Garden Makeover

GARDEN MAKEOVER

May 2015. This is still early growth. By July it was a jungle. I went out and tagged plants that were superfluous.

May 2015. This is still early growth. By July it was a jungle. I went out and tagged plants that were superfluous. It was also BP–before pond.

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.

May 2015. This is the view for people approaching my front door. Their perspective is important too.

May 2015. This is the view for people approaching my front door. Their perspective is important too.

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):

  1. The overgrown garden–this includes plants that have outgrown their designated space, hardscape that is deteriorating, and the areas that suffer as a result;
  2. Otherwise harmless plants or structures that have nevertheless outlived their usefulness;
  3. Time-wasters–like lawn you never use;
  4. The makeover process.

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.

OVERGROWN GARDEN

Way too many plants in a small space: two roses, black elderberry, numerous different daylilies, a vine maple, corkscrew willow, red twig dogwood, croscosmia... Wow, didn't realize there was THAT much!

Way too many plants in a small space: two roses, black elderberry, numerous different daylilies, a vine maple, corkscrew willow, red twig dogwood, croscosmia, lilies, lady’s mantle… Wow, didn’t realize there was THAT much!

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.

This is a lovingly tended but overgrown garden that takes way too much time managing, even for these garden-lovers.

This is a lovingly tended but overgrown garden that takes way too much time managing, even for these garden-lovers. But no shortage of LAYERS!

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!)

Terrible waste of space, and the tree is being strangled by the English ivy (Hedera helix).

Terrible waste of space, and the tree on the right is being strangled by the English ivy (Hedera helix). But the rest of the garden looks similar–clearly a case for a complete renovation in favour of a “low” maintenance plan.

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.

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OCT 2014. You can see that the lawn, looking its best all year, is still pretty pitiful. The large semi-circle covered with wood chip mulch is even worse. One year later I’m completely ready for a change…

New raised beds, positioned radially leaving open wedges between them. Low growing annuals and perennials in those wedges will attract pollinators and beneficial insects.

New raised beds, positioned radially leaving open wedges between them. Low growing annuals and perennials in those wedges will attract pollinators and beneficial insects.

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.

July 2010. New patio, thanks to my ever energetic sister!

July 2010. New patio, thanks to my ever energetic sister!

There’s More to Shrubs than Just Hedges

The “bones” of a garden are usually provided with two very different features: hardscape and shrubs. I’ll leave the hardscape to another post and address shrubs for now.

Layers

I think the thing I find the most essential in a perennial border or garden space is variety of heights. Even when my garden was very young, I appreciated the completely accidental feature of taller perennials interspersed with masses of low-growing self-seeded alyssum.

Controlled Chaos under the shade of big cedars.

Controlled Chaos under the shade of big cedars.

The garden looks nothing like that now, but I haven’t abandoned that layered look–now it’s achieved with shrubs. Your avian friends will appreciate the varying sized shrubs, some liking to be up high, others liking to just perch a couple feet off the ground. The more heights your garden has to offer, the more species of birds you’re likely to invite.

Tiny (stunted actually) Hydrangea paniculata 'Brussels Lace' in front of Sambucus nigra 'black beauty

Tiny (stunted actually) Hydrangea paniculata ‘Brussels Lace’ in front of Sambucus nigra ‘Black Beauty’.

Separate spaces

Areas in your garden don’t have to be walled off from one another to still create the sense of “rooms”. In fact, just a couple of shrubs may be enough to clearly differentiate one space from another. When I wanted a “secret garden” patio, I thought it should be surrounded by various shrubs so that when I was inside, it was completely private. I planted a lilac (Syringa vulgaris) for fragrance, black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’) for drama, an Italian Plum–for plums!–and Viburnum tinus for evergreen leaves and winter flowers. Then along came the Hibiscus syriacus (Rose of Sharon) because there was space, two rhodos, because I just had to buy them, a hydrangea that liked the area, another lilac cutting from a friend’s garden…

Aaack!–way too much enclosure. The Sambucus is getting “shovel pruned” this summer, the hydrangea, small lilac and both rhodos will be moved, the older lilac pruned back a bit, the Hibiscus limbed up. Aah, now there’s room to breath, yet still fell comfortably “secret”.

Drama

But speaking of drama (the Sambucus ‘Black Lace’), a few shrubs with interesting detail, texture, colour, or flowers will contribute a certain je ne sais quoi to your garden.

SAmbucus nigra 'Black Beauty'

Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’

Hypericum perforatum 'Albury Purple'

Hypericum perforatum ‘Albury Purple’–used as a perennial, but it’s really a woody sub-shrub. Growing about 24″ high in my garden, and at about 4 years old, it’s grown a bit bigger every year.

Punctuation

Just as a comma or question mark helps define a sentence, so a shrub can help define a garden space. Back to my Sambucus nigra, being very dark in colour, it provides a great backdrop to the white lilies growing underneath, which aren’t in bloom any more, so I can’t show you. But I can show you the Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ providing a foil for the shasta daisies. Like quotation marks, perhaps?

Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple'--Smoke bush-- with Shasta daisy --Leucanthemum x superbum

Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’–Smoke bush– with Shasta daisy –Leucanthemum x superbum

Structure

For some of us, winter is a long season. Not so much here on the West Coast, but most of the rest of the country. So your garden should still be attractive and inviting for those 4-5-6 or more months between growing seasons. Shrubs will do that for you. Deciduous shrubs still have a network of delicate branches that you can appreciate all the more for not being obscured by leaves. (That sentence is a little like an old friend from a tree-challenged region of Scotland who felt the view as we drove south to England was hidden by too many trees!) And of course, evergreen shrubs provide colour when we most need it, and sometimes even fragrance–like my beloved Sarcococca humilis that blooms in early February, and fills the front entrance of my house with amazing fragrance.

Tiny little flowers, big impact!

Sarcococca humilis–Tiny little flowers, big impact!

If you want to consult RLGS to establish some structure in your garden, go to the About/Contact page.