Diggin' the Dirt

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Thursday, February 2, 2012 / 8:13 AM

Avoid the Pitfalls of the “Instant Landscape”: Proper Plant Spacing

Avoid the Pitfalls of the “Instant Landscape”: Proper Plant Spacing

As I was walking along Grand, this front landscape came into view. Bingo! I had my next blog article. I am all for using evergreens for structure and winter interest. However, this is a prime example of poor plant spacing, not to mention poor vision for the future.

About five years ago, this plantscape probably looked perfect. But because they did not plant dwarf conifers, which grow very slowly and stay compact, these trees were bound to get themselves into a crowded mess. The homeowners probably also wanted screening—which they definitely got. And they will get more of it. I guarantee you that these conifers want to keeping growing. Then, the owners of this fine display will either start hacking the trees back, or figuring out which ones to remove—if not this year, then certainly the next.

One element of landscape design that seems to be overlooked in case after case of Oh God, what have I created?!” is proper plant spacing. Even the best in the business have trouble with it. The reason? Everyone wants INSTANT LANDSCAPE! There really is no such thing. And if you get one, reassured you will be in big trouble not too far down the road.

People want to see an immediate bang for their buck. Who wouldn’t? That’s why landscape architects, landscape designers, the weekend warrior gardeners, novices and—Yes! Even the Garden Coach—have installed plants too tightly. Consumers of plant goods also tend to feel that "bigger is better" (Don’t go there! <Wink>) when they buy plant material. That's another kind of story, but I’ll just say that smaller (less injured) plants will take faster and grower quicker than the larger dudes.

This is a great example of how to place tall evergreen trees very close to a house. It creates perspective, and grounds this house into its surroundings. How many times have we seen 40-foot evergreens, planted 3 feet from a foundation, that look ready to swallow the building—unless they'ven been nearly hacked the tree to death to keep them restrained? This evergreen is most likely a Weeping Pine, and the one in the background a Weeping Spruce. Wonderul evergreen specimens to use near buildings. They may look a little funky, but try and picture this shot without the Weeping Pine; it's not nearly as appealing. Plus, they provide a feeling of privacy (screening) indoors, and you may even see some birds in those pendulous branches.  Everbybody wins. Hurrah.

As you start to consider what plants are needed or wanted in a given space, think long term; how will this plant look 10 to 15 years from now? Be sure and do your research on the height and width of a plant. Take note of its growing speed. Is it slow, like Japanese Maples? Then tighter planting may be OK. Is it fast- growing? Will it be touching its surrounding neighbors quickly? If so, proper distance (planting on center) is critical.


I do this all the time: take pictures of the plant specification information that is provided on plants in nurseries. This shot was taken on a cold November day (note the gloves) at Bowood Farms Nursery, which is a great resource for specialty conifers. This spec card lets me know this Japanese Plum Yew will be 10 feet tall, 5 to 8 feet wide, and slow growing. The zone is 6-9, which means it could be touchy here in our St. Louis winters. Planting this close to a house would probably be a great idea, because there would be protection and possibly a warm microclimate for it. The spec card also provides care instructions and a handy planting guide. Who would not want to take this charming dwarf conifer to a new and inviting home? Nope, I don’t see any hand raised.


I know what you’re thinking. Are you kidding? Dullsville.  But this planting is right on, and smartly done. Those bright greenish-yellow blobs are most likely Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Golden Mop' or similar, which will reach 5 feet wide at maturity. I’ve seen them get even bigger than that. So these are planted around 5-foot centers, which is good (probably could be even farther). Good bet they will be “shaking hands” in three years, and converge as one in five years.


This is a great example of a perfect solution to eliminate an unsustainable and uninteresting monoculture—turfgrass. It brings texture, winter interest and another height element into a landscape. Plus, it's functiona—the roots will eventually work to hold back erosion. You can see they pinned down some landscape fabric, which I’m not a huge fan of, but it’s there for a good reason: to avoid erosion problems. Eventually, once these low-growing Juniperus sabina var. tamariscifolia spread, the homeowners won’t even have to mulch anymore. Now it does say the plants get 10 feet wide, so planting on 10-foot centers would have been optimal. Great job, homeowner! You get a gold star from the Garden Coach.

One more bit of advice before I check out. No matter how much research and planning you do, or if you've hired a professional to do the work…BE PATIENT. There's a Chinese proverb I found in Micheal Dirr’s book Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, that speaks to that: A garden, where one may enter in and forget the whole world, cannot be made in a week, nor a month, nor a year; it must be planned for, waited for and loved into being. This is SO TRUE and applies to most everything in life. If it comes too fast, it’s probably not the best thing for you.

One last note, which has nothing to do with plant spacing: It's February, and the witchazels are starting to bloom. No other fragrance like it, but you gotta stick your nose in close. Be sure and catch them in four to six weeks, when they really put on their show. Follow my example here, and you can’t go wrong.

Beth Gellman, the Garden Coach, is a consultant and designer who specializes in helping people understand, plan and manage outdoor spaces. She teams up with Rhonda Schaper of Glorious Gardens, Inc. for landscape contracting and maintenance. Beth’s blogging career with St. Louis Magazine began while participating in the EarthDance 2010 Apprenticeship program. There, she gained greater knowledge about organic urban farming and community gardens. Her passion for transforming outdoor spaces, along with genuine concern for sustainable methods of living is something she strives to share with others.

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Feb 28, 2012 12:07 am
 Posted by  mia

Don't they look overgrown? sublimation equipments

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