the inherited garden
waiting to see what spring will reveal…
The lovely home you purchased last winter is purported to have a beautiful garden. The real estate agent told you about it; neighbors have commented on the lovely garden, and the mailman has started delivering gardening catalogs. In fact, you have learned that your garden was on the Mt. Lebanon Library Garden Tour. You feel strangely anxious about the unspoken expectation that you are the keeper of a neighborhood treasure. As winter gives way to spring, you bravely peek outside to see what Mother Nature is offering. You recognize daffodils pushing through the cold earth, but what are those little blue flowers? As you walk through your property and the garden unfolds, you see a large stand of blooming shrubs… they’re kind of pretty…one has a yellow bloom, one has a pink bloom, and the third is sort of pinkish white with a wonderful fragrance. You love these shrubs, but should they be this big? People are throwing around words like deciduous, evergreen, perennial and biennial. You haven’t been in over your head like this since you took the SATs in high school. When you stop to think about it, you nearly hyperventilate. Something must be done. But what?
Whether you decide to maintain this inherited garden or scale it back to a cultivation level you are more comfortable with, here are some thoughts to help you choose.
It’s best to wait for an entire growing season before making major changes. That’s because it takes an entire year for the garden to reveal its contents. Make this your “year of discovery,” and learn about your plants. Ask questions like: What are their names? Do they like sun or shade? Are they happy in their current location, or are they looking droopy and thirsty? Are their leaves a sickly yellow color? Do the deer devour them? If you use your year to educate yourself, you will know what you have, what conditions these plants prefer and what questions to ask an expert.
During your year of discovery, you should perform some maintenance on the garden for the health of the plant life and for aesthetics. Learn the basics, including weeding, edging and mulching.
Weed before you mulch. A bed is easier to keep weed-free with a good 2-3 inch layer of mulch, because weed seeds need light to germinate. Some weeds do not grow from seed but come in as runners under the soil— pull those pronto. You can mulch any time during the growing season, but spring is best. Wait until all the plants have poked through the soil; that way you can see them and avoid covering the crown.
Edge the beds with a spade or half-moon edger to keep the grass from creeping in. This is an important first step, but it needs to be repeated during the growing season. Once you put a good solid edge on the beds, maintain it with a string trimmer. Beware: some weeds are so invasive, you may have to throw away surrounding plants because the roots are hopelessly entangled. One of the worst offenders is Bishops Weed.
Once the year has passed, you may know that your garden was beautiful only because the previous owner spent many hours a day keeping it watered, pruned and fertilized. If this is not your idea of fun, then you will have to make some adjustments.
You may have some very good plant material to work with, so don’t throw everything out. A good friend relayed the sad tale of a garden in his neighborhood that had been designed by the curator of Phipps in the 1940s. The new owner, unable to envision the potential of a thorough trimming, had the whole thing taken out. Azalea and rhododendrons that had grown happily along the stone paths for years, ground covers that gave the garden a sense of history, fragile woodland wild flowers that had proliferated in the nooks and crannies of dogwoods, vintage shrubs—all were hacked and dragged off the property as my friend watched dumbstruck.
True, the garden was overgrown, but it had beautiful mature blooming shrubs, stone paths wandering under specimen trees and steps connecting to an elevated terrace. If renovated, this garden would have been invaluable. Moral to the story: you don’t have to start from scratch. You may have a great garden that needs to be renovated. If so, the goal should be to reuse and repurpose plants for maximum effect and minimum cost.
You have come full circle, and it is springtime again. What if you still are unsure of the direction you want to go?
Let the conditions of your garden guide you. Is it blistering hot out there? Or do you have lots or shade, perhaps too much? Is there any standing water? Room for a pond? Does the next-door neighbor’s dog bark at you on summer evenings when you are grilling? Begin with problem solving: A good shrub border on your property line might give enough privacy to quiet the dog. The wet spot? Think of a bog garden or a rain garden. Too hot? Plant a shade tree. Too shady? Move in some shade-loving shrubs, perennials and ground covers.
Make a plan based on those answers. If we design sustainably, cooperating with Mother Nature, she takes care of the garden for us. The fallen leaves become decaying carbon material, which the worms love. They in turn leave nitrogen-rich worm castings behind. As the worms move through the soil, they leave little tunnels that allow air, water and nutrients to reach the root zones of your plants.
Follow “right plant, right place” practices and, whether you are moving plants around or adding new ones, make sure each plant gets the right amount of sun and water. A well-placed shrub is lower maintenance than a bed of perennials because other than the occasional thinning or removing dead branches, once you put it in the ground and let it grow to maturity, little care is needed.
Ask for professional help. If you cannot identify your shrubs and are having trouble deciding what to keep, move or give away, take a picture of your inherited garden to a nursery and ask for help. Or hire a master gardener. Master gardeners have taken college-level classes in horticulture and graduated from their program and must do volunteer work and take horticulture courses each year to remain certified. A master gardener can consult with you, coach you and perhaps even provide labor. Contact Phipps, 412-622-6914, or Penn State Extension, 412-473-2540, for recommendations.
Taking the time and effort to learn about the inherited garden that seems so daunting when you move in is well worth it, if you can create a beautiful outdoor space that enhances the livability and increases the market value of your home.
In terms of your garden…
During your year of discovery, learning about your inherited garden, familiarize yourself with the gardener’s vocabulary.
Annuals are plants that complete their life cycle in one year. They grow leaves, bloom, often continually, set seed and die.
Perennials are herbaceous (green soft stems, not woody) plants that emerge, bloom and set seed every year. Favorite perennials are hostas, bleeding hearts (dicentra) and cone flowers (echinacea), all available in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors.
Biennials are plant that requires two growing seasons to complete their life cycle. During the first growing season they
produce mainly foliage. In the second year, they will flower and set seed, often early in the season. Parsley is a biennial that goes to seed in the spring and becomes less valuable as a culinary plant. Some biennials, like hollyhocks (alcea), which can self-seed, appear to be perennial. Some of the best biennials are foxgloves (digitalis) with their beautiful pastel spires, and forget-me-not (myosotis), which is a shade-loving ground cover with
gorgeous tiny blue flowers.
Deciduous refers to plants that drop their leaves, usually in the
fall. Although evergreens are similar to typical deciduous plants in many ways, they hold their leaves or needles all winter. Although most people don’t notice, many evergreens drop the previous year’s leaves in the spring.
The crown of the plant is usually the very middle and the first
part to emerge after winter is over.