Should you plan your garden the way a chef plans a menu?

Hello Gardeners!

Our recent, amazing warm spell got me thinking about what it takes to transform a landscape. I was driving with the windows down, and the warm breezes, cheery sunshine, and sounds of birds all juxtaposed with the winter-weary landscapes I was driving through... It got me thinking about how sometimes, in spite of best efforts, landscapes just feel... tired and uninspired.  Late winter and early spring is a time when you can really feel the rub!

The gorgeous spring weather can really bring on the itch to do more! But what does it take to get past that blank panel of lawn, or those giant old, foundation shrubs that are now blocking the windows, toward creating a landscape that is authentically beautiful and supports vitality for us and other creatures?

I have been through this process a number of times, and I feel there are 3 key things that make it work:

Create bite-size, manageable projects.

It helps to break the whole, big, desired change down into tasks that can be accomplished in a day, or at most a weekend. Projects that do not ruin the budget for the year, but are part of a gradual, sustainable series of improvements.

Some people will hire help to get these things done, while others will enjoy the challenge and exercise of doing it themselves. But either way, when the projects are small and manageable, they get done and they tend to be easier to maintain, especially during their first, most vulnerable season.

Know Your Big Picture.

In order to prioritize the projects and make sure that they all contribute to your overall goals, you need to have a clear, detailed idea of where you're headed. Progress on smaller projects can come to a complete halt if you are struggling with doubts or conflicts as you try to move forward.

Take the time to plan. It doesn't have to be a beautiful drawing, but it does need to be well-considered. If you will need to move a downspout, for example,  you don't want to find out after you've already planted a tree at that corner.

When you go shopping for your plants, you want to have a specific, well-thought-out list in hand so that you are less tempted to buy beautiful plants that love a sunny, wet area while you are actually shopping for your dry, shaded slope.

Don't plan your garden the way a chef plans a menu! You know how in the movies a great chef goes to the market to see what inspires him or her? It sounds wonderfully spontaneous, but unfortunately that approach just doesn't work for planning your landscape...

Why not? There are too many things to consider: the plants' preferred conditions, the height, growth pattern,  color, and bloom sequence--all the details of how each plant fits into the plant community that you're creating. It's hard, if not impossible, to think all this through while you're shopping.  Having the pre-planned list firmly in hand will help you stay on track!

Blend Outsider with Insider Perspectives.

A good Big Picture requires thinking from several angles. Outside perspective is crucial. I'm not sure why this is, but we have a very hard time bringing fresh perspective to a landscape while we are living in it. Even a designer like me needs to bounce ideas off other gardeners and designers when it comes to my own landscape, to hear a fresh perspective on what might be possible, or to talk through a potential solution to a tricky problem.

I don't mean to imply that you absolutely have to hire a designer, although of course that is one way to do it. There are many ways to get that outside perspective. You might invite a friend or two from the garden club over for lunch and pick their brains. Scour blogs and magazines for ideas. Visit gardens on a local tour, or go to public gardens, especially those that feature creative uses of native plants.

But then--and this is really crucial--that outside perspective needs to be blended with the perspective of the ones who actually live in this landscape. Those who will be watching it evolve and taking care of it. Those who will be walking the pathways, eating on the porch, running the dog, bringing in groceries, grilling outdoors, or looking out the kitchen window. Insider perspectives are the lifeblood of an excellent design.

If you don't successfully blend these two perspectives, you get a disaster in one of several flavors. One kind of disaster is where a lot of money is spent on a garden with strong visual appeal, perhaps a look that was featured in one of those magazines, or from a public garden, but that wasn't adapted or modified for the family that lives there.

So then the kids, who need to get to the neighbor's playground, blaze a path over the roots of some delicate shrubs. Or the lawnmower, not able to turn around a sharp corner, wrecks the groundcover before it can get established.

Another sad kind of disaster is where one or the other half of a partnership feels left out, and the garden brings resentment instead of joy. That's really unfortunate, and unnecessary, I think. It's not their fault! Gardens are for living in. If a garden is planned with insiders all having a say, the process can take a little longer, but the results are more rewarding.

I also don't mean to imply that this Big Picture is carved in stone and dictates all future decisions, forever. It can and should be flexible. It can be the place from whence changes are considered. What I mean is that when you can return to the Big Picture and make your change from there, you can see where the other impacts will be. It makes gardening less capricious, less wasteful, less overwhelming, and more sustainable.

Speaking of Native Garden Tours, I have a heads-up for you! Adkins Arboretum will host this year's Native Garden Tour this fall, on Saturday, October 6th. Save the date!

Chris Pax

Christina Pax