Why (and how) do you do your garden redo?

Empty nest, change in philosophy, new house — all opportunities for a fresh start in your backyard.


To generalize, changing one’s garden is a process of upheaval if done in one fell swoop; or one of redirecting of focus, if done gradually. Every location is different; every owner is an individual. Every plant that dies or didn’t work out provides an opportunity for another one. And about taste there is no disputing.

A redo can be — long story short — as simple as calling in a landscape company with manpower and machinery to eradicate the past and install the future. But let’s consider possible scenarios requiring a redo:

  • Post-sale, with new owner wanting to put own “stamp” on landscape?
  • Change required by septic-system upgrade?
  • Empty nest, with less soccer lawn and more ornamentals?
  • Change in light levels, as surrounding trees increase in height?
  • Changed economic, marital, or health circumstances (up or down), requiring a rethink about levels of maintenance/expense?
  • Change in philosophy: structured/formal vs. natural/wild?


New owner?

We worked in a complicated but small garden for a number of years. This property had become shadier over time, as most established gardens tend to do. When the property was sold, the new owners, knowledgeable gardeners, requested a walk-through to identify plants, planting beds, locations where seasonal plants would emerge, problematic plants/areas, and to point out plants of particular merit.

While this garden retains the overall feel of its prior design, several large trees were taken out, and a small, sunny plot for vegetables and cut flowers replaces a deck. Previously combed over once a week by three gardeners, now the garden maintenance is owner-performed.


New owner — non-gardener?
A similar walk-through, but with the new owners simply indicating what they want, like, or dislike, can be a good first step. Landscapers give quotes for removal work, and can sometimes resell or repurpose excess plants.


Septic-system upgrade?

Selling properties often requires septic upgrades. This must come out of the existing lot’s landscape, resulting in much upheaval, literally. Upgrades may also result in the mound system, where a high water table or poor percolation exists. Because surface water would drain away quickly from the mound, the plants to clothe it must not only be drought-tolerant but also fairly shallow-rooted themselves.

Whatever was there previously would be eliminated in the process. I recently helped to identify plants in such a situation, where the leach field would have to be located in what had been a perennial garden in an open situation with good light. Deciding what to keep is one piece; finding new transplanting locations is another; and giving away or selling the rest must also be considered.


Inevitable growth and change?

Sometimes an uninvolved eye, someone without emotional attachment but with good plant or design knowledge, can help to look at the situation, and make recommendations. Typically, the specimen sapling chosen with care has become an outsize tree. The lovingly planted “Christmas tree” spruces have become lichen-encrusted, gaunt ghosts of former ideal shapes. Forsythias splay into tip-rooted jungles that devour garden space. Privet hedges outpace their trimming schedule and harbor woody weeds. When plants outgrow their landscape, hard decisions must be made, and often professionals and cost are involved.

Vegetable patch to cutting garden

Soil tests are the first step in making most gardens and landscapes. While this was dissimilar to making major changes to a landscape or garden, the assignment’s finiteness is instructive in a few ways: We were tasked to change a small fenced vegetable garden over to a cutting garden for flowers. First, the soil.

The soil test revealed that the trucked-in soil the owners used to make this vegetable garden was very high in phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium; in effect, over-fertilized. The test was returned with instructions recommending no further fertilization until these levels gradually decreased.

The light levels at the location are good, and cutting flowers should be productive, despite the high phosphorus. Wind and an adjacent building, however, create turbulence. Staking of dahlias, sunflowers, and taller cosmos and zinnias may be required.


Light levels are influencers

Landscapes are influenced by the quality of light. If you live in the wooded parts of the Island, what you can achieve in the landscape is going to be quite different from what can be done in open areas. The shaded conditions palette that looks appropriate and survives — think ferns versus grasses — is a different sort from open settings/conditions.

Do you want to start growing more food? You will need to clear a patch of ground that receives, at a minimum, six hours of sunlight daily, optimally eight or more. A limited number of vegetables and fruits can be grown in less light, but diseases and failure to thrive will be a daily struggle.

Similarly, if the goal is lots of flowers, whether in the garden or wider landscape, or to have for the house, then there must be light. Sure, there are shade-adapted plants that have their season of bloom, but sun-loving annuals are the biggest producers of continuous bloom.


Empty nest/less playground?

No more unruly kids, balls, and dogs heedlessly destroying the plantings? A great conversion for those wide-open grassy spaces is a home orchard, which incidentally is also a wonderful location for naturalized bulbs. The lawn can be left to grow shaggy or long; or shorter paths, perhaps leading nowhere in particular, may be mown for visual interest.


Change in philosophy?

“Wild” or “natural” — there is great interest currently in meadows and meadow gardens, and otherwise ecologically aware designs, although this entails more work than many who want to achieve them anticipate. More and more gardens have irrigation these days, although eliminating its necessity is a big piece in sustainable designs.

Still, populations of pollinators and of all insects composing lower trophic levels of biologic life are under threat, and plummeting. Meadow environments are rich in insect life and more hospitable to other forms of life, and therefore to be promoted by those who can and want to. Wouldn’t you be thrilled to spot an otter distantly galumphing through your meadow?

Far from becoming the maintenance-free garden some may dream of, however, “wild” or “natural” environments require ongoing monitoring and editing to prevent their being engulfed in woody plants and other invasives that alter those landscapes with great rapidity.

And likewise, for some gardeners, with growing experience comes the desire for additions of a stricter form of gardening, such as knot gardens or topiarizing of plants, perhaps showcasing techniques formerly thought to be too demanding.

Much of what we want in gardens is a direct reflection of our inner lives and where we are in our own personal journeys. Gardens allow us to leave doors to the past open. I am an advocate for the approach of redirecting one’s garden focus gradually. It is an organic, pro-life, ongoing form of ebb and flow.