Common Landscape Design Problems: Tackling Issues With Landscape Design

Garden detail in aerial view with bark compost
Image by numismarty

By Darcy Larum, Landscape Designer

When we pull up to our homes, we want to see an inviting, perfectly unified landscape painting; something like Thomas Kinkade would have painted, a soothing scene where we could picture ourselves sipping lemonade on a rustic porch swing surrounded by a peaceful flow of scenery. We don’t pull up to our homes hoping to see a crazy hodge-podge collage of distracting landscapes, a little Monet there, some Van Gogh here and some Dali over there.

Whether cottage, modern or unique landscape styles are your taste, a properly designed landscape will display your style with unity. Your landscape should be appealing and inviting, not an eyesore for the neighborhood. Read on for common issues with landscape design and how to avoid them.

Problems in Landscape Design


Overuse of common plants. With over 400,000 species of flowering plants in the world, it often amazes me that no one can seem to find anything to put around trees besides a ring of hostas. One of the most common mistakes in landscaping I come across is the overuse of the same old humdrum plants. While there are hundreds of different varieties of hostas that can be used to create beautiful shade gardens, that singular ring of variegated hostas around every tree in the neighborhood is quite boring and unnatural looking.

In nature, woodland plants like ferns, trilliums and wild violets happily grow in little patches around trees, not in a perfect ring within a perfect circle. When landscaping around trees, create natural looking beds that also match the style of the rest of the landscape; don’t spend a fortune on a fancy foundation landscaping and perfectly placed shade trees only to have them cheapened by quick, easy and boring rings of around the trees. If you love hostas, like many people including myself do, plant groupings of different varieties mixed in with other shade plants for different bloom times and textures. You may be surprised how many shade plants there are if you look beyond the hosta tables at your local garden center.

Like hosta rings around trees, yew, juniper, mugo pine, spirea and daylilies are often overused as foundation plantings. They are all nice plants that can be used in combination with other plants to create beautiful landscapes, full of varied but unified colors and textures. However, if a landscape designer comes to your home for a consultation and says “We’ll just put a row of yews along this side, a bunch of spirea and daylilies on that side, a big sprawling juniper here, and rings of hostas around all the trees…,” simply thank them for their time and call the next landscape designer on the list. Most likely, if you’re considering spending money on a new landscape, you are hoping for actual curb appeal, not just yawns from passersby.

Incorrect site and soil for plants. Hostas around the trees and yews on shadier sides of the home does at least prove that the designer has some knowledge of what plants to use in different light settings or has read some plant tags. One of the most common mistakes in landscaping is improper placement of plants. When purchasing landscape plants, read the plant tags and ask garden center workers about the plant’s needs. Plants that need full sun and well-draining soil can become stunted, not flower and eventually die in shady, moist landscapes. Likewise, plants that need shade and love moisture will constantly need to be watered and burn up if put in a sunny, dry location.

Landscape plantings too big or small. Plant size at maturity is also important. Most plant nurseries or garden centers carry small manageable 1- to 5-gallon sized young plants, so while it looks small and compact when you’re buying it, in just a couple years it could be a 10 by 10-foot monster. Be careful of planting large plants in areas where they might block windows or walkways. When your landscape is first installed, it may look a little empty from the small size of the young plants, but be patient and resist the urge to cram more plants in the spaces. Plants can grow quite rapidly once planted and over planting is a common problem in landscape design.

Plants or beds don’t fit into surroundings. Another landscape design problem that I often see is landscaping that does not fit the style of home or landscape elements and are oddly out of place. For example, an old grand Victorian home will look best when accented by old-fashioned landscape plants and curved beds, while a modern style home should be accentuated by bold geometric shaped beds and plants. There is no law that says all landscape beds must be curved and rounded. The bed shapes and sizes should match and accentuate the style of the home. Too many curves in landscape beds can actually be a nightmare to mow around.

Unbecoming water features. Out of place water features are also common mistakes in landscaping. A bad water feature can lower your property value. The common urban backyard does not need a six-foot tall boulder waterfall in it. If you live in Hawaii and have natural, beautiful backyard views of waterfalls or volcanoes, lucky you. If you live in an average city, with an average sized backyard used for average activities like cookouts, parties or a game of catch with the kids, you do not need to build a volcano looking waterfall monstrosity in your yard. There are many fountains and smaller water features you can buy that can easily be placed in landscape beds or on patios, no back-hoe required.

A well-designed landscape will give your home proper curb appeal and catch the eye of visitors in an “oh that’s nice” way rather than a “good lord, what is that mess” way. Well-designed landscapes can make a small yard appear larger by creating open expanses of lawn framed by narrow beds of plants. In addition, it can also make a huge yard seem smaller and cozier by dividing the large expanse into smaller spaces.

When designing a landscape, it’s best to look at the home and entire yard as a whole beforehand, then plan out beds that flow together through shapes, colors and textures, while also allowing for enough room for general yard usage.

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