January is the best time of year to sit down with garden catalogs and a blank piece of paper. That bare piece of paper can be very scary. Carpets of lawn sweeping up to curvaceous borders or sneaking between full beds are easy in our dreams. Getting those picture perfect gardens down on paper or in the ground can seem overwhelming. Garden designers can think in terms of the whole garden. The rest of us should just concentrate on one section at a time.
If you think your house looks boring, add a little pizzazz with plantings. The easiest way to plan a foundation planting is to put together three shrubs of differing heights and then repeat all the way across the front of your house.
Extension Services for your state are your best guides for planting. Good sources for site-specific information, too, are botanical gardens. Neighbors and friends can also give you ideas and recommendations of what does well in their yards. At the end of the article are some links to sites with information on trees and shrubs in various parts of the country.
Pay attention to the final heights and widths the plants will achieve. Garden catalogs will be a huge help in choosing shrubs. Most give you this information. If you would rather do your planning on line, there are some great catalogs on line, too.
Place low growers under windows so that you won’t be a slave to clippers on weekends. Add a tree for accent either near the entrance or in a sweep of bed along the driveway. Accent your house with the jewelry of the plant kingdom.
If you dislike mowing grass, replace it with a friendly evergreen groundcover like Ajuga ‘Catlin’s Giant’ that will thrive in sun or shade, north or south. It will also reward you with spikes of blue flowers in the spring. One high mowing, after the blossoms fade, will keep the plants looking neat the rest of the year. (This groundcover even grows under walnut trees.)
When you decorate the inside of your house, you most likely do it room by room rather than sitting down and planning the whole house at once. You may have an overall vision of how you would like it to appear. However, most of us take care of the particulars on a smaller scale, one room at a time.
If you do not have mature trees on your property, then plant them. For shade, look for tall trees with wide growing branches. Leaves with beautiful fall color are a bonus. If you have never seen a gingko tree in full autumn plumage, you have missed a spectacular site. It is a tree with a wide canopy, so use it with discretion.
The fan-shaped leaves of Gingko biloba turn a beautiful golden shade in the fall. This tree is suitable for almost all climates, USDA Zones 3-9. It is a slow growing tree, but well worth the wait. Only plant a male tree. Female gingkos are notorious for their foul-smelling fruit, both on and fallen under the tree. Keep female ginkgos away from your house.
If you like a little of the unusual in your plantings, try threadleaf arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Filiformis’). It is a weeping evergreen, a very graceful mound of a tree that stays short (3 feet by 3 feet) if left to its own devices. This one is also very slow growing. It is versatile enough to take sun or part shade. USDA Zones 3-7.
Use trees like the tall, skinny Sky Rocket juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) zones 4-7, or for a really tall screen (40-60 feet) Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) zones 7-11 as a punctuation point either alone or in groups of three. Or you can use multiples and march them down a property line like soldiers. They also make a fine living ornament in place of statuary. Sky pencil holly (Ilex crenata 'Sky Pencil') is another skinny upright, but it only gets about 10 feet tall, perfect for a short wall covering or a pot in Zones warmer than 6.
Consider your normal climate conditions when you plant shrubs and trees. If your summers are dry, low water use plants (called Zeriscaping) should be part of your plan. If you are in a rainy area, then look for plants that require less sun, tolerate wet feet, and are not subject to mildew.
Remember that curved beds are much more appealing than straight edges. A low mound of green tumbling into a walkway softens its look as long as it doesn’t interfere with or trip walkers. In addition, native plants from your area are best adapted to your over-all growing conditions. Don’t forget to see what is thriving for your neighbors and a local botanical garden.