Your Garden Design Questions, Answered

Florence Boogaerts creates lush scenes for discerning clients (and shares her wisdom with students at the New York Botanical Garden). When it comes to sprucing up a yard, she doesn’t beat around the bush.

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Photo by Matthew Williams

How did you get started in this field?

In 1972 I planted a tree in front of the town house where my husband and I lived in New York City. We would walk in the evenings and prune street trees for fun. For his birthday, I surprised him by getting donations from other homeowners and planting trees on our block. A few years later, the New York Times wrote about it; someone from Estée Lauder read the article and hired me to plant trees all along the route the Lauders walked from their Upper East Side homes to their office. That was my first job.

As a pro, do you have an overarching philosophy?

I try to make the design appropriate to the area. American landscape gardener James Rose put it best. When someone asked him to install a Japanese garden, he said, “Of course. Whereabouts in Japan do you live?”

Is there an easy formula for making a plain yard look designed and done?

If you have a square or rectangular backyard—and most people do—a good trick is to add plants to the corners of the yard to soften the edges and make the lawn look more circular. It immediately seems like you’ve done a lot. A circle is soothing and elegant, whether you have a small or large space. This plan also cuts down on the amount of lawn that needs to be mowed, watered, and sprayed with chemicals.

What’s your advice on landscaping from scratch?

Pay more attention to shapes than to flowers. Evergreens, for example, can work like sculptures. Also, make sure you consider the plant structure in winter. Certain shrubs and trees, like the Japanese maple, have nice skeletons. And think about the fruit that trees have—not just for you but for the birds to eat. The birds are part of the scene.

Is there an Rx for sparse-looking hedges and shrubs?

They might need topsoil and fertilizer. Landscapers use leaf blowers, which can blow all the topsoil away. Hedges are left standing on their tippy-toes, roots exposed. Cover the roots and give them a balanced fertilizer. You can ask for one at a good local garden center.

What’s the most common mistake you see?

Creating volcanoes of mulch around the bases of trees. This actually makes it easier for insects to get into the bark and kill the tree. You want to have only a thin layer of mulch, and the mulch should be a few inches away from the base of the tree. This practice could save the lives of millions of trees.

Anything else?

Planting trees and shrubs too deeply. People think they have to dig a big hole to make it a happy plant. But if you go too far down in the soil, the roots are not capable of getting the water and nutrients they need. You want to be able to see the flare of the tree at the base of the trunk. Shrubs need a hole only as deep as the root ball.

How about some guidance on gardens?

For flat yards, I create a curving bed line. It always looks more graceful and, mysteriously, makes the yard appear bigger. As for flowers, stick with a limited palette. A good combination is blue and white with a touch of yellow. Or keep it even simpler and do plants with only white flowers. If you limit yourself, you tend to be more successful. The same holds true for types of plants. People just cannot resist adding new plants to the mix, but it ends up looking too busy. Either do a lot of one type of plant or a few big things.

You have a nice approach to challenges. Please share.

If something isn’t working, I suggest transplanting it rather than tossing it. For example, if your rhododendrons are getting too big, why not move them to where they can grow and become what they want to be? Maybe in a new site they can provide screening for your yard. I think of plants as living things, and I respect them.

Do you have favorite plants?

For my area, I like boxwood because it’s handsome and geometric and the deer don’t eat it; Pieris japonica, also called andromeda, because it does well in the shade; and all the landscape roses—there are different varieties available in different regions—because they don’t need any spraying.

Any thoughts on yard decor, like orbs and gnomes?

I like to use classical ornaments—urns and simple fountains. Adding a sculpture is one way to make your garden really distinctive and personal. There’s such a wide variety of options. But I can’t say anything positive about gnomes.

Do you talk to your plants?

No, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love them.