.

It’s not unusual for people to buy properties that have less than stellar landscapes. Sometimes this is due to a new construction home with what are “builder-grade” plant installations. This sometimes means that townships or HOAs require builders to put in some basic front foundation planting to receive Certificate of Occupancy documents. Other times, the previous owner just neglected to up-keep a landscape fully. Neither scenarios are indications of landscapes that will wow anyone in the short-term or long. For now, let’s talk about why these choices have gone wrong.
Trees. Most people under-estimate trees and their size capacities. This is because trees are likely purchased at a home center and start on the small size for manageability and ease of planting. Most homeowners fail to read the plant labels if the label is present at all. As a result, a homeowner or landscape crew without solid plant knowledge will likely plant a tree too close to a house foundation. It’s sad to meet with a client who has a beautiful, healthy tree that appears to be overwhelming a house. Usual suspects for this are Bradford Pear, American Arborvitae, and River Birch.

A quick internet search reveals an article from Southern Living Magazine called, “Why Bradford Pears are the Worst Tree Ever.” The article continues to say, “this stinky, oversized tree is not worth the hassle…From it’s overabundance of shade to weak branching structure, Bradford Pears are the worst trees out there.” Yet we see them all over the place, and we take down many of them, too. At full expression, River Birch, one of our most beautiful native trees, can reach seventy feet if in favorable conditions. This is way too big for the front corner of a home, yet they are frequently planted there. Arborvitae is a third tree frequently planted in the wrong place. In addition to growing too big for a front foundation corner, their inability to hold snow load makes their position in Delaware Valley landscapes undesirable.

Better tree choices for front foundation areas would be Redbud, Serviceberry, or Fringe Trees, Dwarf Conifers, Japanese Maples, or large shrubs that can take a similar habit to a small tree like Smokebush, Viburnum, or Oakleaf Hydrangea.

Shrubs. Most clients, I think, are dissatisfied with the appearance of their shrubs. This is largely due to scale, meaning that a shrub grew too large for the space in which it was planted. In new construction homes, the concrete sidewalk is typically installed very close to the foundation, usually only three or four feet away. There are very few shrubs that will stay this small—most want to be somewhere between three and six feet wide, thus reaching well into the walk area in just a few years. Shrubs can be pruned, to a point to maintain size, but wrestling with a plant that wants to be big is just a recipe for a bad look in the landscape. It’s better to plant for what a plant wants to be and create a welcoming, unobstructed entryway to the front door of a home.

Perennials. Perennials are not eternally perennial. There are few that endure long stretches of time—Hosta, Sedums, Daylilies to name a few—but most others live only about five years. This is important to realize that some clients think they have killed their plants. The way I look at this is that perennial plant attrition is one way to help keep a landscape looking fresh, as perennials are the color-trend setting component of the landscape garden.