A timely article from Lee Valley, Garden Makeover 101, was published right when I’ve decided to write more on design than on individual plants or techniques. So thanks Lee Valley, and author Frank Kershaw!
A few days ago I wrote on starting with your viewpoint: where is it, what do you see, what do you want to see or what should be changed, and does that view draw you out into the garden? Once you’ve decided that, it’s time to go out and investigate.
These are the main points Frank Kershaw covers in the article (which of course, you can just read yourself, but I have some comments to add):
- The overgrown garden–this includes plants that have outgrown their designated space, hardscape that is deteriorating, and the areas that suffer as a result;
- Otherwise harmless plants or structures that have nevertheless outlived their usefulness;
- Time-wasters–like lawn you never use;
- The makeover process.
Let’s start with the process. You already know where to begin, because you looked out your windows from your favourite spots and identified special views and focal points. Now you go outside and check the condition of everything that occupies those spaces. Does a shrub dominate and shade out anything else? Has a particular perennial spread far beyond its appropriate borders? Is a tree growing too close to the house? Now is the time to identify plants and learn some techniques for managing them–division, replanting, pruning, and “shovel-pruning”–i.e., disposing of plants that just don’t pass muster. Oh, and WEEDING.
The overgrown garden is one that hides a lot of virtues. You may be intimidated by your garden, and think that it needs a complete overhaul, when maybe all that’s really needed is a fresh eye. Right now in January is a good time to see the structure of your garden; without all the volume of greenery, you can see more clearly what constitutes the “bones” of your garden. (FYI, it’s also a great time to see those evergreen weeds–like buttercup–and deal with them…) These bones should include layers–tall trees, short trees, shrubs, tall perennials and short perennials; paths to take you through the garden; and “negative space“–open areas that may be planted (turf or other ground cover) or hard surface, which allows the eye a rest from constant looking, and allows you areas to sit and relax.
The overgrown garden of course brings up the question “why did it get overgrown?” In most cases it’s due to a combination of two things: wrong plants, wrong place; and lack of time or interest to do the maintenance work any garden requires. (I don’t include “ability”, because anyone can learn what it takes to keep their gardens manageable, if they have the time and interest.) If indeed you don’t have the time or interest, it may be true that your garden does need a complete overhaul, making it much more low-maintenance. (Not no-maintenance–there’s no such thing!)
Maybe your investigation has revealed that you have layers, you have paths, and you have negative space. Yay! Who knew you had such a great garden? Well, I guess you didn’t, because it’s overgrown and you couldn’t see how great it is. In this case, dealing with all the excess –with pruning, division, weeding and shovel-pruning–will bring the garden back to a state whereby you can see whether you need to do other things. Even if you don’t have the layers, paths and negative space, you’ll be able to see what you do have, and move on from there.
While doing your walkabout, you may have seen things that are past their best-before-date. Fence boards falling off, broken pots, cracked concrete; Unless you’re planning to make big changes in the immediate future, fix the broken things. You’ll be much happier with the overall look, and may discover the big change isn’t necessary after all.
IS IT STILL USEFUL?
That in-ground trampoline, the play structure, the pool or pond; have you and your family outgrown these features? Are they occupying valuable space? Are they more work than they’re worth? The cost of removing some things (like an in-ground pool for example) may feel prohibitive, but the alternative (maintaining it ad infinitum) may be worse. And the value of your home will always be enhanced by a renovated garden.
My racoon problem of last year persuaded me that keeping a lawn in the front was not worth the work, and by removing it I could get what I wanted but didn’t otherwise have room for–a pond. And in the back yard I was tired of fighting the buttercup that was overtaking the turf grass. (For some reason the chafer beetles weren’t interested in the back yard–they probably don’t like buttercup any more than I do!) Now I have 4 new raised vegetable beds, and a whole new area to develop a cutting garden.
Related to the usefulness of various features is the usefulness of various micro-climate areas. You may notice neglected areas or spots that are unusable in their current state. Too little drainage, too little moisture, inconvenient locations or slopes. Mr Google will happily help you with solutions, but you have to be able to ask the question in order to get an answer. For two or three years I tried to get plants to grow under the three cedar trees in the front yard. The tree roots, falling debris, and the tendency of cedars to suck every drop of water from the ground made that difficult. So instead of planting drought tolerant plants and hoping they’d thrive, I laid a small flagstone patio. I identified the problem, considered a number of options, and chose the one that worked best for me.