Landscaping 101

Q: We’re a young couple who just moved into our first house. It needs quite a lot of fixing up, and we have limited funds for landscaping right now, but we want to get started. The property is about an acre of not very good grass, some scraggly shrubs, and a few big trees (maples, maybe?). Lots of sun, except beneath the trees. It looks kind of bare and uninviting. Do you have any suggestions for improvements that don’t cost a mint?
Sheila Hirst, Mount Kisco

A: I’m guessing from your description of “scraggly shrubs” and “big trees”—not precise horticultural terms—that you’re not an experienced gardener. So you need professional help. And before you dismiss that notion as a madcap extravagance, let me remind you that good landscaping adds real value to your property, while that dotted-here-and-there look the average amateur gardener usually achieves does not. I speak as an avid amateur, who learned the hard way by making expensive mistakes that had to be torn out.

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Robert Welsch of Westover Landscape Design in Tarrytown and Bedford Hills thinks the best, first step is to invest in a master plan for the entire property. “Think of it as a road map, so that even if you phase it in over several years, you won’t be putting things in the wrong places,” he says. “Also, a professional landscaper can prevent problems that may arise later on and can fix unglamorous things like drainage, or unsafe walkways and failing retaining walls—things that aren’t about a pretty landscape so much as making the outdoor space safe and functional.”

Having a plan for the future won’t make your property look any better right this minute, so, for instant gratification (our favorite kind!), Welsch recommends container gardening. “I suggest they invest in high-quality, year-round polypropylene tubs and containers that can be easily moved around, and plant them with colorful flowers and grasses,” he says. You can do seasonal plantings in pots, Welsch notes, switching fading summer flowers for chrysanthemums and other autumn favorites at the end of the season. “And don’t be afraid to go big,” he adds. “You can even plant small shrubs or small trees in a container to give big impact. River birches or hydrangeas work really well and they do fine in the pot over the winter.” Another advantage of potted shrubs and trees is that you can transplant those into the ground, once you implement your master plan.

Even if you wanted to get started on permanent garden beds, it’s a little late, Welsch notes. But you could add some raised beds that could be broken down later. Those might be used to grow flowers or herbs and vegetables, or even as nursery beds for plants that you’ll move into permanent spots when you begin to implement the big picture. Sometimes you can get terrific bargains on plants nearer the end of the season.

Doing a tree assessment is another important first-stage step, says Welsch, who recommends calling a professional arborist (he likes Westchester Tree Life in Chappaqua). “With all the storm damage we had this winter, it’s important to make sure that dead, broken, or dangerous limbs are taken care of and that,if you have stately trees, they remain healthy.”

If you want to get inspired, check out Welsch’s website at

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