Assessing the Garden

We went to Barnes & Noble the other night for tea and a good forage in the stacks—Carl to check up on his design mags and me to a brand new haunt: the gardening shelves.

This is a slightly intimidating world to me, because even though I like plants I seem to kill them more often than not. Also I get bored easily. Also they seem to take a long time to mature and the gardens I like best are the ones outside English homes that belong to the National Trust and have been continuously managed by experts for several hundred years.

The chasm between my abilities and the desired results does rather gape.

On the other hand, I have loved our little back yard from the first glimpse, and love, as everyone knows, inspires rash deeds. Thus: the gardening stacks at B&N.

I skimmed a lot of books, but the one pictured above—Rejuvenating a Garden by Stephen Anderton—was my fav by far. Most landscaping and garden design books start with a blank canvas and offer you all sorts of scintillating layouts and color combinations to try, but we happen to have inherited a very specific, very mismanaged little garden that already has a character and flavor of its own. I don’t want to design a garden; I want to coax the one we already have back to life.

For that, Anderton is apparently my man, and I’m going to cheerfully summarize and cannibalize his hard work without further attribution and with a great many of my own embellishments.

1. Form a clear picture of how you’d like to use the garden and what style will suit both you and the house behind it.

This is easy and fun and doesn’t require any grubbing in the dirt. I’m so down with that.

For me, the primary purpose of the garden is to have a place to relax, read, lounge, and generally enjoy being outside. Here’s the more specific wish list:

  • an open, grassy place for kids to play
  • an area for outdoor cooking and eating
  • a comfortable, shaded respite from heat (no AC for us)
  • a place that’s private from our neighbors
  • a good mix of interesting greens and bright colors
  • a visually interesting space that’s also realistic in terms of upkeep

As for style, our garden is very much like our home. The bones are vintage. The plaster walls curve up to the ceiling the way plaster walls did in the 50s. The stairs creak and the bathroom’s tiny. The brick patio has grass growing contentedly between the red bricks. The retaining walls are made out of broken up, repurposed cement. It’s old-worldy without trying too hard.

The bones are vintage, and it would be tempting (for me, anyway) to go whole sale—to fill up the house with vintage fixtures and shabby chic furniture, quilts and mason jars, to plant the back yard in rambling roses and drippy vines.

Exactly what we won’t do, Carl says. Exactly what would make the place look dated, like a museum diorama. Because while we appreciate the past, we don’t really belong there. We like clean lines and minimalism. We like fresh smells and open spaces. Our taste, if unchecked, would probably run to the cold and utilitarian, but in this house it just brings balance and life to what would otherwise be an old house growing still older.

It’s a blending of old and new, traditional shapes and modern colors. It’s finding an aesthetic that connects and explains and harmonizes our personality with that of the house. It’s finding a happy middle place.

Having a very clear idea of what you want will also help you stay focused as you move on to the next step, which is even easier than the first (although it takes a lot longer).

2. Do nothing, preferably for a year.

Ok, so that’s not exactly what Anderton said. There are plenty of things you can do in that first year, but most of them have more to do with observing than doing. It’s easy to decide a garden isn’t working, but if you want to restore something it helps to know how it works before you start messing with it. Catalogue the bulbs that flower and take pictures to keep the color combinations fresh in your mind, check the health of your trees and what areas they shade, get an idea what kinds of pests/critters you’ll have to contend with, learn where the sunlight falls and where the ground stays marshy after rain, get to know which areas you use and which ones you don’t and why, try to get a clear sense of the original garden’s design and evaluate what works about it and what doesn’t.

And while you’re getting familiar with the garden, there are plenty of odd jobs to tackle:

  • make decisions about the big structural elements. Retaining walls that need to be propped up; trees that need to go; how the garden will flow from one space to another. Don’t waste time and money investing in a flower bed that will have to be trampled next year when you finally get around to fixing the retaining wall behind it.
  • if you want lighting in your garden (or if, as in our case, you have lighting that doesn’t work) get that put in/fixed the first year. Again, there’s no point in planting a bed that you’re going to have to tear up later.
  • do any major pruning or clearing projects to open up light and space.
  • manage any obvious weed problems.
  • work on restoring the grass or, if necessary, re-sod.
  • plant annuals to fill in the gaps and try out color combinations, and if you’ll be dressing up any decks or patios with container plantings, start investing in those.
  • even if you don’t buy any lawn furniture or statuary, start wish lists of what you like and where it might go.

3. Make a long-term plan and start a garden journal.

The idea of a long-term plan is comforting to me, because when I first thought about tackling the garden the idea was pretty overwhelming. I mean, the extent of my gardening up to now has been to keep 2 potted geraniums alive, and even that wasn’t what I would call a rousing success. Trying to whip into shape a terraced backyard with lots of beds and plants of unknown origins was more than a little intimidating.

So I like all of this easy-does-it and the-first-year-is-about-observation stuff.

And I like knowing that real gardeners take a long view of things and don’t even try to accomplish more than a few big jobs each season. Gardening is a patient endeavor. I like that.

Personally, I’m not looking to make any drastic changes or go crazy. I just want a small, sunny garden where I can read my books and drink my lemonade and soak up the sun in peace. So for me, the first year of my three year plan is fairly simple… and even so it’ll probably be more than I can reasonably do.

Year One:

  • fix the outdoor lights
  • clean, weed, and generally declutter the yard (tacky birdhouse must GO)
  • fertilize the grass on the top tier and see if we can coax it back to health (save some cash if we don’t have to re-sod the whole thing)
  • get to know the garden (keep a photo journal)
  • remove the remains of the fallen tree
  • plant annuals to fill in the gaps of the long beds
  • plan the outdoor furniture and buy a couple of pieces when the sales start
  • buy a few containers and plant with long-blooming annuals

That’s the plan.

Which might be slightly jumping the gun since… now that I count… we still have like a quarter of the year left before spring really gets going here in Michigan.

At least I’ll be prepared.

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6 thoughts on “Assessing the Garden

  1. Thanks for the tips. My gardens are entirely wretched, and I like your ideas. Your garden has lots of cool plants in it, and I think you’ll be quite pleased with what you already have, so the idea of just rejuvenating and slowly improving sounds really wise! Happy gardening. Your mother, and your mother’s mother all ended up loving rooting and grubbing in the dirt!

  2. And again I’m so impressed by how organized a person can be. Good for you! For me, all the planning would just be overwhelming, especially when it’s so hard to imagine how everything is going to turn out!
    I’m sure you’ll end up having a gorgeously romantic garden and I’m excited to think about the pictures you’ll be taking of it!

  3. That sounds like a brilliant book. I love the observation idea. Gardening utterly befuddles me. I am the worst kind of clueless. AND I could never figure out how to garden happily with small children. My babies always enjoyed being outside, and they were always happy for me to set them down to play or ride along in the sling while I worked inside, but as soon as I tried to garden, they started fussing. It wasn’t until this summer when a friend taught me how to use a woven wrap for back carries, that I finally made some progress (very, very small progress) in gardening with a tiny chum. It also helped a lot that we broke down and hired some help (my diy head hangs in shame), but at last, the day is in sight when I will stop assuming our neighbors must think we’re white trash.

    • Yeah, I think most of my really serious gardening adventures will have to wait for the weekend when I can get a little help keeping small one happy. And I think it’s brilliant that you hired help—if that were more feasible for us, I would totally do the same. There’s no shame in hiring professionals. That’s what they’re there for. 🙂

  4. Hear hear to Kathy’s comment above! No shame. No shame.

    Your plan is brilliant. And you are a really inspiring, plan person. I still have never had a gardening journal that I actually have written in…although I fully intend to keep one here at our new house. I think it’s a really useful tool. I bought one! That’s a start!

    • Yay! We can encourage each other then, because while I totally INTEND to keep a garden journal… I haven’t bought one yet. You know how it goes…

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