How to Rehab and Rescue Your Garden

Garden expert Martha Swiss shares her tips for getting your landscape healthy — and beautiful.
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Ask Yourself (a Lot) of Questions

Think about whether your outdoor space meets your functional needs. Do you want to grill and entertain? Raise vegetables and herbs? Grow flowers for cutting? Improve curb appeal? Do your kids need somewhere to play? Do you have a dog that needs outdoor space? Do you crave a serene spot to unwind? Are your trashcans in a convenient spot? Do you want more privacy or to hide an ugly view? Do you need somewhere to stash your mower and garden tools? Do you have enough space to park and maneuver cars? Are walkways and patios in good repair — or are they tripping hazards?

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While that’s a lot to consider, a checklist from the Association of Professional Landscape Designers can clarify your needs and walk you through this process.

Add and Subtract. Once you decide what you want and need from your outdoor spaces, think about the man-made features to achieve that vision (patio, deck, path, driveway, shed, fire pit, water feature, play space, fences, retaining walls, etc.). Decide which to add, keep, repair or replace. Think about adjacent plants and garden spaces and how they may need to change. Trees and shrubs form the backbone of a landscape and can increase property value, yet they become a liability if they are diseased or outgrow the intended space. Assess each in terms of its health and whether it fits your plan. If you suspect trees are unwell or past their prime, call a certified, insured arborist to render a verdict (find one near you at A certified arborist may be able to improve your trees by feeding and pruning them.

Get Physical. Once you have a plan, you can roll up your sleeves or hire professionals to do some, or all, of the work of demolishing and rebuilding hardscape, removing and pruning trees and shrubs, and weeding or digging new beds. Before demolition, dig, divide, pot up, and hold perennials you want to save for replanting later (these are plants that die back to the ground each winter and grow back each spring). Tackle the overgrown shrubs worth saving. When timed and done correctly, pruning and fertilizing restores a shrub’s natural form, improves health and turns up the flower power. Penn State offers a helpful basic pruning guide at

Have Some Fun. After hardscaping is done and beds are prepared, it’s time to plant. If you are installing new trees and shrubs, take time to research your choices carefully in terms of mature size, required growing conditions, and attributes such as flowers, then plant them correctly as this greatly influences their longevity. After trees and shrubs are in, re-plant any perennials you saved, along with any new plants from your local garden center or gardening friends. Cover the planting with a 2- to 3-inch layer of shredded mulch, being careful to keep it away from the trunks of trees and shrubs. Mulch helps conserve moisture, suppress weeds and adds organic matter. New plantings need an inch of water each week for the first year, so be sure to supply this if Mother Nature doesn’t.

Garden Renovations

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Urban Oasis
Christopher Hahn and Ron Booth turned a sliver of land outside their end-unit condo on Fifth Avenue into an urban oasis bursting with blooms and greenery.

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The couple wanted an outdoor space for entertaining and relaxing and garden views from inside the condo.

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Water Garden Redo
After many years, this backyard garden in Richland Township was due for a facelift. The owners wanted to open the view to the woods and a larger water garden. They also love plants and flowers and wanted to bring some order to their collection.

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During the renovation, the crumbling patio surface was replaced and an unusual Parrotia tree was preserved.

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When Weeds Have Their Way

Weeds that run amok for more than a season or two have scattered many seeds in the soil, just waiting for favorable conditions to sprout, and they have
well-established root systems. Use one or more of these weed-busting strategies combined with mulching to tame weeds.

Hand pull. It’s hard work but effective if you do a thorough job.

If weeds have overtaken a bed and you aren’t in a rush to re-plant, smother them under a layer of thick black plastic weighted down with rocks, bricks or boards. It’s best to do this in spring then remove the plastic next spring and mulch heavily.

Hoeing or using a flame weeder repeatedly to kill the tops of weeds can eventually exhaust a weed’s reserves and knock it out. Don’t use flame weeders near wood mulch or wooden structures.

Reclaim overgrown beds by mowing them short, leaving the clippings, then piling on topsoil, compost, coarse wood mulch, leaves, grass clippings, and/or composted manure to a depth of at least 8 inches. Let the layers decompose for several months to a year then re-plant.

Commercial herbicides deliver a fast one-two punch to weeds, especially tough customers like thistle. Alternatives such as horticultural vinegar (not to be confused with household vinegar) kill the top portion of the weed and can be effective if used repeatedly. Whatever you use, follow label directions carefully and wear protective gear.

Do not use landscape fabric for planting beds; weed seeds still blow in or get dropped by birds, and their roots grow into the fabric. Later, when you pull the weeds, you pull up the fabric. Landscape fabric also changes how water flows into the soil and can restrict plant growth.


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Small Scale Rejuvenation

Renovating a garden bed, and not your entire landscape? Follow these steps.

  • Decide whether you like the shape of the bed or want to change it.
  • Assess existing plants — is it mostly weeds? Are there perennials or shrubs worth saving? Have some perennials overrun their bounds? Are any plants too much maintenance for the satisfaction they provide? Are there better new varieties on the market?
  • Remove perennials that have run amok or you wish to relocate or get rid of. Prune shrubs and remove weeds if they can be dealt with; if they have totally overrun the bed, dig out and pot up the perennials you want to keep, then deal with the weeds.
  • Change bed shape if desired and amend soil with compost.
  • Replant, mulch, and water as described above.
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