Declutter Your Landscape

Want to refresh your landscape quickly? These decluttering projects will make an instant impact on your outdoor spaces.

For many people, landscaping means planting shrubs and flowers. In fact, when I used to tell friends I was studying landscape architecture, the first thing they said was, “What should I plant at my house?”

But landscaping is essentially about creating outdoor spaces. And one of the first (and often most significant) things you can do to your site is to remove what isn’t needed rather than to add new things.

This enables you to see what the beauty in what you already have. Plus, in most cases, you get instant gratification from your work, which creates a snowball effect of motivation to keep going.

Toss items in your landscape that are past their prime.

Many things have a way of accumulating outside without being noticed. Be ruthless about getting rid of items that aren’t currently serving a purpose. Examples: old plastic hanging baskets, cracked lawn furniture, broken grills, extra building supplies, tattered flags and decorations, faded kids’ toys, and those little piles of sticks, leaves, or stones that needs a home or a toss onto the compost pile.

This includes plants! If you don’t love them, and if they really aren’t adding anything to your landscape, dig them out and donate or compost them. Just because something is growing doesn’t mean it has to stay.

Get rid of weeds.

Go all the way out to the street and clean up your curb line. Remove weeds growing in cracks in the sidewalk and debris left over from storm water. It makes a clean, crisp framework for your property.

Dig out the entire root system of weeds, so you only have to deal with them once. 

Other places to eliminate weeds: around your mailbox, around downspouts and drainage pipes, along the perimeter of the house, around kids’ play structures, and around trees.

Prune overgrown trees and shrubs.

Whether you do it yourself, or hire a professional, you’ll want to read up on the proper pruning techniques for all of your trees and woody-stemmed shrubs.

In general, remove anything dead, diseased, or damaged. Ensure no branches are touching your house, remove anything that makes mowing difficult, and anything that blocks windows or walkways.

Professionals will prune branches that are blocking air circulation or interfering with the shape of the plant. They also make cuts to distribute weight properly. This can make plants safer during storms and enhance their health and growth.

Unless you are working on a formal hedge line, you don’t want to “shear” your woody plants. Follow a target branch down to the point where it joins the main stem, then make a sharp cut using a proper pruning saw or sharp loppers. Clean cuts look best and don’t invite fungus or pests. The cuts should be angled so as not to retain surface water, which can invite pathogens.

Pruning in this way maintains the natural shape of the plant. It is also possible to cut some deciduous shrubs down to about 6″ to start over. New growth will emerge from the base of the plant. Check with a professional first to see if this will work for your particular plant. A great place to find out this information is from a quality nursery in your area.

“Limbing up” trees removes the bottom layer of branches to lift up the canopy. This can let in quite a bit of new light and air circulation, and often the results are dramatic.

Eliminate the need for trimming.

Rethink areas where the lawn is not accessible by a mower (i.e., where you have to go around with a trimmer). If it’s around the foundation of your house, install a planting bed or gravel strip. The goal is to be able to run the mower around the entire lawn without stopping.

If you have planting areas edged with protruding stone or brick, sink the stones or brick so the mower can run right over them.

If you have trees, create flat mulch circles or plantings of ground cover around them. This saves the tree roots from being damaged by the mower.  A respected arborist once told me the goal is to try to recreate the forest floor around my trees.

No lawn turf and no mulch should be mounded up against the base of the tree. The tree’s “flare” (the beginning of the root system at the bottom of the trunk) should be visible to the eye.

Clearly define the edges of your driveway and walkways and planting areas.

It’s amazing how much turf and sediment can build up at the sides of your hardscape areas. Take a flat shovel and lift up all areas around the edges your walkways and driveway. Then use an edging tool to cleanly cut off the excess.

The often adds a bit of “found” width to your paved areas and a fresh, renewed appearance.

Streamline your outdoor spaces.

Eliminate anything too small in scale. For example, if you have any tiny “island” plantings, consider moving the plants to a larger bed and turfing over the islands. The landscape looks best when designed in large drifts. Think swathes of lawn, waves of flowers, groupings of shrubs, groves of trees. Why? Because it’s most like nature.

Likewise, thin strips of plantings along walkways and driveways are usually out of scale and hard to maintain with a clean edge. A planting area should be 3′ deep at the barest minimum (deeper is better). If you have smaller areas created by structures or walkways, these look best when planted with simple green groundcover (sweet woodruff, creeping thyme, etc.).

All of this “un-planting” is hard work! But it can create a unified, elegant landscape. And it’s very budget friendly.

This post was previously posted on The Simple Landscape blog.


Elizabeth Douglas is the founder of Pocket Meadows. She holds a degree in landscape architectural studies and is a member of the NY State Nursery & Landscape Association.

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