Knowing that I enjoy the time in my garden, my new homeowner clients occasionally contact me after closing with basic gardening questions. Exteriorly speaking, when you purchase a home you inherit the landscape from all of the property's past owners!
Like a sizable, well-placed hydrangea or peony plant that typically takes YEARS to establish, let alone flower. Anyone who has planted one can assure you that it can take a DECADE to get blooms the size of their head!
Like well-established ivy that has been given free-reign to be as invasive as it would like to be, compromising the architectural integrity of the structure by penetrating the tuck-pointing, siding, and often times gutters and roof.
And well, the ugly...
Poorly placed, overgrown, and unattractive landscape elements can often add nothing but negative value to the exterior of a property.
In the ideal situation, when making the yard your own, you save what you can. The task of sorting out a project of this magnitude, however, can be daunting. Landscaping and "making over" a garden is meant to be a process NOT a weekend project. To remain sane (ha!), one must keep it simple, take it slow, and not bite off more than they can chew.
My advice, from my personal experience...
1) Enlist the help of the Seller.
If it is obvious that the previous homeowner put a significant amount of time, money, energy, and/or heart into the outdoor space of the property... they are also typically eager to pass along their care information, including a garden overview and their pruning and care schedule.
If the Seller didn't freely offer that information at the close of escrow- ask your Realtor to please request it. It is worth a shot!
2) Dig it up, cut it down, yank it out!
If any part of your landscape is threatening your structure in any way- deal with it now.
If a tree branch is touching the structure or hanging over the roof- trim it! If ivy is climbing up the foundation or even worse, penetrating your structure in any way- yank it out! If the sidewalk is overgrown with ground cover- clean it up! If weeds are invading your flower beds- pull them out!
Even if you don't necessarily like what you are working with, clean it up and get it under control before you do anything too drastic to change it.
The most important focus initially is to prevent any further damage to the property. Then focus can shift to getting the basic upkeep back up to par: mowing, weed control, trimming, pest control, mulching, aerating, seeding, etc. From there, you can make improvements.
3) Identify what you have.
Are the blooms that you see annuals that the previous homeowner planted to punch up the color in the garden or are they perennials that will come back year after year on their own?
- Learn landscape terminology: The first step in determining what you have is to learn the terminology, as you will need that knowledge from this point on. Simple terminology articles like this cover the internet and can be extremely helpful to a newbie gardener.
- Identify: The second step is putting a name to what you see so you can research it- what is it, when and how long does it flower, is it drought resistant, what type of care does it require, when is the appropriate time to prune it, etc. While the internet is a great resource, I still recommend purchasing a book- trust me, you will use it. There are HUNDREDS of fabulous choices, just ensure that you try to purchase one specific to your region, if possible.
- Allow for a full growing cycle, by giving it time: This is always the toughest step for a newbie gardener, craving a beautiful Pinterest-worthy outdoor space NOW! It is rare for a new homeowner to have to start from scratch with nothing worth saving. The challenge? What is lurking beneath the soil, preparing to pop up and deliver beauty to the garden? The fact is: a seasoned Midwest gardener plants perennials that will emerge, flower, and peak at different times of the year to ensure a lush and interesting garden through all of our distinct growing seasons. The biggest mistake that I see repeatedly from novice gardeners is not allowing their garden to perform for a full 12 months before they start making major changes. Often times, they destroy the layout and performance of a well thought-out garden, and do not discover that they have done so until it is too late.
Do not purchase a thing until you can answer these basic questions...
- What are you trying to achieve in aesthetics and functionality? Color, shade, filler?
- What direction does the property face?
- Are you working with shade or sun? If partial sun, is in morning or afternoon sun? Yes, it matters.
- What plants draw your eye? What flowers do you love? Do you like soft, colorful blooms or plants with more structural visual interest? Start a Pinterest Board (this is my personal Green and Garden board) and begin to compile the items that draw your eye AND would flatter the exterior of your property.
- How much time are you willing to give? If not a lot, stick with hardy and drought -resistant perennials that require very little upkeep. If you like to get your hands dirty, an annual-heavy outdoor space can really bump up color and beauty!
- Do you wish to incorporate edibles? Herbs, veggies, fruits trees?
- Does your soil remain moist? Do you have easy access to water? Do you have an irrigation system? If not, are you willing to commit to watering your new plants by hand or have a system installed?
- Do you have specific pest issues? Grubs, moles, Japanese Beetles, that I wrote about a few years ago. For example, we live in an neighborhood that is highly populated by deer. Everything that I plant must either be protected OR something that deer do not enjoy eating or it will be gone my early summer.
- Are you trying to attract more friendly garden visitors? Butterflies, bees, hummingbirds?
- Do you have well thought-out beds/ soil retainment or do you need to create some?
- Does your soil PH need to be adjusted to grow the type of plants that you wish to incorporate? For example, if your yard has a lot of pine, high acidity is likely. From my experience, Azaelas and Gardenias would probably thrive in your yard while lilacs would suffer. Know your PH- this article can help- and adjust your soil or plant accordingly.
5) Ask for help.
Does your best friend or family member have a green thumb? Invite them over for brunch and garden advice! Do any of your new neighbors have a showcase yard? Introduce yourself and pick their brain. Contact a landscaper. Ask the experts at your local nursery or big box store. Enlist the advise of your favorite gardening blogger (mine is Steve Bender, who I tweet continuously). Reach out to local resources- the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis.
If you don't have resources, ask the people who you trust the most for their referrals. Ask them who designed their garden. Ask them where they typically purchase their plants.
Regardless, do not be afraid to reach out!
6) Give it time, and be patient.
Resist the temptation to overcrowd your plants. By planting garden elements too close together, you do nothing but create more work for yourself down the road. Research the eventual size of your new plants and place them accordingly! I spotted this quote and fell in love, as it is so true...
What may make for a sparse garden today, will result in a beautiful, low-maintenance garden tomorrow! Spacing your plants properly allows them to live up to their full potential in the future. If the bare space during the interim is driving your crazy... use annuals as filler.
7) Have fun! Nothing is permanent, if you don't want it to be.
This is my absolute favorite aspect of gardening, and why it is my personal stress-reliever! Be as bold and adventurous as you want to be, as it is impossible to make a mistake that cannot be remedied. Do not be afraid- this is the ideal place to take chances and try new things!
If you don't like it, change it. If you change it and your plan didn't work out- dig it up and start again!
Let your imagination run wild with color and texture in your garden. Create a space that functions well, but also incorporates the colors, scents, and textures that you adore.