How did this landscape disaster happen?


As a landscaper specializing in “makeovers” (rebuilding existing landscapes) I often find myself looking at landscape disasters, trying to pick up the pieces and figure out how to make it right. You might call me a landscape forensic pathologist, examining a crime scene of poorly designed, carelessly installed, mis-managed landscaping with major problems. More often than not the solution is a deep-down, scorched-earth, gut-level restoration, because so little of what’s there is salvageable. Does this seem harsh? How did we get to this point?

Good landscaping gets better with time. Well-designed, professionally installed landscapes don’t need to be replaced every ten or twenty years, like out-of-style interior décor. That’s because landscape design isn’t just about decoration. Good landscape designs start with solving practical problems and providing functional benefits. The beauty happens automatically once you balance all the other functions that should be designed in. It starts by asking practical questions.

Where do we want to walk? Can we fit all our cars in the driveway? Can we turn them around easily in the dark, in the snow, without going off-road? What happens to all the runoff during hard rains? Can we sit on the porch or patio comfortably on a hot, sunny summer afternoon? Do we have to draw the blinds on all our windows, for privacy? Do wild birds and butterflies have food and shelter? Is the view from the kitchen sink workstation pretty, or are we looking at the neighbors’ old travel trailer?

We need to select plants that won’t outgrow the space, or block the sidewalks and windows, or need constant shearing. Trees should be strategically placed for shade, windbreak, privacy, and to block sight lines we don’t want to see from where we sit. Growing conditions like shade or sun, drainage, soil fertility and winter hardiness need to be considered.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to install landscape plantings and hardscaping. Often the difference between professional and amateur installation isn’t obvious at first. Over time we have overgrown shrubs, uncontrollable weeds, sinking pavers, sagging walls, and plants that have been butchered into shapes their Creator never intended. There’s no way to band-aid over this situation. Drastic (and sometimes expensive) solutions are called for.

There’s no such thing as “maintenance-free” landscaping, but if the designer has spent any time working in grounds maintenance, he could reduce the number of maintenance man-hours dramatically. Any commercial landscape maintenance contractor will readily agree that proper design and installation has a huge impact on the maintenance cost of landscaping, over years of time.

Most of our work is in landscapes that were installed years ago, when the home was just built, and there wasn’t enough left in the budget to do a professional job. We understand this and we’ve been there personally. Now that the kids are through college, and perhaps the mortgage paid off, it’s time to revisit the outdoor living spaces and make them beautiful, salvaging what’s good. Time to realize our long-postponed dreams. Rather than repeat the mistakes of the past, time to really think through what we can do to flatter the house and make outdoor living a pleasure.

The first step is an honest examination of the landscape in its present state. This is where the forensic pathology comes in. Why did these plants fail to thrive? Why is it so much work to keep the yard from turning into a jungle? Can’t we have beautiful surroundings without being a slave to them? As we turn the page into a new season, these might be the right questions to ask.

Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are on the “Garden Advice” page at For more information is available at or call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.

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