Where do I Start? Simple drive-by landscape design

"Where do we start?" Was the question Amber and Brian Bismack asked. They took our suggestions. Now they are confident the pitch-in efforts of their friends and family are well-spent. (Steve Schultz poses with the Bismacks at the bed they've created and readied for planting.

"Where do we start?" Was the question Amber and Brian Bismack asked. They took our suggestions. Now they are confident the pitch-in efforts of their friends and family are well-spent. (Steve Schultz poses with the Bismacks at the bed they've created and readied for planting.

Where do I start?

That's the question of the season from new homeowners and new gardeners. This article is for you if you're asking this question or helping someone who is.


Our suggestion:

1) Start by looking around your neighborhood or town for landscapes, plants and outdoor structures that you like.

2) Take pictures. To the gardeners you meet as you tour, say, "Thank you! I like this! I'm gathering ideas for my own place."

3) Take those pictures to a garden center and put the staff to the test:

  • "What's this? Do you sell plants (rocks, edging, mulch etc.) like that?"
  • "How long will they take to grow to that size?"
  • "Is this a good landscape? Tell me how I could do better."
  • "What do you see there that a novice like me should watch out for?"
  •  Etc.

Note: We advise making this visit to a garden center only during the week during spring. In spring, they're just too busy on weekends.

4) Make your shopping list... but don't buy anything until after you call in some friends to help you dig. (More about digging in What's Coming Up 185.)

Stay-at-home alternatives:

Ask us, at our Forum...

No time, or no garden center nearby? Go to the GardenAtoZ forum, become a member (free; click the button top right of any Forum screen) and post photos (or scans) of what you like. Select "follow this topic" so you'll be emailed automatically when Members and Moderators reply with answers and suggestions.

... or take this virtual tour with us now

Here's what happens when you take this approach. What follows is a virtual* drive-around we once took with a student working on a landscape design. We stopped a couple dozen times to talk about each photo that prompted an, "I like that" or "Hm" from our student. Here, as then, we answer "What's that" for each landscape as well as some other notes.

*A real drive around is best because what you see growing well in established landscapes near your home is the safest bet. It will probably thrive or weather equally well in your yard. Since our virtual tour ranged across a big geographic area (map below) we sometimes had to tell our student, "Not that plant, sorry, it won't do well here."

This tour draws images from many places where we work: hardiness zones 5, 6, and 7, from lower peninsula Michigan east to Massachusetts and south to the mountains of the Carolinas over-up to Delaware.

This tour draws images from many places where we work: hardiness zones 5, 6, and 7, from lower peninsula Michigan east to Massachusetts and south to the mountains of the Carolinas over-up to Delaware.

Help is available at forum.GardenAtoZ.com

Help is available at forum.GardenAtoZ.com

Use or download hardiness zone maps from the USDA at:


Tour preview:

You can take the whole tour with us -- Just scroll on down! Or skip about:

Tour stop 1: Many varieties

"I like this, it has lots of variety."

Stop 1 features:

A - Crabapple, upright variety with double pink flowers such as 'Marilee', 'Robinson' or 'Sentinel'; young tree, probably near full height, will eventually fill in to dashed line
B - Dwarf red barberry such as 'Crimson Pygmy' or dwarf red leaf weigela such as 'Minuet' or 'Wine & Roses'
C - Dwarf globe arborvitae such as 'Hetz Midget' or 'Danica'
D - Hybrid yew. May be two different types: 'Wardii'' in foreground 'Densi' behind.
E - Gold leaf deutzia 'Chardonnay Pearls' or gold leaf spirea 'Gold Mound' or golden vicary privet kept pruned very small
F - Gold leaf euonymus such as 'Emerald & Gold' grown as a shrub (may also be used as a vine)
G - Red laceleaf dwarf Japanese maple such as 'Garnet' or 'Burgundy Lace'
H - Vine such as late blooming Clematis viticella

Other notes:

Mulch here is shredded bark

There are resources for choosing between similar plants, such as this chart of crabapples by color, form, and size from one of the country's big production nurseries:


Maintenance saving aspect of this landscape: Plants are allowed relaxed natural shapes that can be maintained with one pruning per year.

Stop 2: House color matters

"I like this where the little tree matches the house's trim color."




Stop 2 features:

A - Dwarf white-blooming Japanese maple such as 'Sargent'
B - Dwarf burning bush
C - Hybrid yew 'Densi' or 'Brownii'
D - Red Laceleaf dwarf Japanese maple: 'Crimson Queen,' 'Burgundy Lace,' etc.
E - Dwarf Norway spruce such as birdsnest or 'Repens'
F - Hybrid yew 'Hicksii'
G - Pyramidal Japanese yew

Other notes:

It is fun to pick up a building's trim color in the plants. Also good to be sure there's enough contrast between the house brick or siding color, and the plants.

In this case, what if that crabapple was right in front of the wall? It could be lost in the background, such a waste!

Mulch here is shredded bark.

Yews are kept in tight geometric shapes, likely pruned 2+ times each year.

Stop 3: Be different, but be smart!

"This is neat, it's different."




Stop 3 features:

A - Evergreen rhododendron/azalea
B - Perennials, clump forming hosta, daylily, etc.
C - Dwarf mugo pine
D - 'Procumbens' dwarf weeping blue spruce
E - Dwarf** pyramidal arborvitae 'Nigra'.
F - Pink flowering dogwood
G - Koreanspice viburnum
H - PJM rhododendron
I - 'Crimson Pygmy' barberry
J - Bluestar juniper

Other notes:

Less pruning time required here than in previous landscape. The pyramidal arborvitae must be pruned annually; rhododendrons, pine, spruce and barberry can be managed on an every-two-years basis.

However, the gardener who does this pruning must be an artist to preserve the natural irregular outline and density of dwarf mugo pine and dwarf blue spruce while keeping them small. And just-so timing is required to keep the viburnum small and still blooming.

** "Dwarf" does not mean "tiny" but that the variety is smaller than its natural species. This arborvitae variety has a 20-30' potential; a non-dwarf arb will grow to twice that.

Stop 4: Semi-formal look

"I'm realizing I like the big blocks of color."




Stop 4 features:

A - Birdsnest spruce
B - Dragonsblood sedum groundcover
C - Hardy hibiscus, perennial
D - Annual flowers
E - Redtwig dogwood 'Elegantissima' with white-and-green leaf
F - Smoke bush
G - Hybrid yew 'Wardii'

Other notes:

These plants are allowed relaxed natural shapes. As a result, the pruning needed is simple but requires ruthlessness: We know that the dogwood, smoke bush and yews are pruned hard once per year ("hard" meaning deep cuts, with some parts cut to the ground), and the birdsnest spruce is pruned every two years. The hardy hibiscus is a perennnial that starts up from the roots each year so it's cut to the ground every fall.

Stop 5: Tightly clipped landscape

"I'm married to someone who loves to prune, who would like this..."




Stop 5 features:

A - Chinese juniper
B - Dwarf burning bush
C - Hybrid yew
D - Boxwood
E - Red leaf Japanese maple such as 'Bloodgood'
F - Flowering dogwood

Other notes:

Plenty of people truly like to shape shrubs. When a shape-r shares a landscape with someone who loves the semi-formal or natural look, it's usually best to split the design, "Front yard's yours, back yard's mine."

Considerable pruning time (multiple sessions) required to keep all the plants in tight geometric shapes. Everything here is likely pruned 2+ times each year.

Any plant can be pruned to stay small but some are more graceful when tightly shorn like this. Good candidates: Boxwood, yew, burning bush, cotoneaster, spirea and barberry are good choices. Tougher to work with: 1) fast growing plants with large leaves and 2) evergreens that cannot sprout from bare wood (junipers, arborvitaes, pines, spruces, firs and falsecypresses).

Mulch is shredded bark.

Stop 6: No clipping at all

"This looks simple, kind of easy and laid back."




Stop 6 features:

A - Mophead hydrangea (could be a blue flowered variety but that's a moot point since in the Midwest it's non-blooming)
B - Standard crabapple such as 'Adams'
C - Astilbe (perennial)
D - Pachysandra groundcover
E - Snowball hydrangea
F - Dwarf burning bush

Other notes:

No pruning required, as all plants are allowed natural shape and size. (Dwarf burning bush is not pruned, is naturally very round.)

Retaining walls are ledge rock.

Stop 7: Cones to mark corners

"I like the idea of something conical on the corner."




Stop 7 features:

When plants have the potential to outgrow their place you can prune, or plan to replace them periodically. So it's important to look into potential size and growth rate:

A - Dwarf Alberta spruce; potentially 10' x 4' in 20 years
B - Dwarf lilac, potentially 6' x 6' in 3 years
C - Globe arborvitae, potentially 8' x 8' in 15 years
D - Dwarf burning bush, potentially 10' x 10' in 5 years
E - Crabapple, upright variety with double pink flowers such as 'Marilee', 'Robinson' or 'Sentinel.' This is a young tree, that has nearly reached its full height in 10 years but will still bulk up.

Other notes:

Mulch is red lava rock, not recommended because it eventually becomes weedy and is then very hard to keep neat.

Imagine if the tree was placed to dress the same corner of house but at a remove, out in its own bed.

It's natural to want to mark building corners but remember to use all three dimensions of space in your yard.

It's natural to want to mark building corners but remember to use all three dimensions of space in your yard.

Stop 8: Something in the way it grows

"I'm not sure if I like junipers but I like something about this corner bed."




Stop 8 notes:

The easiest landscape is one where the plants are given room to grow to full size. Most people underestimate plant size. For instance, the foreground plant is one dwarf Chinese juniper allowed to grow 20 years, to 20' x 4'

Stop 9: Considerable potential... and 4-season color

"Wow, I like how all the colors of the house and the leaves and bark go together."



Stop 9 features:

A - Paper birch
B - River birch
C - Maiden grass/Silver grass
D - Sedum 'Autumn Joy'
E - Dwarf pyramidal arborvitae 'Nigra'

Other notes:

It's a good thing to do, to ask about a plant's performance in all seasons. For instance, if you choose a river birch (Betula bigra) for its bark color, ask what is looks like in fall (here), in winter, if it has flowers... and how big it gets (70').

Maiden grass (Miscanthus varieties) makes a fast hedge but requires annual cutting -- being chopped right to the ground. That can be quite a chore and it generates lots of debris.

Notice the difference between sedums on the slope and those at the bottom -- lowest plants are stunted and discolored. The soil may be compacted or poorly drained there, or both. The gardener must make conditions equal throughout an area if the same plant will be planted throughout. if you don't, the plants will tell you where they are healthy and where they are not, whether they are 100,000 bluegrass seedlings, 12 of the same bush to make a hedge, or a herd of sedum, as here.

The river birches will be as big or bigger than the paper birch. Imagine if at least one was placed further out from the house.

Move a tree away from the house if you can, especially when it will one day be a BIG tree.

Move a tree away from the house if you can, especially when it will one day be a BIG tree.

Stop 10: Experiment in pruning

"It's not that I like this just as is, but looking at these plants I think that one might be a Japanese maple? I didn't know you could prune one of those into a ball..."



Stop 10 features:

A - Kousa dogwood, potential 30' x 30'
B - Hybrid yew, potential 20'
C - Redleaf Japanese maple, potential 20' x 20'
D - Eastern arborvitae, potential 40' x 15'

Other notes:

Any plant can be pruned into a fanciful shape, or kept small. How much work that trimming will require is directly related to the plant's normal size and how fast it grows. Big and fast? It's more work to keep that shaped like what you see here, compared to shaping something smaller or slower.

All plants here must be pruned at least once per year to restrict size, and be touched up at least once per year to maintain tight outlines.

Stop 11: Wild things easiest


If you live in the American Midwest you may not ever see a 12-15' tall riot of rhododendrons.

If you live in the American Midwest you may not ever see a 12-15' tall riot of rhododendrons.




Stop 11 notes:

For the lowest care, choose plants that can live without our help. These are rhododendrons growing where they naturalize, spreading without invitation. If you choose to include a plant in your landscape that you have never seen growing in self-spread thickets in your own region, chances are that you will be getting into a high-maintenance situation.

A very good gardener, author Elsa Bakalar, wrote:

What gardener, on vacation, seeing something wonderful and new to him, doesn't covet it and then bemoan the fact that it won't grow back home? ...make the most beautiful gardens we can with plants that will live happily in our particular climate.

 - Elsa Bakalar, in her book A Garden of One's Own -

Stop 12: Copy the groundcover, not the tree

"That looks like a good groundcover. And look at the gorgeous bark on that tree!"




Stop 12 notes:

If you are a northern gardener and you notice liriope (A) in the South, please do not also set your heart on copying whole scenes. Trees such as this crapemyrtle with its beautiful bark capture northerners' interest and then break their hearts. Some plants will grow well in both North and South, some will not. Liriope will grow well in the cold of zone 5 but in that same place crapemyrtles will die to the ground almost every winter and so will never develop bark.

Groundcover continues to Stop 13...

Stop 13: Groundcover covers bulbs

"Hmmm, is that a mass of daffodils there under the trees?"



Stop 13 features:

A - Evergreen azaleas
B - Liriope, a.k.a. lilyturf, monkey grass
C - Daffodil foliage, post-bloom, pre-yellow

Other notes:

Liriope (pronounced luh-RY-oh-pee in the North and by botanists, LEER-ee-ohp in much of the South) is an evergreen spreading groundcover. It can be an excellent weed preventing carpet if it's planted into an area that's free of weeds and kept weeded until the liriope fills in.

Using a groundcover with foliage that resembles the foliage of bulbs that share that bed is a way to mask the bulb foliage that lingers after bloom time.

Few plants flower heavily in the shade of trees. In some regions azaleas can perform well and provide spring bloom under trees. In much of the Midwest, the soil and the winter make azaleas more trouble to maintain than their brief color season justifies.

Groundcover continues to Stop 14...

Stop 14: Groundcover moss

"Wow, look at all that moss... you know, it looks kind of cool."



Stop 14 notes:

Moss is a legitimate groundcover. Where moss grows more vigorously than lawn grass, consider cultivating the moss rather than fighting it.


Groundcover continues to stop 15...

Stop 15: Odd color, common pachysandra

"What's that yellow groundcover?"




Stop 15 notes:

Pachysandra (A) is an excellent weed-smothering evergreen groundcover when grown in shade. When grown in too much sun it will often yellow (become chlorotic, the plant equivalent of anemic) and thin out. That can happen when a bed of pachysandra that was planted and thrived in the shade of a big tree is thrust into the light when the tree is removed. Groundcover myrtle (B) will usually retain its color in sunlight. However, like pachysandra it becomes less effective as a groundcover in full sun because it cannot out-compete grass, which can infiltrate and ruin the bed.


Other notes:

Pachysandra and other plants will also become chlorotic when exposed to an overdose of weedkiller/herbicide or when weedkiller builds up in the soil from years of routine use.

Groundcover continues to stop 16...

Stop 16: Groundcover beyond the Big Three

"What's that low mounded plant there? I like its looks."



Stop 16 features:

Many perennial plants and low shrubs can be used as groundcover, so don't limit yourself to the big three (pachysandra or myrtle/vinca in shade and rug juniper in sun). For instance, bigroot perennial geranium (A) (Geranium macrorrhizum) is almost evergreen, weed smothering, good in shade and sun, and contributes spring bloom plus fall color. It grows so well that the owners of this landscape have been harvesting pieces of it from its original area in the background (B) and letting it cover other beds.

Other notes:

Groundcovers spread. You do not have to invest a fortune in buying enough started plants to cover all at once. Buy what you will, plant it into a weed free area, then let it expand. You can hurry its coverage by dividing and moving pieces out so each bit can spread in all directions rather than just to the outside edge of the original colony.

Stop 17: Texture's a-foot

"Hunh. Usually I'm a sucker for azaleas but I don't care for this one."



Stop 17 notes:

In a bed of pachysandra, an evergreen azalea (B) begins to open white flowers. Pachysandra (A) thrives around the azalea but the combination is underwhelming because the two plants are too similar in texture. The two blend into one except during the two or three weeks when the shrub is blooming.

Texture continues to stop 18...

Stop 18: Mossy fine texture

"Well, I like this better."



Stop 18 notes:

Some of the most striking landscapes employ high contrast between plant textures, such as here where the big leaves of rhododendrons (A) are a bold pattern next to the smooth moss.

Texture is the visual pattern of light and dark created by the foliage. "Coarse" texture means there is a bold pattern of light and dark, quite distinct even at 20', akin to big white polka dots on a dark background. "Fine" texture means the plant parts and their shadows are small, so the pattern at a distance is smooth. Tweed pattern fabric is fine in texture.

To see how much value texture is contributing to a scene, convert a photo of the area to black and white.

To see how much value texture is contributing to a scene, convert a photo of the area to black and white.


If plants stand out distinctly on the merits of their shadow patterns -- their texture -- then that area will draw attention even when nothing is flowering or when the light is low so foliage colors are muted.

Stop 19: Foliage color

"I'm not sure but I think I want to use gold and red together like this."



Stop 19 features:

A - 'Crimson Pygmy' barberry
B - 'Goldmound' spireas
C - White-and-green leaf redtwig dogwoods 'Elegantissima


Other notes: Leaf color is even more valuable than flower color because it's longer lasting. To insure great leaf color check into what the plant needs and use it only if it's a match to your site's growing conditions. Many colorful-leaf plants are brilliant only when they are absolutely happy in a site.

For instance, these plants are all sun lovers. The barberry and spirea will fade to green in shade. The redtwig dogwood leaves will keep their white edge in shade but the plant will produce fewer leaves so the impact of the color is less.

Compare these redtwig dogwoods to those pictured previously (Stop 4); those in the earlier photo are much more dense because they receive more hours of sun per day than either of these shown here.

Stop 20: More foliage color

"I lived in California for a while. While I was there I really missed the great fall color there is around the Great Lakes."



Stop 20 features:

A - Dwarf Japanese maples 'Pixie' and 'Ueno Yatsubuso'
B - Weeping larch
C - Dwarf blue spruce
D - 'Red Baron' bloodgrass
E - 'Smaragd' ('Emerald') arborvitae


Other notes:

If you are attracted by bright foliage color be sure to ask about fall color when you are shopping at a garden center or researching as you plan. Fall color can be as long lasting or even longer than a plant's bloom season, and not all plants color at the same time in fall. So wise choices can significantly increase the color in a landscape. A - Many green leaf Japanese maples are outstanding red- or orange in fall. B - Larch doesn't turn yellow-orange until after most Japanese maples have peaked.

Winter color is something worth considering, too. A combination of blue spruce (C) and arborvitaes that keep their green in winter (such as E, 'Smaragd'/'Emerald') can be very pleasing.

Stop 21: Bark mulch

"Seems like everywhere we look there's a truckload of bark. Is it required?"



Mulch thoughts:

Covering the ground with shredded bark or finely shredded wood is an effective way to prevent weeds and add unifying color across the landscape. Cornell University tests showed and our experience confirms that if the bed is weed free to begin with a 2" depth of mulch will prevent weeds as well or better than pre-emergent weed killers (herbicides such as Preen).

Other notes:

In addition, mulch conveys benefits weed killer cannot such as conserving soil moisture and providing root protection.

Do not cover the ground with fabric or plastic before mulching. This practice eventually leads to at least two problems: 1) A weed layer develops above the fabric. 2) Roots below the fabric starve because humus cannot be renewed and biological activity decreases.

Stop 22: Stuff the stones, nothing but trouble

"We've been looking for a crushed stone or colored rock with the right color to go around our bushes and trees."




Stone mulch is a very bad idea except in a limited, very well tended area such as an alpine garden where it is providing the warm dry surface those special plants require. It is a popular practice because people notice the color but they do not talk about maintenance with the owners of older stone mulch landscapes. Before you use stone, take another look around town and notice older stoned areas. Wind blown soil particles and seeds accumulate between the stones and eventually weeds grow there where weeding is very difficult to do and weed killer applications are accomplished only at risk to desirable plants.

Stop 23: Look forward to winter

"Winter is a really long season and we hope we can look out our windows to something worth looking at."

A - Gold Mop' falsecypress  B -Evergreen euonymus grown as a vine (may also be grown as a shrub)  C - Panicle hydrangea 'Tardiva'  D - Dwarf Oregon grapeholly  E - Creeping phlox

A - Gold Mop' falsecypress B -Evergreen euonymus grown as a vine (may also be grown as a shrub) C - Panicle hydrangea 'Tardiva' D - Dwarf Oregon grapeholly E - Creeping phlox



Stop 23 features:

Leaf color creates interest in winter, as in the contrast between the gold wispy foliage of this falsecypress (A) and the broad leaves of the grapeholly (D) that turn maroon in winter. Don't overlook other winter interest characteristics, however. Also, do check for yourself to see if you like what others acclaim. The panicle hydrangea's persistent, large seed heads stand out in winter, especially when they hold snow. Yet one person may call that look 'lovely' while another finds it 'creepy.'

The last stop, 24: Winter continues

That's kind of classy-quaint. Is it a lot of work?"



Stop 24 features:

A - Boxwood
B - Creeping phlox
C - Spring bulbs and cool season annuals; this area planted in rotation, next with summer annuals and then fall plants such as mums.
D - Summer blooming shrub such as blue mist spirea (Caryopteris)

Other notes:

Strong geometric shapes and patterns can add a lot of interest to the landscape in winter but do talk to the gardener about how much care is involved before setting your heart on something like this parterre planting.

Symmetrical plantings will not retain their symmetry unless growing conditions are the same throughout the area: Equal number of hours of sun per day, the same type of soil, the same proportion of moisture and air in the soil, etc. The gardener must correct for variance. The off-color boxwoods in the right half of this parterre are telling us that some condition there is less suitable for boxwood. For instance, the soil may be more compacted or more soggy there, or sprinklers may be pummeling those plants.