Homeowners consider garden renovation for many reasons; perhaps a change is needed due to diminishing sunlight or maybe the garden has just gotten out of control. Many times people move into an established home with an existing landscape and they want to make the landscape more to their liking. Whatever the reason, there are a few considerations that will make the task easier and hopefully more successful.
If you belong to the group who has moved into an existing home, the first piece of advice is not to do anything too quickly; live in the house for a while to see how you use it and you will begin to see which changes to the landscape are really important to make.
- Consider which entrances are used most, where the kids play, etc. These are the traffic patterns and they are the first of the site considerations.
- Make notes and take pictures as you move through the process as it will be a visible record and helpful if you are working on the project over the winter months.
- The soil needs to be the starting point so take a few soil samples from six inches down and bring them to your local Cooperative Extension office to be tested for pH levels. Next, make any amendments to the soil as recommended. Changing the pH is a gradual process so be patient and keep a record of any applications that are made and have soil re-tested every two years if you’re rying to affect a pH change.
- Are there specific objectives that you wish to accomplish, perhaps more consistent bloom or lower maintenance? List all objectives as they will be important during plant selection.
- Look at all aspects of garden maintenance and note any changes that you want to make, such as adding an outdoor faucet or a garden shed. This will all become part of the overall plan.
To layout a new garden bed or to change the shape of an existing one, a garden hose is a useful tool to use as an outline. Use the hose to craft the shape of the bed and when it is as you want it to be, mark off the edge with landscapers paint or lime. If you like the shape of the existing bed, then move on to identify what plants are growing there now and what you want to keep. This is another reason why it is important to live with the landscape for a while, to observe the plants as they go through the seasons as this will help you to decide where things need to be changed. Clean out the bed as completely as possible, potting up plants that you want to re-use. If your garden has shrubs or trees as part of the mix, work carefully so as not to disturb roots. Some perennials, such as peonies, may not need to be moved unless light conditions have changed. Next, top-dress the garden with enough compost to renew the soil and then rake to level the area. Be careful not to add too much compost around any trees or shrubs; one to two inches is sufficient.
Now you are ready to tackle the garden design. Using graph paper, begin to plot the shape of the garden and start designing. If you are a novice gardener, consult with your local Cooperative Extension for fact sheets on planning a perennial border. Design is a highly personal process, but books or fact sheets can guide you to which plants bloom early, mid-season and late; which plants are tall back-of-the-border choices and which plants anchor a garden and those best placed in the front. Books can offer color pictures of individual plants and larger borders for inspiration. One of the most useful tools are garden catalogs as they feature individual plants and all the facts about the plant that are important from a design perspective, such as time of bloom, color and height. Design can be a tedious process, but it’s a good way to learn about plants. Don’t worry about making mistakes as things can be dug up and moved should they not turn out as expected. It is all part of the learning experience, but remember: this is your garden and it should please you. Working from your garden design, list the plants and how many of each that you will need to purchase. Work in odd numbers allowing the larger plants to be used in smaller numbers (unless the scale of the garden is very large) and the smaller plants in larger multiples. For sources of plants, investigate local nurseries, mail order and don’t overlook divisions from friends and local plant sales such as the Albany Master Gardener’s Garden Education Day sale each May.
Follow the graph paper design and lay out the garden by placing the pots of plants in the proposed places. Stand back and envision the garden, but remember that while things look small at first, they will grow fast. Do not be tempted to plant any closer than indicated by the ultimate size of the plant or you will be soon be renovating again. This is where the specific plant information is very helpful; if a plant will mature at 24 inches in width then use that as the gauge for planting to allow enough room for growth. If you are happy with the design then start planting in the back of the garden and work your way forward. Water the hole before placing the plant and after the plants are all planted give the entire garden a second watering. Do not worry about fertilizing at this point, but do mulch the garden with shredded bark mulch or a layer of compost two to three inches deep. Watch the garden closely the first season and water to a depth of an inch if the rain does not equal that amount each week. After the plants settle in, a light application of fertilizer can be applied. The following year the easiest approach to fertilizing is to broadcast granular 5-10-5 over the garden area in late winter/very early spring long before the plants wake up. That way the spring rains can gently wash the fertilizer into the soil to be available when the plants get ready to grow.
Use annuals for more color in areas that need a boost. Consider Euphorbia “Diamond Frost”, Angelonia, or the annual blue salvia, Farinacea cultivar “Victoria Blue” as they play well with perennials. Save space for spring bulbs especially the unusual alliums and the very perennial daffodils; an added bonus is that deer do not tend to eat them. The possibilities are many, but most important is to enjoy the process and learn about your garden along the way.
Susan Pezzolla is a horticulture educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension Albany County.