When friends tell me that the don’t like the “chore” of gardening and don’t know what to do or where to start because there are so many problems with their garden, I completely understand. Gardening, like lawyering and many other professions, prides itself on its use of jargon (botanical Latin), its arcane arguments (rose pruning) and the expectations of the community (You have to garden organically! or You have to have an emerald green lawn!) all of these things make this hobby very daunting.
However, like cooking, which is both a hobby and a means to life, gardening is an essential skill for everyone who owns a plot of land. If you ignore your garden (or “landscape”– a term I HATE) you will see your home value drop. No one wants to buy a weedlot. In this economy (well- never), no one wants decreased property values.
I think that folks’ reticence to begin gardening can be divided into two basic camps: 1) they have built a brand new house with a tabula rasa sod lawn that they paid big bucks for; or 2) they bought a gorgeous house in the city with lots of charm and mature trees and fully “landscaped.”
But then kids, dogs, jobs, life and death all get in the way of maintaining the mature gardens or taking that first step on a new grass lawn.
A former colleague mentioned to me that he’d rather die than plant the scrawny twigs that his neighbor was planting in their new neighborhood and was going to “save up” to buy a really big tree. I indicated to him that by the time he got around to planting his really big tree, his neighbor’s tree would be well on its way to being a fully grown mature specimen.
I understand how daunting it is to take that step to dig up the expensive sod from personal experience. When we moved into our newly sodded house, I was overwhelmed by where to start, so we started basically: Permanent first.
The first things I paid attention to, as you should in any new garden, are the things, (like trees) that take the longest to grow. Fortunately I planted that lilac hedge filled with 4 inch high obscure varieties that first year, because five years later, it is all now waist high– in a few years, it will be over my head. Then you can figure out where the beds will be, based on how much you want to spend both financially and time-wise on weeding and maintenance. If you can get trees and shrubs in your first year, you will be amply rewarded in subsequent years– particularly because a $1000 tree started out just a few years earlier as a $20 tree.
In mature landscapes the challenge is more difficult. First, I would humbly suggest that if you don’t like gardening or have time to garden or whatever and you are looking to buy a house with extensive gardens, that you reconsider. If you don’t swim, would you buy a house with a swimming pool? You should buy a house for the life you have, not your fantasies. (As guilty as everyone else, I recently purchased a white chair for my fantasy life, while my real life black cat adores it.)
Assuming you have already bought your mature landscaped house, where do you start?
First– acknowledge your own personality. If there are extensive gardens that you don’t want or have time to keep, cut them down, dig them out and get rid of them. Don’t worry about that- it’s ridiculous to keep something that isn’t your personality outside- you’d hardly leave a previous owner’s decorations on the wall inside. Much better to have a plain expanse of grass, than a weed-covered former garden bed. Yes, this takes time, but it will be worth it in the long haul. Get rid of overgrown trees and shrubs- particularly if they block windows. If your yard is ridiculously bad, filled with compacted soil- you should till it and reseed it. You can do all of this yourself, except for removing large trees, and you can call an arborist to do that.
Then, like with a new house, worry about the permanent things– overgrown foundation shrubs generally need regular (once or twice a year) trimming. Not up for regular trimming? Get rid of the foundation shrubs. Sick trees or trees leaning precariously over the house? Get rid of them. Stop the sentimentality.
As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, vegetable gardens are a major committment. I would not attempt these until you have your house (the rest of your property) in order. Or if you are like me, never.
Then, both new and used homeowners should start with one bed first. Maybe you like flowers or vegetables or herbs or shade plants or tulips. Whatever. Start with something small. If you like it and have no problem keeping it up, then expand as needed. Start with one bed per year. Maybe two at most. I have usually dug one new bed in the spring and maybe one in the fall- often the fall bed is an error correction (can’t mow around the air conditioner, let’s make that into a garden bed).
Even if you are restoring a mature landscape, one bed at a time is the way to go. Olbrich Botanical gardens and other large public gardens (Magnolia Plantation that I visited last week) is a great example: they focus on one new bed at a time. Just like a house, you have to paint one room first. But you must pick and avoid being indecisive– because unlike in the house, the weeds are waiting.