We gave my mother-in-law’s house a facelift for Christmas.

The project actually began a couple months ago when I wrote about dragging a garden hose to design new bedlines then removed all of the shrubs and kept the crapes. Once steel edging was installed, we sprayed the turf with non-selective herbicide. The rain put the project off a month, but once the weather cooperated, we got busy.

We started by making a list of the plants she liked. She walked around her neighborhood, went to local nurseries and took pictures. I curated the list based on factors such as shade tolerance and mature size, then we sat down with pencil and paper to sketch the design.

One way to start a landscape design, or any design really, is to not get caught up in specifics too soon. For instance, we discussed where we wanted to place plants in general, such as shrubs, perennials and annuals. The initial sketch, therefore, is really just rough circles labeled big shrubs and little shrubs, some color here, a bird bath there and so forth.

We walked the front yard with the sketch to get a feel for placement, because drawings often feel larger than the actual space. After making adjustments, we made a plant list. Based on what she liked, we specified which plants would fit and where. For instance, we decided on cleyera where we had placed medium to large shrubs.

We took our plant list to a local nursery. On occasion, one of our selections wasn’t available or not in particularly good shape, in which case we substituted something suitable. For instance, we could substitute tea olives for cleyera.

Once we had our inventory, we placed the plants still in the pots in her yard and tweaked locations, looking at the design from the house and the road. Once she approved, we got to digging.

If you have well-drained, fertile soil in your yard, don’t expect many problems. However, many of us are not so lucky, my mother-in-law included. Her front yard is mainly an assortment of colorful, sticky clay. Drainage will be the main issue. We dealt with this problem by bringing in a few yards of a topsoil/compost mix.

For each shrub, we dug wide, shallow holes for a raised planting with a generous mound of topsoil/compost mix. This will prevent the rootball from drowning in wet weather. Before planting, however, we examined the roots. Roots circling the outside of the rootball can lead to future problems. There are several recommendations to treat root-bound shrubs, from slicing the rootball with a utility knife to shaving off the outer inch. The idea is to keep roots from continuing to grow in a circle and eventually girdling the plant.

Our plants were moderately root-bound, so we able to break up the rootball and spread the roots out. Fertilizer is generally not recommended in the first year. We’ll plan on topdressing the root zone next year with a slow-release formulation of Osmocote.

Once everything was planted, we decided on how everything will be irrigated. This obviously is not a problem at the moment, but summer will be much different. Typically, you want to avoid drought stress in the first year for shrubs. Trees can take longer to establish. A front yard isn’t difficult to keep watered by hand, but in some cases an inexpensive drip irrigation system can be connected to a water spigot with a timer.

Due to the small area, she decided she would water her new plants as needed. We also decided against using weed barrier. All that remained was mulch.

Mulch should be approximately three inches deep. We used a brown hardwood mulch and purchased in bulk. A standard 1/2-ton pickup will carry two cubic yards. Our job required three cubic yards. At this point, the Christmas present was finished. The last, and often overlooked, element will be the lighting.

I'll write about that in my next column. 

Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, e-mail him at tony. bertauski@tridenttech.edu.