How to Create the Perfect Spring Landscape

Replicating the picture-perfect garden sometimes feels easier said than done. Try these easy tips from local nursery specialists and set off on the correct path.

It’s one thing to see a colorful backyard landscape on television or in a greenhouse, but replicating that look at home sometimes feels easier said than done.

“People will say they kill everything, but that’s because they don’t start at the right level,” says Tyler Hagemann, owner and grower at Merlin’s Greenhouse, in Oregon, Ill. “Certain plants are a lot harder to grow than some other plants. There are different levels of growing, and a lot of people don’t realize that.”

As you set upon your garden, remember that it takes the right preparations and a little bit of strategy to create that beautiful, picture-perfect landscape around your home. Here are some of the best places to get started this year.

Need a Hand?

In order to create a landscape that’s top-notch, it’s worthwhile to plan things out with a professional, says Jon Carlson, owner of J. Carlson Growers, 8938 Newburg Road, Rockford. At the very least, a professional can help to steer you in the right direction. At the very most, they’ll help guide you through the process.

Going into this process, be prepared to share ideas with designers, so they can get a feel for your overall vision.
“It helps for people to take some pictures, maybe get some measurements or figure out what they’re trying to accomplish,” Carlson says. “Are they trying to beautify their patio or deck, are they trying to screen their yard from a neighbor’s barking dog? I think a professional can either help them develop a plan or a nursery could offer suggestions on what kinds of plants to use. Have someone in the business really help guide you.”

Best of all, these experts know what sorts of plantings are most popular and can offer something fresh to your landscape.

Carlson sees more people seeking privacy these days, but they’re not seeking it from a traditional fence. Instead, they’re going for a more natural barrier, provided by tall evergreens.

Ten-foot arborvitae evergreen plants are a natural way to add privacy. The arborvitae is green year-round and typically grows about 8 to 10 feet tall.

“More people are getting them than last year because more people are spending time in their yards and working from home,” Carlson says. “All of a sudden, the privacy they maybe thought they had in their yards is not there anymore, or they might need more privacy. That’s the No. 1 thing that people are asking for right now.”

If homeowners want something taller than 10 feet, Carlson suggests the wintergreen arborvitae, which can grow up to 20 or 30 feet.

“With the right plants, you can make your backyard into your own little oasis or private garden,” he says. “Everyone is looking for a place to sit outside and relax after a long day of working. We all know that plants and landscapes offer that sort of inner peace.”

One of the most common mistakes Carlson sees is easily preventable. Too often, homeowners purchase a plant without knowing how big it will grow – not just height, but width, too. Though it may look small at the nursery, that tree or shrub will continue to grow, and it’s important to know how its future self will fit with the surroundings.

“It’s important to do your research or have a professional guide you on how big the plants can get,” Carlson says. “It’s easy to rectify, because sometimes you can move stuff around or cut things down.”

A Norway spruce, for example, starts at about 5 feet tall and looks cute when it’s fresh from the nursery. But give it a few years and that once-cute tree planted too close to the house is now a towering 60 feet tall and 30 feet wide.

“How do you plan for that?” Carlson says. “You really have to do your research and get a tape measure and measure out from your house, so you don’t have to cut something down in 20 years.”

Good Gardening Habits

Hagemann says the magical day to start planting is Mother’s Day, which is May 9 this year. That’s the day where the threat of any lingering frost is most likely behind us.

Why is it best to wait until frost is least likely? Those wonderful plants you just bought from the greenhouse aren’t ready for the shock of a late-season frost. They’ve been quietly growing in carefully, climate-controlled greenhouses up until now.

“The plants are not used to the 30-degree nights and they end up struggling to take off,” Hagemann says. “The longer you wait, the better your plants are going to do because they’re not going though that stress level.”

Once those plants are safely set, it’s important to maintain them appropriately. Hagemann recommends watering plants early in the morning, rather than late in the day, after work while the kids are playing.

“Throughout the day, you want all that water to evaporate and get off the plant,” Hagemann says. “A lot of people water late at night when they get off work, and when you do that you’re making that plant sit wet overnight – and that’s when you get powdery mildew and fungus. If you water in the morning, you start that plant off right for the day, so it’s ready to take off and grow.”

When it comes to growing plants in containers, it’s a good idea to water under the leaves. Doing so will ensure the center of the plant – and the root ball underneath – gets a good amount of water.

“If you pick up the leaves and water underneath them, it’s a lot better for the plants because if you’re constantly watering the top of the leaves, minerals in the water build up and do damage to the leaves long-term,” Hagemann says. “When we sell our hanging baskets, people complain that they die out in the middle of the basket, and that’s because they’re constantly watering in the same spot on top of that foliage.”

Weed Control

Every gardener knows the summertime battle with those pesky and annoying weeds, but did you know that pulling weeds may not be the best approach?

“You don’t want to disturb the soil, because every time you work that soil up, you’re disturbing the ground and bringing new weed seed to the surface,” Hagemann says. “A lot of your grass is spread by rhizomes, so when you’re pulling weeds, you’re encouraging all those rhizomes to take off and spread everywhere.”

Instead, Hagemann is a proponent of herbicides that’ll kill the weeds without disturbing the soil.

“Spray them, but don’t pull them,” he says. “Roundup kills the entire plant because that chemical goes all the way through its roots and kills all those rhizomes,” he says. “When you see your tulips or daffodils start to bloom, it’s a good time to start spraying for weeds. Doing it early enough eliminates those weeds.”

Gardeners who are strongly against using Roundup could instead try using Preen, a pre-emergent herbicide.
“It’s not killing the weeds, but it’s stopping them from germinating for four to six weeks,” Hagemann says. “You also have to stay on top of it, because 95 percent of people are going to forget one time and they’ll have weeds emerging again. They’ll try putting the Preen down again and it won’t do anything to the already emerged weeds.”

Know What to Plant – and Where

Knowing the difference between annuals and perennials – and how they grow – will save a lot of time, money and frustration. Hagemann sees plenty of gardeners who are upset and wondering why their plants aren’t blooming year-round.

“With perennials, you have to know that you won’t get a yearlong flower,” he says. “Instead, you’ll get a three-week window where you’ll have a wonderful flower, but for the rest of the year, you’ll get foliage and green leaves.”

And to plenty of gardeners, that’s OK. This is where it’s extremely helpful to work with a professional, because they understand when and how things will bloom. A well-done landscape accounts for each plant’s blooming cycle, so that there’s always something that’s in bloom.

With perennials, it’s also important to know how they will reproduce. Some plants, like coneflowers, will produce seeds that spread new plants across the garden – for better or for worse. Daylilies and hostas, on the other hand, will progressively crowd out other brush and need to be separated every few years.

Annuals are most likely to bloom consistently throughout the season, but it’s important to remember that they’ll need to be replaced again next season.

“If you want that dazzling color in front of your house that makes it look awesome, you’ll want to buy some annuals,” says Hagemman. “That’ll give you the flower power that makes your house look nice.”

Adding a Sense of Calmness

It’s funny how a little bit of color can brighten up and calm down a home landscape. Carlson says those touches of greenery are proven to soften everything around and provide a true sense of escape from the outside world.

“If you have a house with brick or stone on it, you want something green because it’ll blend into everything,” he says. “Shade trees create shade, so they’re cooling your house, and I’m sure that any sort of plant will buffer sound if you live closer to a roadway or airport. You can have the most beautiful home in the neighborhood, but you need plants to help soften the house.”