Just as some people like to redecorate and move furniture every six months or so, there are those gardeners who feel compelled to remake their gardens every few years. They see something they like in a garden or home magazine and off they’ll go—tearing out, digging up and replanting. More power to them. But I’ll confess I’m not one of those gardeners.
Having said that, sometimes totally redoing the garden makes sense. For example, a large tree may die and have to be taken out, and suddenly the shade garden becomes a sun garden, and the shade-loving plants expire. Or, more frequently, a garden designed for full sun gets cast in the shade as trees and shrubs grow larger than envisioned. Or you may inherit a garden that is overgrown and out of control when you move into a new home. And sometimes, like the folks who rearrange their furniture frequently, you just want to look at something new.
Summer, while not a good time to put in a new garden because it’s too hot for you and the plants, is a good time to redesign. Come fall, when it is a good time to plant trees and shrubs, you’ll be ready to go. But before you put pen to paper or play around with one of those garden design software tools, remember to follow the basic rules. Then everything else is in play, limited only by your imagination.
Be realistic about cost, size and maintenance.
Starting a garden from scratch is expensive. Quality plants, as well as garden furniture and decorations that don’t look like they came from a dead relative who happened to own a dollar store, cost money. Trees and shrubs, especially, are expensive, though you can get good buys in the fall rather than the spring. Decide what you can afford to spend, and then shop at a good garden center to see what your bucks will buy. Downsize to fit the budget if you have to.
Also, beware of the seductions of gardening magazines that lure you into planting something much larger and more complicated than you can manage. There is such a thing as a low-maintenance garden, but there is no such thing as a no-maintenance garden. Flowing beds of perennials can be eye-catching and a bed of hybrid tea roses can be stunning, but do you really have 20 hours a week to set aside for nothing but weed pulling, mulching, dead heading and spraying? Match the size and content of your garden to your time.
Finally, try to envision the garden two, five and 10 years down the road. Gardeners typically plant too many plants, too close together because they forget that over time those plants will grow and be in each other’s faces, sometimes overpowering their neighbors. It’s best to allow plenty of space—what seems like too much space—between plants the first few years. Remember, you can always fill in the empty spots for the first several years with annuals or pots of flowers.
Pay attention to basics.
Sun and soil are the two limiting factors to your garden design, and ignoring those two is a recipe for failure. Study the pattern of the sun and shade in your yard and around the house. That’s necessary because every situation is different. For example, the south side of the house typically gets plenty of sun, but if your next-door neighbor’s two-story house is 10 feet away on the south side, you’re going to have nearly full shade, especially in the summer. So know your sun exposure and plan the garden accordingly. Sun lovers, such as the coneflower, will express their displeasure for being planted in deep shade by refusing to flower and shade lovers, like hosta, will scorch in the full blast of the mid-afternoon summer sun.
And pay attention to the quality of the soil, noting in particular the drainage. You can improve fertility relatively easily, but changing drainage requires more effort—and expense. Some plants are adapted to standing in water for a while, but most are not. Drainage around the base of the home is typically poor, so you may want to install raised beds to improve drainage if you want perennial beds next to the house.
Avoid the potluck approach.
Whenever you work with a blank slate, it’s tempting to add one of those, another one of those, yet another one of those and so on. Don’t. Not only will you increase maintenance time if you have dozens of different kinds of plants in a space, you muddy up the view. Try planting sweeps of the same plant, or at minimum, plant in groups of at least three. While it is good planning to have something blooming in the garden at all times during the season, it’s also a good idea to have enough of something blooming that it catches the eye.
Think height and texture as well as color.
An attractive garden makes use of plant height and leaf texture as well as flower color. When many gardeners shop, they think about flower size and color but forget that the majority of the time, most of the garden is green, not blooming. So it’s eye-catching to mix plant leaf textures appropriately and to use taller plants as background both to accent color and leaf patterns. For example, the feathery foliage of astilbe blends well with the large, coarse leaves of hosta in the shade garden. In the sun garden, use the taller, narrower leaves of ornamental grasses to accent the shorter, sturdier growth of rudbeckia in the sun garden. Even when not blooming, those combinations look great together because of the texture of their leaves.
Big stuff first.
After you have decided on a garden plan, install the larger items—plants as well as furniture—first. The trees and shrubs will need the extra time to grow and furniture, decorations, etc., provide “bones” for your garden. They help you see in real life what you have designed on paper. Then you can start to fill in with perennials and annuals.
Ignore the rules.
Well, actually, don’t ignore rules one and two because you’re playing tricks on Mother Nature if you do. But otherwise, the consistent theme of this column has been don’t let anyone tell you what you should, can or must do in the garden. If you like it, go for it!
Readers can reach Walt Reichert at email@example.com