Backyard Makeover

John, a friend of mine, has asked me to help him remake his back yard, which lies in full sun between a Chicago-style bungalow and a detached garage. This is exciting, because it is an opportunity to play with more plants. Not as good as an expansion of my own garden, but perhaps the next best thing.

Of course, the downside is that I find it very challenging to suggest plants to other people. Not that I can’t think of options, it’s just that there are too many options.

In most cases, the person asking for plant suggestions just wants me to recommend one plant so they can buy it, plant it, and get on with their lives. However, I usually start listing so many possibilities that they end up wishing they had never asked.


However, this time will be different. I’ll simply say: these are the plants for you, and ONLY if John balks will I offer alternatives.

John is not an avid gardener, but he does want his backyard to look better than it currently does. For this project I am looking for plants that 1) are short to medium height; 2) do not require staking or frequent division; 3) have a long bloom period; and 4) are reasonably tough but well behaved. In terms of color, I’m generally looking for plants in the yellow to orange or blue to purple range, with a little rosy pink thrown in.

john c 2

What needs the most work is the north side of the garden.  The grass has completely overrun what had once been a border along a chain link fence. Within this ex-border you can find a couple of Peonies in need of dividing and a lot of orange Daylilies. There are also three old lilac shrubs planted close together. Finally, there are a couple of half dead old Mock Orange (Philadelphus coronarius) that John would like to replace.

John likes the Daylilies and the Lilac, so they stay. After the Lilacs bloom they will get a thorough pruning. I’m going to suggest to John that he dig a shallow trench to make a clear dividing line between the lawn and the perennial border. Between that line and the fence, the lawn goes.

In terms of plants, I’m thinking the following:

4 Muscari again
Grape hyacinth

Spring Bulbs: Narcissi, Grape Hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) (varieties to be determined).


For late spring/early summer: Salvia ‘Caradonna’ (Salvia nemerosa), Blanketflower ‘Arizona Sun’ (Gaillardia – continues blooming through summer).

For mid-summer: Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Geranium ‘Rozanne’. Do you think that ‘Rozanne’ will work as a front-of-the-border plant?

DSC_0752 butterflyweed

For late summer and fall: Aromatic Aster ‘October Skies’ (Symphyotrichum oblongifolius), Stonecrop ‘Matronna’ (Hylotelephium telephium, formerly Sedum spectabile).

In addition, I’d throw in a couple of ‘Shenandoah’ Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum).

Finally, to replace the Mock Orange, some Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius).

john c 3

On the south side of the yard, there is another chain link fence. Between a newly laid concrete walk and the fence is a narrow border filled with Summer Phlox (Phlox paniculata) and more orange Daylilies. There is a wild grape vine that covers the fence by summer. John likes all of this, so I won’t mess with it.

john c 4

There is a small rectangular bed located where the walk leads to a gate to the alley. The bed contains another Peony and another overgrown Lilac. The Lilac will get a pruning, the grass will get dug up, and some selection of the plants listed above will be put here.

john c 1

Finally, there is a row of Hydrangeas of some type along the west-facing wall of the garage. John wants to turn this into a small vegetable garden, which should be easy enough to do. Grub out the Hydrangeas (OK, he might want to hire someone to do that), another shallow trench for a dividing line. On the far right there is a Flowering Quince (Chaenomeles speciosa) that will stay put.

You’ll notice that I am not pushing the native  plants too hard, but I couldn’t resist including a patch of Butterflyweed for the Monarchs. Butterflyweed is one Milkweed that is not overly aggressive.

So there you have it: a rough outline of my plans for John’s backyard. Comments? Suggestions?

65 Comments on “Backyard Makeover”

  1. One of my favorites to plant with all those orange daylilies that tend to run amok everywhere it’s purple coneflower. I never think geranium Rozanne really holds up to mass planting; here it’s never that vigorous. A lot of the ninebarks are becoming very susceptible to dusty mildews. Some of the newer varieties like tiny wine and center glow seem to be more immune to that. I’d also include a hazelnut for the nuts and the nice fall foliage color. As for shrubs there’s a lot of small lilacs and other hydrangeas then probably what is there, I would think Annabelle, that offer a lot with little care. I love the choice of Matrona.

    • What appeals to me about ‘Rozanne’ is the color and the long bloom season. It does seem to be a good performer only in a limited range of conditions. The shrub needs to be something with a good deal of height to provide privacy from the neighbor’s windows.

  2. Perhaps Verbena bonariensis to grow in among your other plants – a bit of height but ‘see-through’, totally undemanding, self-seeds, looks wonderful, also good for insects. Maybe a lower grass (Nassella tenuissima?) too? But all your suggestions sound great. I can never resist offering my own plant suggestions! How nice that he asked you to help.

  3. Is a full overhaul too much for one year? Will he be overwhelmed? If so, maybe it should be a two year project. Second, add some easy foliage plants with color, variegation, or interesting leaf shape to carry the borders between the blooms, like ‘Henna’ coleus. Oh, and Rudbeckia. And a bench or pair of adirondack chairs. I like to see the sitting area from the house, so I can imagine myself outside even if I don’t have time to be in the garden. You have terrific ideas, Jason, go for it!.

  4. Holy daylilly! This could be the first in a television series—backyard makeover. As I have absolutely no experience with plants that do well in full sun—sigh!—I have no suggestions. Keep us posted with plenty of pictures as you progress with the gardens.

  5. Rozanne does wonderfully around here, though I have no personal experience with it. I just helped a friend with a similar makeover. It forced me to make a plan and I wound up thinking “this is fun…why don’t I ever do this for my own gardens?” Nah, too impulsive and eclectic with my plant choices.

  6. I see his garden has lots of brick walls along the borders. Why not grow fruit trees trained on those brick walls? If not fruit trees, then rose? It will give the feeling of English country side with such brick walls as background. Also what about some cone-flowers? I know Monarda will spread very fast but cone-flowers do not spread that fast. And, they are great for butterflies. Also, they look nice in winter with all their dead seed-heads. These are just my humble suggestions as you already have a great plan.

  7. Love your choices! I’m currently in a similar situation, as my son has asked me to help with his backyard also: two beds to start, with another two or three in subsequent years. So far I’ve done a layout plan and plant list, and my next job is to find the plants locally. The great upside for me is that this time I won’t have to do any of the digging! 😀

  8. Doing a complete makeover of a back yard is something a gardener always seems to dream about. We learn so much the first time around that we want to change the next time. How often have I said, “If I only had known…” I have also found it was difficult recommending plants/ideas to a friend; we all have different notions. Hope you enjoy the challenge.

  9. This could be a fun project. I put a butterfly garden in my daughter’s back yard a couple of years ago. The problem is that she’s not much of a gardener, so I have to go there and weed and trim because that doesn’t occur to her! How do blueberries do in Chicago? They do dual duty with shrub form and edible fruit.

  10. He is fortunate to have you as a friend! Everything sounds great to me. I encourage you to plant swathes of each type of flower to create visual impact. It will be a lot of fun, and John may discover he loves to garden, after all!

  11. I don’t have enough experience planning a garden –I tend to just buy plants I like and then plant them somewhere. (This often doesn’t lead to the best results.) I hope you’ll keep us updated on the progress, because it will be fun to see it come together 🙂

  12. I once tried to help my sister with a garden makeover, but it turned out to be more difficult than I expected because our aesthetics were so different. I really like the way you’ve started with John’s desires for the garden and his preferences, choosing plants that will work for him. It sounds like a great plan.

  13. Blue edgers that work really for midwest are elijah blue fescue or beyond blue fescue. Also sedum cauticola is great with a vivid flower in fall. All three are low maintenance. Love roxanne but does not perform well in iowa. You have great ideas.

  14. A clean slate! That will be fun. It sounds like you have it well under control. I think you mentioned Coneflowers? How about Wild Columbine? They’ll grow anywhere, and they’re so lovely! How about some rabbit-repellent plants to protect the new plants? Alliums? Foxglove? (Chicken wire? 😉 ) I’m sure you’ll create an amazing garden for your friend. Please do keep us posted!

  15. I love Rozanne geranium, but it can get very wild and sprawl, and then it dies down to nothing in the winter.

    Maybe the Biokovo geranium (or a similar one in the x cantabrigiense hybrids? It’s very tidy and evergreen here in TN (not sure if it would stay evergreen or even survive a winter up in Chicago).

    I think the aromatic aster is a great suggestion and the butterflyweed too.

    How about some annual sunflowers? They’ll attract bees, birds and probably self-sow to act as perennials for years to come.

  16. As the garden is for someone who doesn’t necessarily want to garden I think you need some more ‘structural’ plants. Masses of spring bulbs is a great idea as it should get him interested to go outside early in the year. Have fun!

  17. It is lovely to have someone to advise when the garden is a blank canvas, and saves all those mistakes all non gardeners make. If this was a garden in Australia you would probably start with a plan for a watering system, I guess you don’t need to worry about water in your area?

  18. I’m very interested to read that Roxanne doesn’t do well for many people. I like the colour but for me it sprawls unappealingly. I like your plant choices and would add rudbeckia and more ornamental grasses — one of the blue-toned ones would be good with the orange tonalities you are using.

    Please keep us posted as the garden progresses.

  19. I had to chuckle when I read that you offer suggetions and they just want to have you tell them what you want-LOL—I also find I don’t want to push my favorites on other people. I want them to have their own for it is their garden. I wish I had more space for I always find a new plant! I have crammed my lot full with all my favorites, so I try to enjoy them and pamper and stay away from nurseries or catalogs! It is addictive:-)

  20. Rudbeckia, coneflower, coreopsis are all easy care sun lovers. Russian sage could provide some nice contrast. Sounds like fun. I love planning. Cranesbill at the front of the border is also a plant it and forget it option.

  21. As someone whose 2016 resolution is to get rid of all the $&#( day lilies she foolishly planted years ago, I would vote “HECK NO” for the orange ones. If you can get the ones that don’t spread everywhere, then yes.
    Also, how about cosmos or four o’ clocks for height? Mine come up every year, as they reseed well. For low plants, I enjoy my calendulas, which also reseed happily.
    Or, any votes for lavender?

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