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Outdoor Space Rehab

Get your backyard ready for a party with these expert-led tips.

If Memorial Day Weekend marks the unofficial start to summer, it also marks the unofficial start to backyard season. That is: the weekend during which every homeowner realizes that it’s time to start reconsidering the look, feel, and function of his or her backyard. How can you get your outdoor space looking its best? What should you clean? What should you ignore? What plantings need to be cut back, and when? What’s the do-or-die timeline for making your paradise look like you haven’t ignored it all season? And is that even possible? 

Photos: Walpole Outdoors

I wanted to know a little more about how homeowners could get their outdoor spaces ready for the upcoming holiday, so I spoke with Susan Cohan, the principal of the New Jersey-based Susan Cohan Gardens. 

“Everyone,” she says, “should think about how they are going to use their outdoor space throughout the season. They should also assess how much maintenance they want to participate in or not.” Waiting until May to plan your garden or garden clean-up? Methinks not. A better tactic is to take on the big stuff well before you plan to host a garden party with friends, which will prevent any last-minute scrambling (and will give you time to think through how you want to approach your space for the upcoming season). 

In fact, Cohan says, part of the magic of maintaining a magical space lies in year-round prevention and maintenance. “A general rule is that summer-blooming perennials should be cut back in late winter/early spring, before the first flush of growth,” she says. “The same holds true for ornamental grasses. A good general fertilizer can be applied, and the garden areas cleaned of debris and lightly mulched.” 

But, if you haven’t thought way ahead, you don’t have to be discouraged. There are, Cohan confirms, plenty of ways to make your space look robust and beautiful, even if you have accidentally left your outdoor space languishing until the last minute. And some of these hacks may even be easier than you think. 

“Clean the grill and outdoor kitchen,” she advises. “Apply any annual finishes to wood and stone that need it. Power-wash surfaces that are dirty or mildewy. Add some new cushions and pillows. Empty and clean planters and fill them for the holiday with summer-loving plants.” Et voila! A brand-new (or, at the very least, greatly improved) space is born. Annuals may not be a long-term solution, but they can provide a little last-minute pep if you’ve missed out on a hard prune. And never underestimate the power of a new set of cushions when you need them most.  

As for the future, start thinking about Memorial Day, well, a long, long time before the actual holiday. Every year, we talk about how quickly the season creeps up on us, and that timeline is accelerated when it comes to plantings. “Plan any improvements to happen in the spring or fall before the season starts,” Cohan says. But if you can’t, a little elbow-grease can fill in where pruning can’t.