Good Yard or Bad Yard? Garden Design Pitfalls


By Billy Goodnick (

“If someone visiting your yard asks, ‘Did you do that on purpose?’ your yard needs help.” That’s the first sentence on page 40 of my book, and one of my favorites.

I told the Rant-ettes I wouldn’t abuse my privilege as guest blogger to flog you with flagrant come-ons about my garden design book. (See? I haven’t even mentioned the title. Later for that.)

For the first few months, the working title was Good Yard, Bad Yard, conceived as a light-hearted series of contrasting situations explaining why some gardens are a source of continual joy and others, disappointment. Not just aesthetics. The book’s outline also delved into practical and environmental issues. After submitting a few chapters, my editor, publisher and I realized that clever as the format seemed, it was too constraining.

But the good/bad thing seems just great for a blog post, so let’s take it for a spin…

Bad yards result from not listening to what your yard is trying to tell you. I do a lot of consultations for people who’ve spent years unintentionally screwing up their yards – the result of incremental mistakes and ignoring what’s right in front of their nostrils. Take a recent house call I made. The new owners, in a burst of urban homesteading fervor, ripped out their weedy, patchy lawn (so far so good) and planted a dozen fruit trees.

Why would anyone hide this view?
Why would anyone hide this view?

If they had paid closer attention, they would have noticed that, a) the soil consisted of heavy clay underlaid with hardpan; b) the runoff flowed toward this low spot, exacerbating drainage, and c) if the trees survived, they would not only shade the new raised veggie beds, but also block the beautiful view of the misty mountain peaks a few miles away. Not a recipe for success.

Make the most of the puddle of sunshine.
Make the most of the puddle of sunshine.

Getting it Right: Until gardens learn to send text messages, the only way to avoid these and other problems is to spend some thoughtful hours analyzing the immediate site as well as the surrounding off-site conditions that might affect your yard, both from a planting POV and your outdoor comfort. Take pictures, walk and talk with a video camera (don’t hold it in front of your face if you live on a bluff-top), sample the soil, determine why otherwise tough plants are languishing, notice where the blistering summer hot spots repel you and the welcoming puddles of sunshine beckon you on winter days. Then respond in your design.

Good garden design doesn’t put all its trust in zone maps. Take the USDA map at face value and you’re asking for trouble. They’re a good starting point, but too general to be very useful on their own. Microclimates are what really matter – the differences around a single property caused by varying sun exposure, air movement, reflected heat, etc.

Silver-leaf Princess Flower (Tibouchina heteromalla)
Silver-leaf Princess Flower (Tibouchina heteromalla)

How I Screwed Up: I learned the hard way in my early design years that taking “half-day sun” at face got me in a heap of trouble. I specified a silver-leaf princess flower (Tibouchina heteromalla) for two beds on opposite sides of the house, having learned that repetition is the key to coherent design. The plant in the east-facing bed was lusciously bedecked with vibrant foliage and passionately purple flowers. Alas, its sibling was reduced to a handful of crispy kettle chips by summer’s end. The lesson: Match your plants to the microclimates around the garden.

Don’t Select Plants Just for Their Looks. Please tell me you don’t buy plants just because they look beautiful. Quoting from my book [Author’s note: If you read to the end, I’ll tell you the name], “Pretty plants are great, but like teenagers, they should make themselves useful.” If your only concern is whether your perennial color scheme matches the throw pillows on the patio chairs, you’re short-changing yourself.

This graceful California pepper tree does double duty cooling the yard.
This graceful California pepper tree does double duty cooling the yard.

Better Idea: Before you buy, consider whether the plants you’re bringing home can do anything for you: cast cooling shade on the patio and house, reduce chilling winds, block an unwanted view, control erosion, feed you, etc. That doesn’t mean these same plants can’t also be drop-dead gorgeous – you just need to consider your priorities. It might take more time to assemble a beautiful and practical palette, but you’ll get more cluck for your plant purchasing buck.

The problem with instant gratification is it leads to visually painful, high maintenance train wrecks. (See my Crimes Against Horticulture rant, 1-24-13). In a quest for immediate gratification, people space their shrubs and ground covers as if they’ll never grow another inch after they’re installed. This kind of thinking isn’t just pessimistic, it’s delusional. (Thanks, HGTV!)

My buddy, Owen Dell, sums it up thusly: “Every plant has its genetic destiny”, meaning you can talk to your red oak until you’re blue in the face, but you won’t convince it to grow happily ever after in a window box.

7Lantana 4 RantHere’s an unfathomable example in my neighborhood. Each of these lantana (not tender in Santa Barbara) have the potential to achieve a spread of 4 to 6 feet. So here are three rows of them in a five-foot wide parking strip, planted a foot from each other and six inches from the curb and sidewalk. It’s taken less than three months for their tips touch and years to go before they call it quits. Some might consider this planting attractive (in a chaotic confetti sort of way), but soon the gardener will start vertically shearing the sides to contain its exuberance, achieving a massive mess of dead twigs and never-ending work.

8Spacing - RantA Smarter Way: Take the time to research the predictable mature size of a plant before deciding how many to buy and how to space them. Make your beds big enough to accommodate layers of planting. Then, mulch and be patient. If that’s not your virtue, double up the number of plants, but swear an oath that you’ll cull out every other plant until you have only enough to fill the bed at maturity. Or plant a sacrificial ground cover.

9YARDS CoverThanks for hanging in. Now can I plug Yards: Turn Any Outdoor Space Into the Garden of Your Dreams, St. Lynn’s Press ($17.95)? It’s the book to read before you read all the other books. It gives budding designers a broad perspective on how professionals approach landscape design. It’s not just informative and beautifully illustrated, but a fun read, equally appropriate on the coffee table or the porcelain tank. Yards is available at indie bookstores and all your favorite on-line sellers.

Billy Goodnick (


  1. Well ive walked in my backyard tons of times and I’ve yet to hear them talk to me. Tell me what you want backyard of mine!!

  2. Interesting post. I especially appreciate your mention of microclimates. My neighbor has this issue on either side of her semi circular driveway. Not only is sun an issue on one side, but thick heavy clay another.

    What I call the “Chick fil A” drive through planting is an enigma to me too. The over planting of multiple colors is annoying. Much like hanging too much art work in a lovely room. I would like, however, to see what you would consider pleasing to the eye and not so much a crime of horticulture so that those of us with less experience could improve!

    Perhaps I should read the book.

    • ML: Lots of pics of what I consider nice gardens at my web site and in my volume of posts at and Only so much space on this post to load up with images. And, yes, Yards is loaded with inspirational planting ideas and photos. You can thumb through at Amazon.

  3. I’ve got a 20-foot long bed along my back fence, and in the pursuit of ‘balance’ planted the same plants at each end of the bed. Same water, slight difference in sunlight hours. And the plants at one end thrived, the other end they died. Yes, microclimates can be quite small.

  4. Okay … regarding your first example, sure the fruit trees were not sited well. But don’t let clay/hard pan be what condemned them. The puddle would kill them, sure, and the destruction of the view would have made them an irritant leading to their ultimate demise. But I’ve grown fruit trees in that sort of soil for 20 years now. In fact, I’m currently up to my armpits in plums from a single Santa Rosa, and looking toward a bumper crop of peaches, etc from my many other trees. Appropriate water & drainage are the keys. And plant only bareroot. Planting anything less is like putting the tree in a pot in the ground – the roots will never leave the good soil it came with until it’s too late.

    The microclimates bit – spot on! I’ve tried to explain this to my non-gardening neighbors when they are trying to do a little yard improvement, but they can’t think out of the “full sun” box. And don’t forget that as gardens mature, those microclimates might change. I’m currently fighting to get my veggies to grow in a previously productive raised bed. The issue is not water or soil health or plant choice & siting. The problem is that the neighbor’s trees have grown tall enough to limit the available sunlight to the point that the veggie plants are stunted. My only recourse (aside from getting out the old chainsaw) is to move the garden to the front yard. Neighbors are gonna love that!

    • MWAH HA HA!!!! I’ve got you under my spell! Plus, you’ll put me one step closer to that Pulizter Prize for garden design books! Thanks for the compliment and I hope you find some additional usable wisdom in Yards. I’m pretty proud of it.

  5. I wish it was as simple as looking up information on the maximum size of the plant. My Buddleja davidii Nanho purple (adult size 3-5 foot) is now about 10 foot. This is a disturbingly common problem for me. Either I’m a plant goddess, I have the best soil in the world (my secret is compost and only watering when I’m establishing my plants), or my local garden center has a real problem with mislabeling plants.

    Where’s my shovel, I need to move some things again…

    • I’ve written pieces in my other blogs about not trusting plant labels and always cross-checking with other “reliable” garden references. There are so many variable and sometimes the growers can be a wee bit self-motivated in hopes of selling more plants. The most egregious example I saw recently was a 6-pack of Helichrysum petiolare. In Santa Barbara it’s not only hardy through winter (if you call what we get “winter”) but could devour a slow moving dachshund. In my experience, I space Helichrysum at least six feet apart, and even then they’re be some work involved keeping them from tangling with nearby plants. The ones at the nursery said “Plant 18-inches on center.”

  6. I just finished replanting the strip along the driveway. Everything is carefully spaced to allow for its ultimate size. It looks pretty darn nekkid.

  7. My husband and I have 4 acres, 2 wooded and 2 in a, so called, lawn. Of course I have been working diligently to rid it of as much grass as I possibly can (mowing for 2 or 3 hours is not my idea of fun). We have lived here for 15 years and I did not plant much for the first year until I had surveyed and watched the landscape. The previous owners had tried feverishly to plant grass in full shade. Slowly I turned that area into a woodland garden with paths that the mower could easily go through. (Yes only moss will grow on the paths, but I kinda like it!) I whole heartily agree with being patient and seeing what is best in a certain spot. Right Plant, Right Place is always my motto!!

  8. Great post…book sound good, love to read other designers advice. I will add it to my collection. Designers often have to be educators and mediators. I really wish to tell all my clients to please stop looking at Better Homes and Gardens. They want a garden like they see in the pictures. I live in Houston and what does grow here grows well but we have our limits, gumbo(clay soil) rich in nutrients if you can get them unlocked. We have had great success using organic fertilizer, compost and seaweed extract which help break up the clay and naturally aerate the soil. We have high humidity and a summer of highs around the mid nineties, hard freezes and hurricans. Every home has several micro-climates. So we work to find the right plant for the right spot and manage expectations. The end result beautiful gardens that are easy to maintain and sustainable and best of all really happy clients. Off to check out your Houzz page!

    • Laurin: You’re correct. There are a lot of pitfalls in looking at all that plant porn in the major magazines and on HGTV (I know, I write for Fine Gardening). It’s useful look pictures and visit gardens that enthrall to help understand your individual sense of taste. But the best gardens use those inspirations only as starting points. The designer’s challenge is to translate the owner’s vision into something appropriate for the site, budget, level of interest, etc. Keep doin’ what you’re doin’.

  9. Please heed this advice! I have spent the past 3 years struggling with a crappy layout, poor execution, lack of drainage, plants and trees placed for looks with no consideration of the plant’s needs or the growth of the trees ( 3 will have to go at the end of this summer because they were planted so close to the house–about 5′ away, plus 5 more have died in the back yard due to emerald ash borer). All of this thanks to the previous homeowners who apparently succumbed to the instant gratification scenarios of Saturday morning DYI shows, overconfidence and quite possibly, beer. Plan, follow directions and if you don’t know what you’re doing, DON”T DO IT!!

    • Sydney: Dang! Looks like I struck a nerve and happy to have done so. Thanks for your “in the trenches licking your wounds” enthusiasm. A lot of this stuff is obvious once someone lays it out. But so much time and effort goes into either living with or trying to correct the mistakes, it’s why I’m on this crusade. Thanks for taking the time to pop in.

  10. Interesting post ! I like your idea that every plant should bring something to the party, whether it is food, or shade etc. I’m afraid I am always seduced by a lovely face, and so most of my plants just lounge around looking gorgeous !

  11. Hi Billy,

    This is a great post!
    I did a whole series of posts on the design process, which is fine for those who are really, really committed, but I suspect a short concise piece such as this is more likely to hold the average gardener’s attention.
    I shall find a place to link to this post and will definitely check out your new book – always looking for books to recommend to my clients or design students.

    Cheers and keep up the crusade – it benefits us all,

  12. Enjoyed your seminar at Roger’s recently.

    I know just what will happen to that Lantana parkway, it will become a 3′ tall hedge clipped somewhat vertically on all sides, showing 2″ of live growth atop 34″ of dead twigs, preventing anyone in a parked car next to it from opening their passenger side door.

    I actually think Lantana deserves that fate, which is another matter entirely.

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