Prime time to tame overgrown lawns

Prime time to tame overgrown lawns

by C.L. Fornari

Just look around and you'll see that many Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., homeowners have overgrown landscapes - rhododendrons so old that they cover the windows and 30-year-old yews that have been sheared so often they now resemble green blimps.

In some yards, it's impossible to tell where one plant stops and another starts. You might be tempted to leave the melded plants until spring, but in this region there are good reasons to address an overgrown landscape now.

Steven Schumacher, owner of highly rated Boston Landscape Co., thinks that home security can be an issue. "Having overgrown plants around your house can be a safety concern, especially for people who go south in the winter," he says. "Those looking to break into a house can hide in thick foundation plantings."

October is perfect for addressing the overgrown landscape because homeowners still have the option of replanting, says Sharon Ross, designer for highly rated Merrifield Garden Center in Fairfax, Va. "In the D.C., area we can plant into the first week of December, so there's a lot of leeway for getting the job done," she says.

Professional landscapers are more likely to have time in the fall, so scheduling appointments is easier. Both Ross and Schumacher agree that in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, fall is the time to begin with an evaluation.

Homeowners should go into the process with an open mind. Some people hate to throw a plant away. Others want to make larger plants small again. Neither of these approaches creates successful, attractive landscapes, however.

Ross warns that once a plant is large, cutting it back usually results in something that looks butchered. "Many mature plants can't be cut down because they're just too big," she says. "It's usually impossible to make a large plant small again."

Some full-grown plants are worth saving and moving to other locations. "Rhododendrons are valuable plants and you don't want to just rip them out," Schumacher says. "They can be transplanted in the spring."

If a plant has been prone to problems, it isn't a good candidate for transplanting. For example, when hemlocks are completely infested with woolly adelgid, homeowners should get rid of the plant so they don't have to continually spray. "Sometimes the cost of buying a new plant outweighs the cost of a spray program," Schumacher says.

Instead of transplanting, some plants, such as rhododendron or viburnum, might be made into small trees. In this process, selected limbs are cut from the ground up to reveal several trunks. The top of the plant is then allowed to grow up and over structures or new plantings.

The best approach is to evaluate what you've got on a plant-by-plant basis. October is the perfect time to decide which plants get removed, where beds can be prepared so they're ready to plant next spring, and what shrubs might be pruned or moved at that time.

C.L. Fornari is a writer, garden consultant, professional speaker and radio host who is dedicated to creating beautiful landscapes and successful gardeners. She gardens on Cape Cod, blogs at, and offers other articles at

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