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Simple steps can take a garden to the next level

The flower beds are finished, the vegetables are growing, and yet something could be missing from the backyard landscape: That “wow” factor.

Adding a personal touch to the lawn and garden doesn’t have to be complicated or break the family budget. Homeowners can transform an ordinary looking landscape with some imagination, design and perhaps the help of a local agriculture extension service, landscape professional or private nursery.

“A garden is really never finished,” said Jonathan M. Lehrer, chairman of the Department of Urban Horticulture and Design at Farmingdale State College on Long Island, New York. “Sometimes the most difficult thing is kind of taking that plunge and deciding you’re going to develop an area or start a project.”

Some ideas that gardeners can use to start taking their yards to another level:


An arbor, pergola, lattice - even posts with netting wrapped around them - will grab attention, especially at a yard’s entrance. It also adds height where homeowners normally think only about length and width, Lehrer said.

Adding clematis, climbing roses or honeysuckle along them will provide long periods of blooms.

Arbors decorated with lights can also define garden rooms and set up views to the space beyond, inviting exploration, said Katharine Pinney, a landscape contractor and designer in Los Angeles.

“Use them to lead your visitor through the garden,” Pinney said.


A path with mulch, gravel, brick, pavers or flagstone with edging will encourage a stroll.

Pinney said the simpler the path’s route, the better. But Lehrer suggests avoiding a straight, linear pathway.

“Trying to use more curves, twists and turns, that kind of adds the illusion of a longer length than it might be, that mystery of what might be around the next corner,” Lehrer said.

Pinney said the choice of pavers should reflect the architectural style of the house. But mixing materials, such as brick and flagstones, adds visual interest.

“In short, use your imagination!” Pinney said.

Placing decorative pots loaded with flowers along the way will create a focal point and add color.


Benches and tables are a must for homeowners wanting to make their yards a hangout. Having limited room shouldn’t be a deterrent.

Pinney said she designs numerous small gardens because the old bungalow neighborhoods in her area have narrow but deep lots.

“Dividing that narrow space into rooms makes the garden seem larger,” she said.

Pinney and Lehrer suggest building a fire pit, a cooking area or a place for dining or simply to enjoy morning coffee.


Pinney suggests incorporating items that reflect the homeowner’s personality.

One of her clients loved wine and held tastings with friends. Pinney said she planted wine grapes for the customer and used old wine bottles from restaurants to border a path.

“A homeowner should think about what would make the garden a reflection of their personality and interests,” Pinney said.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Lehrer added, “I’ve seen people that are not going to be going to the beach. “So they’re creating pool areas, adding inexpensive holiday lights and lanterns and bringing music outside.”


Depending on the climate and sun requirements, consider planting small trees along the edges.

Japanese tree lilacs and crape myrtles provide vibrant summer color. Trees with spring blooms include redbuds, white and pink dogwoods, flowering crabapples, ornamental pears and star magnolias. To get the earliest spring blooms, consider planting forsythias.

For northern climates, Lehrer strongly suggests the cornelian cherry dogwood. It has yellow flowers in the spring and red cherry-like fruit in late summer and early fall. The leaves turn red and orange in the fall, and as the tree ages, the outer bark peels, revealing a orange-brown color.


A big garden bonus is a visit from a butterfly or hummingbird. Plants that produce nectar and pollen can lure them in.

The 4-H Children’s Garden at Michigan State University education coordinator Jessica Wright said attracting butterflies means having compatible plants for the caterpillars they begin as. These can include fennel, dill and milkweed. Other flowering plants can act as butterfly magnets.

Among the plants that attract hummingbirds are bleeding hearts, cardinal flower, impatiens and petunias. Both butterflies and hummingbirds are drawn to bee balm, butterfly bushes and zinnia. Birds and butterflies do require water, so consider adding feeders or a bird bath.

“The interaction with nature is the next level,” Wright said. “It’s great to see them enjoying your garden as well.”

In this 2011 photo provided Martha Benedict, a bench around a tree and raised flower and vegetable beds, all built by landscape designer Katharine Pinney from discarded scaffolding, are shown in a kitchen garden at a home in La Canada, Calif. Homeowners can transform an ordinary looking landscape with some imagination, design, and perhaps the help of a local agriculture extension service, landscape professional or private nursery. (Martha Benedict/Katharine Pinney via AP)
A garden wall is shown at a home in Altadena, California. Designer Katharine Pinney built the wall for a client from stone and concrete already on the site. KATHARINE PINNEY VIA AP
A monarch butterfly lands on a penta plant. Homeowners can attract butterflies to their gardens with a multitude of plants that include fennel, dill, and milkweed. AP PHOTO/WILFREDO LEE, FILE
FILE - In this Aug. 4, 2015, file photo, a hummingbird and a bee pollinate a flower at the Veterans Therapeutic Gardens in Caldwell, Idaho. Homeowners can attract hummingbirds to their gardens with a multitude of flowering plants that include bleeding hearts, cardinal flower, impatiens and petunias. (Adam Eschbach/The Idaho Press-Tribune via AP, File)