7 Ways to Fix an Ugly Garden with Plants

My garden isn’t perfect by any means, but I can at least take some credit for turning a really ugly backyard into something that looks halfway decent. Apart from a slate path that I installed early this year, all I had to do was choose excellent plants and arrange them in a way that tricks the eye into overlooking my yard’s flaws. Here are some of the tricks I used to whip my backyard into shape.

Many of the plants featured here are from the Southern Living Plant Collection. Most were purchased by me over the years, and some were sent to trial in my rain garden. Not to be overly commercial, but I'm a huge fan of these plants because they're perfect for my climate and well... you can see why when you look at the pictures.

Problem: Garden is Bare in Winter
There’s nothing wrong with a bare winter garden, but a little greenery could do a lot to lift anyone’s spirits when your eyes are subjected to eyesores newly exposed by fallen leaves. Even though my own garden is in North Florida, the tropical plants quickly go limp and black after the first frost of winter. When the lush gingers and elephant ears die back, I’m left with nothing but the view of a dilapidated fence.
Almost all of the plants in this shot will stay colorful in winter, the Carex 'Everillo' , in particular.
Solution: Plant Evergreens, and Lots of Them
When you have plants with winter interest, it’s easy to distract from the ugly things left exposed by fallen leaves. Since the center of my garden can be seen from all angles, that’s where I’ve decided to plant flowing masses of evergreen groundcovers. The ubiquitous monkey grass and mondo grass of the south both have fountains of deep blue-green and grassy leaves, but I needed something that would stand out against the dark foliage and lead the eye around the garden. The glowing lime green tufts of ‘Everillo’ Carex were just the ticket.

When the tropicals are damaged or dormant, evergreens like this Mahonia 'Soft Caress' will carry the show
Behind those I’ve planted ‘Soft Caress’ Mahonia to provide a low evergreen screen for the back of the garden. Here in Jacksonville, folks are really gung ho about planting pygmy date palms (Phoenix roebelenii) but the problem is that they're only marginally hardy. With these I get a similar look and I don't have to cover them on frosty nights.

Problem: Plants need Constant Pruning
We’ve all bought a plant or two that turned out to be a lot bigger than expected, whether it’s a crepe myrtle that became a huge tree or a heavenly bamboo (Nandina) that spread as quickly as a real bamboo. Cutting these overly enthusiastic plants only seems to make them come back stronger and uglier.

Nandina 'Lemon Lime' stays small, full and oh so vivid green
Solution: Choose Compact and Sterile Varieties
Rip those bullies out and start over with smaller cultivars, or other species that accomplish the same look. In the case of the Nandina, all you have to do is choose one of the compact, sterile and arguably more attractive cultivars available. Some (‘Firepower’) are pretty ugly in my opinion, since you never know if the leaves will be orange, red, dark green or chartreuse. Nandina ‘Lemon-Lime’, on the other hand, is all green, all the time. New foliage ranges from yellow and chartreuse to lime green, and the plant stays small and bushy; making it a great choice for small spaces or foundation plantings. I chose to use them near my dry creek bed since they’re a striking accent plant but won’t block any views or become out of scale with the other plantings.

Abelia 'Lemon Zest' will keep this area gold and green even when the variegated ginger dies back
Some plants stay small and don’t really need pruning at all, and doing so incorrectly would just ruin their form. Case in point, this ‘Lemon Zest’ Abelia only reaches 3-4 feet wide, and shearing it will just result in rangy, straggly growth. Crepe myrtles will also get ugly and overgrown when they're cut back. Choose a small variety and only prune out diseased, crossing or weak branches.

Problem: Puddles, Erosion and Mud
Almost every gardener has at least some problems with drainage, whether it’s persistent puddles in low lying areas, or runoff cutting into the soil and creating ditches. Standing water isn’t just ugly; most plants and turfgrasses will eventually die under such conditions. Erosion is a pain because it washes away topsoil.

During heavy rains this dry creek bed becomes a small stream that's clean enough for my son to dip his toes.
Solution: Plant a Rain Garden or Dry Creek Bed
As many of you know, I’ve planned my whole garden around my myriad drainage and erosion issues. Areas that persistently puddle can either be converted to a rain garden or a dry creek. The former absorbs moisture and is made by digging out a basin to collect runoff, mixing in compost and sand (optional) and adding plants that tolerate both flooding and drought.

I used ‘Everillo’ Carex in the deepest part to create the illusion of a marsh, and its electric lime foliage forms the focal point of my garden. Another plant that handles both wet and dry soil is the daylily, and the Joy of Living Celebration one that I planted has peachy blooms that will pair nicely with the coral and purple flowers in the garden. From there, a dry creek bed drains runoff away in an attractive manner, turning an ugly ditch into a stream that flows during heavy rains. Rocks, gravel and plantings keep the soil in place and create a natural look.

Problem: The View from the House is Boring
Why shouldn’t the view we see most be the most spectacular? It should at the very least be peaceful so that we can gaze out the window, coffee in hand, and find ourselves lost in a serene real-life landscape painting.

A 'Jubilation' Gardenia gives this view an air of mystery. 
Solution: Design for Each View
Walk around your home and garden and make a note of which places you tend to stop and take in the view. Then make a quick pencil sketch (no skill required) of those views, drawing each plant grouping, and then erase any plant that can be dug up. Then fill in the space with a more pleasing arrangement and use that as your template for a new planting design.

My own garden is usually enjoyed from my sliding glass door, the kitchen window, the chairs on my patio and my slate path. Knowing this, those viewpoints became my priority. From the back door, I can take in a serene scene of the chartreuse ‘Everillo’ Carex flowing between a bed of dark mondo grass and Liriope. From the kitchen, I can look right down the steps and around the path.

Problem: The Garden Looks Busy and Cluttered
Oftentimes the front yards of gardeners look worse than the manicured foundation plantings of people who don’t garden at all. A collection of interesting plants might be exciting to a fellow gardener, but if you take off the gardener goggles for a minute and look at it from a different perspective, you may find that it looks chaotic and unsettling. All it took for me was my wife telling so in as many words.

This massed planting of Mahonia 'Soft Caress' at the Jacksonville Zoo is going to look awesome
Solution: Group Masses of the same Plant
The garden is not like a box of chocolates. Say you’re buying a dozen donuts for your coworkers. Of course you’d really love to just have a box of crullers, but not wanting to leave anyone out you, pick one of every kind. When the box is halfway empty, everyone complains that there aren’t any good ones left (nobody likes the strawberry icing with sprinkles) and someone ate the cruller that you wanted to begin with. Where was I going with this? Oh yes. Don’t end up with a bunch of crappy plants that you bought impulsively because you couldn’t decide. Choose a handful of really good plants and buy lots of them; 3 at the very least. The more, the merrier.

It also helps to repeat the same form and colors throughout the garden. For example, I planted Agapanthus ‘Blue Fountain’ in a group between the Liriope and sedges because it also has narrow foliage and a fountain-like form. The result is that they don’t become a distraction. That way any plants that do contrast sharply, such as the black Colocasia, will stand out even more.

Problem: The Garden has no Boundaries
Sometimes the garden meets up with the lawn in a jarring and awkward manner, and this is another issue that I never noticed until I looked at my garden with fresh eyes. The curvy plantings of groundcovers looked nice enough, but abruptly ended where the garden met the square patch of lawn – kind of like two photos held side by side. It didn’t matter how pretty the garden was – my eye kept wandering towards the patch of lawn to the left.

The 'Scentamazing' gardenias in the foreground will soon fill in and frame the view
Solution: Create a Sense of Enclosure
Awkward boundaries just need a little definition to keep your eye moving around. You can frame a view with taller plants to either side, and an edging of shrubs or groundcovers along the edge says ‘move along… nothing more to see that way’

Tecoma 'Bells of Fire' will distract from the adjacent lawn and screen an empty stretch of fence
On the other side of the lawn I’ve planted a low boundary hedge of Schillings dwarf yaupon holly, and along the back there is a row of Simpson stoppers and firebush underplanted with a border of Liriope. It stood to reason that I enclose this side of the yard as well, so I planted an informal row of the appropriately named ‘Scentamazing’ Gardenia along the edge. I then added shrubs (pineapple guava and ‘Bells of Fire’ Tecoma) in the back corner as well, so that their height would anchor the composition and eventually cover the blank fence beyond.

Problem: The Garden is too Small
You’d think that this is a common problem, but it’s not really a problem at all. Small gardens have every bit as much design potential as larger ones, but they require less maintenance and cost less to fill with plants and materials. Still, nobody wants their garden to actually look small.

Curves lead the eye around the garden and distract from the boundaries
Solution: Create an Illusion
When it’s done right, a backyard with a lush garden can look even larger than the same yard with nothing more than a lawn. Shrubs along the garden’s perimeter disguise the boundary so that it seems to just keep going. While a backyard with nothing more than a lawn can be seen in a single view, strategically planted garden beds keep the eye moving around the space and even entice the viewer to step outside and see what’s around the corner.

The tall and strappy leaves of Agapanthus 'Queen Mum', amaryllis and Hymenocallis appear closer
If you really want to make a garden look bigger, do everything possible to distract from the boundary – especially the corners. Dark shades and cool colors recede into the background, so use these along the back of the garden or wherever the impression of a shadow is needed. You can also plant larger versions of a certain plant in the foreground to create the illusion of distance. I did this by planting a ‘Queen Mum’ Agapanthus in the foreground so that it ties in with the planting of the much smaller ‘Blue Fountain’ in the background.


  1. Great story! We all have these problems. I'm laughing about your wife's statement: I know she'd say the same thing about my garden--because I sure do! I'm gonna work on that once it's not 100 degrees. I sure would like to try that Everillo sedge: I have one variety of the variegated that's not reliably cold hardy. But wow, it's so perfect that I'd like to find suitable "mates!"

  2. It's a great idea for garden solution!


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