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Creating a New, Lively Landscape

A backyard is given new life with plants, flowers and a patio.

By Susan Banks
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

There isn't much a gardener could be more excited about than getting a new garden. Especially if they've been making do with pots and a small patio for the past several years.

In December, I bought a house. It was decorated exactly to my tastes, right down to the wall colors and draperies. I wouldn't have to do much inside.

Happily, the garden is another story.

While the former owners paid some attention to the landscape, it really wasn't their main focus. They left me a nice stone wall and a fairly blank slate to work with. Moving in during the winter gave me lots of time to ponder what I'll be doing once spring arrives.

First on my agenda is to make a hit list of plants that need to go. No. 1 is a misplaced arborvitae that is trying to grow up through the front awning, followed by an assortment of yuccas and rose of Sharon volunteers. I've also got an oak tree springing up less than a foot from the house's foundation. It will have to go simply because there is no room for it to mature in such a limited area.

Lots of overgrown ivy, a large azalea and some disfigured rhododendrons complete one side of the front yard plantings. The other is populated by an old hydrangea, a creeping euonymus and small juniper. I'm hoping to save some of the stuff, but the arborvitae and one, poor hacked rhododendron will be on the way to plant heaven before the first robins return. As for the hydrangea, I'm studying it. I may be able to make it an attractive plant with some careful pruning. If not, it, too, will be on its way to plant Valhalla.

Since the house faces west, the side yard to the north will be a great place for a shade garden. And because there is space, a bed of shade-loving plants is more than a distinct possibility.

The back yard, which presents its own set of problems and possibilities, will be getting the most attention this season. All gardeners need outdoor living space, so a hardscape will have to be planned and budgeted for.

When it comes to putting in a patio, it's important to do things right the first time, especially when money is tight. Even if the patio can't be worked into the finances this year, I need to make allowances and plans for it now so I'm not stuck replanting things later. In a perfect world, the hardscape is finished before planting begins. But I just can't wait.

The actual work of planting is what I look forward to. Digging is the nitty-gritty of gardening. Deciding which plants will populate my new kingdom is mind-candy of the finest sort, and, as every gardener knows, the possibilities are endless.

I already know a few things that I can't live without. My alpine troughs will finally be making the short trip to their new home. And the stone wall the former owner thoughtfully added to the back yard will be filled with a collection of my all-time favorites, sempervivums (hens & chicks), which of course, I'll be collecting again. (For the uninitiated, these are wonderful, hardy plants that come in an amazing array of colors.) The wall also will be a great place to tuck the rock garden plants (alpines) that I'm so fond of.

The back garden will house a collection of conifers, plants I've come to love for their texture and variety of sizes, shapes and color. Hostas, too, will have a place as well as astilbes and arisaemas and Siberian iris. And a place must be made for Clematis 'Betty Corning.' The pale blue bell-like flowers are a must for any garden I preside over. And, of course a few peonies also will have to be represented.

In the sunny area, I'm planning a small selection of roses. I'll have a 'Don Juan' climber -- even though it is marginally hardy here -- because I can't live without its rich dark-red flowers. If I can find it, I'll put in a 'Dr. Van Fleet.' If I can't find one, I'll go with 'New Dawn,' a sport of 'Dr. Van Fleet' that is supposed to bloom longer. At my old house, the good doctor overtook any trellis we managed to hook it to. Though he bloomed only once a year, his heady scent and blossom-covered, rich green foliage made him a guest I'll be happy to sacrifice some space on.

Of course, no garden is complete without a few daylilies. The hybrid forms are so gorgeous and easy to care for, they practically demand inclusion. Bulbs won't be forgotten, either. So far, my list includes some daffodils, grape hyacinth, Siberian squill, crocus and dwarf iris (OK, they're not really bulbs). And we can't forget underused Camassia bulbs.

With catalogs overflowing my mailbox, planning just becomes that much more fun. Having a new plot is exciting, exhilarating and quite challenging. I hope I manage to side-step the usual gardening mistakes (most of which I've made before). I'll try to mold a blank landscape with limited finances, muscle power and sheer audacity.

In any event, I'm back with a gardening vengeance.

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