Re-Engineering Your Garden

Re-engineering is a popular buzzword today. Corporations use it to describe changes they are making in their market focus or their corporate structure. Basically, it means taking a look at where you are and reassessing what you can do to capitalize on what you have. And what holds true for established corporations surprisingly holds true for the established home garden.

As landscape matures, things change. Trees get taller and cast deeper shade, bushes outgrow their original compactness and places in the garden. People’s lifestyles change, and that area given over to a sandbox or a swing set may no longer be needed. Or you may have purchased an older home with mature plantings that no longer work, or at least they don’t satisfy you. The time comes in almost every landscape plan when “re-engineering” is the way to go.

A Fresh Look
To start re-engineering a garden you have to take a hard, honest look at what you have. Because changes in the garden can happen subtly over years, you might overlook the obvious, such as an increase in shade or a physical change in your garden. For example, maybe you added a deck and now traffic patterns have changed, or you took down the swing set and the focal point of your garden is now in the wrong place, etc. Pretend you are the new owner of the house and garden you are surveying, and look at it with as much objectivity as you can.

Back to the Drawing Board
Is there an orderly look to your garden, or has it just “happened” over time? Even “natural” gardens have a plan behind them that keeps them looking natural instead of wild. If there hasn’t been a plan, this is the place to start. Depending on the size of your garden and how elaborate you want to make it, you can plan it yourself or call on professional help.

Even if you call on a professional, do have some plan in mind as to what you want your garden to ultimately look like. Take one area at a time and think about how you want that to look, and then move on to the next area. If your garden doesn’t naturally break into “areas,” think about creating them by varying garden bed sizes, shapes and what plants they will contain. You may want to add a garden bed or two, or take some beds out.

A planned garden doesn’t have to happen all at once. If you develop an overall plan, you can work on one or two areas at a time, and save work on other areas for later in the year or even until the next season or two.

Dealing with Shade
In evaluating your existing garden, you may find that some plants don’t perform as well as they used to. It could be that they need more light. Consider moving these to another area of the garden and finding new shade tolerant plants to replace them. Begonias, impatiens and other shade tolerant plants can give a bright show of color where petunias no longer perform well.

If you are uncertain about how well a plant will perform in a problem area, plant one or two plants of the types you would like there (in the ground or in a container) and test them for one season. Next time around, plant more of those that did well, and test some others for future plantings. Many gardeners annually try out “new” plants on a small scale before really committing any amount of time or money to them.

Trees and shrubs
One of the biggest changes that can creep up silently on a garden is the growth of trees and shrubs. They not only grow taller and larger, but they can dramatically influence what can or can’t grow under or around them. Trees can be trimmed professionally to thin out branches and allow more light to filter through to the ground. In extreme cases, such as too many trees planted too close together (or that somehow just grew there), removal of some of the trees in addition to trimming may be the answer. Professional advice and service from tree experts is highly recommended for trimming and removal.

Overgrown shrubs can also be trimmed back or removed entirely if no longer desirable. As much as it hurts emotionally and as much as it can be visually unattractive for a while, a severe trimming (almost to the ground) can often rejuvenate old and woody shrubs. Fall is often a good time to do severe trimming, because (in Northern areas, at least) the shrub may be “shutting down” for the winter, and will send up new shoots in the spring. Once they begin growing again you can control future shaping.

Plants planted around the base of a tree compete with the tree roots for water and nutrients. Creating raised beds for plants will reduce this competition, and can add a new feature to your garden. If raised beds are not practical or wanted, when planting under a tree or near its roots put the plants in pots and then sink the pots in holes around the tree. This, too, will reduce competition. For specific recommendations, ask a landscape professional or check information in books at your local library. Your local agricultural or horticultural extension agent may also offer some advice.

Problem areas
Almost every home has a problem area. Often it is the north side of the house, or a walkway along one side of the house, or an area behind the garage or a shed. Frequently, a simple cleanup is the first order of business. For example, once cleaned up, a dirt pathway can be spruced up with mulch or a layer of gravel and the addition of stepping stones. A north wall that never gets any sun can be brightened with containers of shade plants grouped or lined along the way. If there is an overhang, hanging baskets can be used, or they can be hung from wrought iron hooks made for baskets. Alternating tall and short containers, and varying plant types and colors can turn a formerly drab area into a “secret garden.” Focal Points

All gardens need a focal point. A small garden needs only one, and larger gardens may need several. A focal point draws the eye to a special feature or planting and helps give the rest of the garden a more orderly look. Focal points can be as simple as one spectacular plant or planting among the others, or a feature such as a gazing globe, a water pond or a piece of sculpture or statuary. In larger gardens focal points can be created for different areas. On a patio, for example, a grouping of different sized pots can serve as a focal point, with one large pot being the center of attention. Tall plants grouped in mass and surrounded by shorter plants can create focal point in a garden bed, as can a contrast in color or plant type. Ornamental features such as large rocks, a pedestal, a statue or a gazing ball are natural focal points. A quick and easy feature to add to a bed is a birdbath or a bird feeder. An arbor trellis planted with climbing plants such as morning glories or thunbergia can be an eye-catching focal point for an entire garden. Color coordination

A coordinated color scheme can really pull a garden together and refresh one that may have gone stale. Use a combination of three or four colors to create a color theme. Match the colors in your dishes or your placemats if you eat outdoors. Red, white and blue make your garden patriotic. Pink, white and green is cool and refreshing. Yellow, blue and white is a bright summery combination. You can break the scheme every now and then when you have a great plant that doesn’t fit the “rules,” and then it becomes the exception that points out what your theme is. Planning Ahead

Re-engineering doesn’t always have to be a major undertaking. Once you have a plan in place, small adjustments every year or two will keep you from having to start from scratch.

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