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There is More to Landscape Design Than Meatballs and Mulch


"The meatball meter is off the charts!" That statement made me chuckle as I sat in a crowd listening to Michael Dirr a few years ago. This leading plantsman known worldwide for his work with trees and shrubs was lamenting on the tragedy of shearing plants into "meatballs".

Often when you see these 'meatballs' in the landscape, they sit atop a sea of mulch. If the mulch is dyed red, then that just adds more to the visual that our yards look like giant plates of spaghetti. Meatballs and mulch may be desirable to many, but I cannot buy into this type of yard.

I garden like I cook, which could best be described as an unhinged chef. Fortunately, the meal often turns out pretty good. Though keep in mind, I cook what I like to eat. The same goes for my landscape.

In my yard, I have plants (and some weeds) that persist due to my fascination with one or more parts of their lifecycle. It could be their flowers, seed, foliage, forage for wildlife, fall color, and other excuses I tell my wife so she doesn't pull them up.

An observer would view my yard and see a deranged gardener. I see a balance between cultivation and nature.

My kids love the yard. Little is sacred in the cacophony of plants and pots. They are allowed to roam free, shovel in hand, to dig and create whatever their imagination holds. Can their toiling become an eyesore? Certainly! Can it be fixed? So far!

While I may have painted a dire picture of a landscape in desperate need of help, there is order and qualities that help to hold everything together. The shape of the landscape beds and lawn are very geometric. A half circle forms the lawn space. The bed lines are strong, meaning they aren't wavy which is seen as excessive and weak. Taller plant materials flank my backyard framing the view out to the nearby woodland.

Pathways and plant material extend the lines of the house into the landscape, tying together the built and natural areas into one cohesive space.

Groupings of plant material repeat in the landscape beds. Creating a dynamic rhythm as the eye crosses the breadth of the landscape. Meanwhile, colorful containers accentuate a few spots out in the yard.

Shrubs are pruned by hand to remove the older growth and maintain the plant's natural shape. I don't prune to control size.

Admittedly, there is a lot of wood mulch in my yard, but the goal is to have little to no need for it in the future. Our entire backyard was lawn, and we converted over half of that into landscaping. The mulch helps to keep the weeds at bay and protect the soil while the plants become established and cover the ground.

Maybe you're a meatball and mulch gardener. I suggest you pick a spot in the yard and try a different approach that involves less shearing, less mulch, and more plants. Let's call that stir-fry gardening. I really shouldn't write on an empty stomach.



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