Four Steps to Planning the Ultimate Garden, from the Cincinnati Zoo’s Chief Horticulturalist

Steve Foltz has a foolproof planning system, even if you don’t have a green thumb.
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Designing an idyllic backyard garden—a getaway, an escape—can seem daunting for those of us who swear we have a brown thumb. Who can help? What to choose? Where to start?

The answer to all those questions is Steve Foltz, the director of horticulture at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. He helps keep the zoo beautiful and thriving—at least, when it comes to the flora.

One of the best ways to design a beautiful backyard space, he says, is to start big, then aim smaller. He also shares some zoo brochures that list great plant options for this region.

Photograph courtesy Steve Foltz

Step 1: Start with shade trees

Think oaks, maples, and bald cypresses. These trees can serve to both mark your territory and fill out your yard’s airspace. Opt for large trees that will get 60, 80, or 100 feet tall, Foltz says … if you can.

“Sometimes, people can’t afford the space in your yards,” he says, “but we’re not planting enough large trees.” There are more in older neighborhoods, of course, but with newer subdivisions and landscapes, it’s important to put in and maintain those big, towering trees.

Top picks: Large trees

Step 2: Green out the view

Next, select your hedges and shrubbery. These plants serve double duty, both adding greenery to your backyard and providing a bit of privacy from your neighbors. They can even take the place of a fence or block a view you don’t like, Foltz says—because who wants to sit in a backyard that stares right into someone else’s house or garage? A few carefully placed large shrubs or evergreens can take care of the problem.

Top picks: Medium trees

Step 3: Sprinkle in the specimen plants

Specimen plants, Foltz says, are those cool, interesting plants you place at the corner of your patio or deck. These are the plants that will last 10 to 25 years, like the Ruby Falls weeping redbud, a bottlebrush buckeye, or a viridis Japanese maple. They’re small and compact, providing green foliage in the spring and summer and bright orangey red in the fall. Foltz suggests grouping these plants in threes.

Top picks: Small trees

Photograph courtesy Steve Foltz

Step 4: Top it off with perennials

Think of these as plants for pollinators, Foltz says, and plan them out so something is always in bloom, regardless of the month. What’s evergreen in January, February, and March? What’s blooming in April, May, and June? What about summer? Fall? It’s easy to consider tulips the first flowering plants of the year, but Foltz suggests adding some white gallanthis, which bloom in March.

Top picks: Pollinators and more pollinators

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