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Issue Date: March 2007

Fresh Ideas

From butterfly gardens to rain barrels - 10 backyard touches that will get you thinking about spring.
Lynne Thompson

One of the sure signs of winter weather giving way is the sudden urge felt by even the most reluctant do-it-yourselfers to take on a project to improve their outdoor space (or hire someone to do it for them). Here are a bunch of bright ideas to get you going.

Experiment with container gardens “People are mixing ornamental annuals with edibles,” reports Nicole Akin, director of education and communications for Petitti Garden Centers. “You could use a red leaf lettuce along with a white petunia.” Condo dwellers who limit their container gardening to edibles can mix it up by planting, say, a Mexican garden of cilantro, tomatoes, hot peppers and onions or a tea garden of mint, lavender, fennel — “anything to flavor hot or iced tea” — in a single container. Keep in mind that plants in the same pots should have similar water and light requirements.

Update the outdoor decor Anybody who gets a Pottery Barn catalog can tell you that the clean, contemporary look has found its way into the backyard. The cheapest and easiest way to participate in the trend is with a can or two of paint, says Jeff Griff, proprietor of Lowe’s Greenhouse in Chagrin Falls. He lists old-fashioned metal spring chairs, fences and arbors as candidates for a coat of vibrant green, blue or red — “those colors are really attracting people,” he says.

Turn a castoff into garden art Noelle Akin, director of education and communications for Petitti Garden Centers, recommends painting an old window frame and putting it on a stand to frame a picture-perfect view or posting a throwaway mirror in a shady garden to reflect light.

Make an outdoor screen No time to build a wall, erect a fence or plant a hedge before your next backyard soiree? David Thorn, of DTR Associates in Aurora, suggests creating additional privacy by hinging together house shutters — he uses 8-foot-high ones — to make a folding screen. “You can take it down when you don’t want to have it there.”

Plant a butterfly garden According to Ann McCulloh, curator of plant collections at the Cleveland Botanical Garden, all you need is a mix of brightly colored, flat-topped clusters of little florets or broad, flat flowers, both of which provide a landing platform and a constant source of nectar. Include shrubs such as lilac and viburnum for spring arrivals, as well as perennials such as daisies, black-eyed Susans, goldenrod, coneflower, yarrow and milkweed that continue blooming into the fall. Finish the garden with a big, flat rock for basking in the sun and a shallow water source.

Go tropical The development of hardy specimens such as the Japanese fiber banana tree, which Akin says can survive winter with the help of heavy mulching, makes bringing exotic foliage, flowers and, in some cases, fruit of tropical plants into the local landscape much easier. Others, such as the cannas, can be saved by simply cutting them to the ground, digging up the tubers (bulbs), storing them in a cool, dry place, and replanting in the spring. The easiest option for large plants that can’t take the cold is growing them in containers. “They’re always movable,” Akin says.

Reduce runoff with a rain garden Jeffrey Kerr, president of Kerr Boron Associates, a landscape architecture firm in Brecksville, explains that this eco-friendly project, when properly installed, acts as a sponge for storm runoff. “A lot of times people will disconnect their downspouts or redirect their downspouts into these rain gardens,” he says. He recommends digging a 2- to 3-foot depression in a low spot of the property (“a 100-square-foot rain garden is probably a manageable size for most people”); filling it with a high-quality sand-based topsoil; and planting water-loving/drought-resistant plants such as black-eyed Susans, purple coneflower, grasses and sedges. Some of the soil dug out of the ground can be used to build a little dam at the garden’s low end so water will collect there.
Cut water bills with rain barrels Not interested in creating a rain garden? Kerr offers the old-fashioned “green” option of installing rain barrels at the end of downspouts. The modern versions (“glorified 55-gallon plastic barrels,” Kerr says) are enclosed to prevent mosquitoes from using the water as a breeding ground and equipped with an overflow connection at the top and hose bib at the bottom for watering lawns and gardens.

Pitch a cabana These framed canvas structures, commonly found in hot spots such as Florida and California, have become one of the most popular backyard additions from coast to coast, according to Roger Dorer of Dorer & Associates, a landscape design firm in Willoughby Hills. They provide shade and privacy — even protection from flying insects if they’re screened — like a more permanent structure, but can be put up and taken down as needed. Some people have their cabanas custom made and “decorate the interiors just like they would a regular room, with very nice outdoor furniture, chandeliers and TV sets.” Many more simply buy them ready-made (minus the furnishings and electronics, of course) at home-improvement and discount stores.

Put landscaping in a different light If your outdoor lighting system only offers two options — “on” and “off” — it’s time to update it. Ron Friedman, of Art & Science Lighting Design in Pepper Pike, says cutting-edge outdoor lighting actually changes, ever so subtly, throughout the evening, just like natural sunlight changes during the day. “The idea is to change the intensities and create something tastefully dynamic,” he explains. “You might change the focus on big and small trees, for example, or even have the lighting shift slightly.” A system that already provides “texture and layering” through multiple groups of lighting — illumination of paths, façades, groups of trees, etc. — may be retrofitted with a controller installed by an electrical contractor. But in some cases, a new lighting design may be required.

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