Landscaping Small Spaces

(click to enlarge)

When faced with landscaping small spaces, many homeowners throw up their hands in defeat, adding only a few lonely, out of scale shrubs around the perimeter. If you have a small yard to landscape, there are several strategies you can use to make a big impact, creating an outdoor living space with all the beauty and elegance of a larger area.

Most important, and possibly more important than with a larger area, a good overall plan is key. Every aspect of small-space landscaping must work together when the design is complete, particularly if you install it in stages. A piecemeal approach will make the space limitations more obvious.

This very small area has a multi-level deck, stone patio, and a planted retaining wall. (click to enlarge)

Your overall plan should take into account how you use the space. Do you need an area for pets, a play area for children, or do you entertain outdoors frequently? Make sure that all your intended uses are addressed, and allow for multi-use areas where possible. Don’t forget about incorporating side yards into the overall design. Often these areas are used for little more than pass-through or trash can storage, when they can add dimension and useable area to a small yard design.

Breaking the space up into outdoor “rooms” can make it appear larger. This can be done using grade changes, small screening hedges, and walls. Don’t be afraid to incorporate hardscaping for this purpose. A full-size patio or deck instead of a scaled-down version is more useful and actually looks better in a small space. There is great opportunity here to provide an illusion of a larger space by incorporating some of the same materials that the house is made of; often you can afford to use higher-quality material since you’re covering a smaller square footage.

A collection of fun birdhouses, a pyramid trellis, planters elevated on elegant  columns, layered plantings, hardscaping and elevation changes all add interest in this well designed small space. (click to enlarge)  

A great trick to make the small space look larger is to incorporate your neighbor’s plantings as a backdrop for your own.  If your design incorporates layers of plants that play off the neighbor’s existing trees or shrubs, it creates the illusion of a larger planting area.  Keep the scale of plants used in mind also.  Almost every variety of tree and shrub has a compact or dwarf version.  Instead of a few full size shrubs, layer several smaller versions to add depth, texture, and more seasons of interest.

Finally, add interest by incorporating water features, garden art or statuary and containers as focal points.  Water features have the added benefit of masking outside sounds while creating a tranquil space to relax in.  Using containers in a limited palette of colors (A primary color with some accent colors) will tie the space together and provides another opportunity to incorporate four-season color.

Small yards can have all the impact and usefulness of larger spaces if you plan ahead, create useful spaces, incorporate well-chosen materials, and use the same plant layering techniques used in larger areas.  It’s all a matter of scale.

Do you have a small backyard that you’re particularly proud of? Post a picture on our Facebook page at

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What Weeds Reveal about your Lawn (and the single best thing you can do about them)             

(all text links go to Google images to help you identify the weeds mentioned)

Weeds in your grass are not causing a bad lawn-a bad lawn is causing weeds in your grass. The good news is you can use the types of weeds you find to help diagnose what problems your lawn has and target the fixes for the biggest impact. We’ll also see how one lawncare activity can improve many of these problems and reduce the need to use herbicides for weed control.

Let’s start with one of the most common lawn issues first. The soils of the Triad are quite high in clay content. Soils of this type are easily compacted. Not only does compaction negatively affect the grass growth directly resulting in thinning turf, but some of the most common and bothersome weeds thrive in compacted soils. If you see crabgrass, goosegrass and buttonweed in your lawn, your soil is probably compacted. This can be remedied by regular aeration in spring or fall. This will benefit the soil—and your grass—in several ways. With aeration, oxygen and nutrients can better penetrate the soil, resulting in healthier turf that will fill in to prevent weed growth. Beneficial organisms and earthworms will also thrive. Their activity further improves soil structure and nutrient content. The result is stronger, healthier grass that can prevent these weeds from gaining a foothold.

If you see white clover, it may be an indication that your soil is low in nitrogen. Regular feeding will remedy this, and again, aeration can help nutrients penetrate uniformly. But don’t go overboard with the nitrogen fertilizer. Weeds such as henbit and chickweed will thrive in soil with excess nitrogen levels.  Targeting the correct fertility levels is one reason that getting a soil test done at least annually is important.

The presence of nutsedge, annual bluegrass and algae indicates areas of poor drainage, as these weeds prefer moist soils. Observe how water drains or puddles after rain or when you irrigate to see if you need to address any drainage issues.  You may need to adjust your irrigation settings or even install some type of overall drainage management in severe cases, but often aeration to improve water absorption by the soil will suffice.

Did you notice that aeration will help all these weed issues? The benefits of aeration to your lawn are many, improving water and nutrient penetration, promoting a healthy soil ecology of beneficial microorganisms and earthworms, and encouraging more robust grass growth. When all of these factors come together your lawn will resist weed growth (and disease and drought stress) and grow healthy and hardy. 

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When to Repot Root Bound Houseplants

A common question people ask about houseplants is: how can you tell when they should be repotted? While the exact answer varies with each type of houseplant, a few basic clues will help you decide if it needs to be done.

Becoming root bound is the primary reason a houseplant might need to be repotted. You can tell if a houseplant is becoming root bound by turning it out of its pot and observing the roots. A dead giveaway that the plant is root bound is “Triscuit roots”, where the roots are so overgrown that no soil is visible. If your plant is too large to remove from the pot, look for signs that look like the symptoms of underwatering: stunted growth and yellow or brown leaves, particularly at the base of the plant, or wilting quickly after being watered.  You may also see roots at the surface of the soil or coming out of the drainage holes. In extreme cases, the pot itself may be deformed by the pressure of the roots inside, or has even begun to break.

In many cases a root bound houseplant should be repotted, especially if they are breaking out of the container, or falling over. However, there are some common houseplants that actually perform better (as defined by blooming or producing offshoots) when root bound.  Still others, like African violets and members of their family, have delicate root systems that can become damaged during repotting if great care is not taken during the process.

When would you wait to repot a root bound houseplant? If you are still pleased with how your houseplant looks in relation to the container and it seems otherwise healthy and is performing well, you can postpone repotting many root bound plants. Being root bound stresses a plant. Stressed plants often react by ramping up reproduction, either by blooming or producing offshoots. (The parent plant cannot risk dying without leaving behind offspring, so it devotes energy and growth to making babies.) Is it necessarily “healthier” than a plant that is not root bound? No, but most people are growing their plants for some amount of bloom or other reproduction. A certain amount of managed stress can actually make some houseplants showier.


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Plants that tolerate being root bound

  • African violet
  • aloe
  • asparagus fern
  • Boston fern
  • Christmas cactus
  • ficus
  • jade plant
  • peace lily (Spathiphyllum)
  • snake plant (Sanseveria)
  • spider plant
  • umbrella tree (Schefflera)