Friends have recently moved into their This-Is-The-One. ‘Exciting’ doesn’t seem strong enough to capture the emotions that such a move elicits. There is excitement, certainly, and joy; but also sadness in the changing of neighborhoods, of community, and in losing the familiar daily routines that quietly build the foundations we rely upon.
Two weeks ago, some of those foundations descended upon the happy couple just as soon as we thought we wouldn’t be thrown out. On a patio overlooking a glorious pastoral view, we ate a feast of frozen pizza and good cheese, and scooped the ice for our G&Ts from coolers filled with beer and juice boxes – for there are still, surprisingly, children running through the story of this group of friends, as there have been since the beginning.
We insisted on house tours and marveled at the light in the kitchen. Those of us who inexplicably find such things fascinating looked at HVAC systems in attics and clean, rubble-stone foundations excellently and enviously pointed. It is the beginning of something new and it is splendid.
However, house be damned – I can never resist nosing around a new landscape. I charged my glass, ruthlessly took my friend away from her other guests and subjected her to the sound of my voice droning on about various plants she had inherited – with particular emphasis on the backyard display of panicum and miscanthus that made up some of the fence line borders. I then used that as a segue for a short treatise on the shameful underuse of ornamental grasses in American landscapes.
She was a good sport, I’ll give her that. She is also a thoughtful psychologist and probably looked at it as a chance to collect a conference’s worth of material on people with obsessive disorders. I cannot say that either one of these dear friends could be termed ‘gardeners,’ but miracles happen in this lovely, unexpected life, and if they are going to happen, this beautiful house and property would be a gentle place to begin.
Have you got a new garden or an old one?
Their ‘new’ 1910 house currently boasts an excellent low-maintenance garden. Excellent because the better-than-average choice of plants can work in two ways: As a foundation, or as the garden itself, depending on the length of those new commutes, and how much time needs to be spent in the pursuit of gin and tonics and pastoral views.
‘Exciting’ doesn’t seem strong enough to capture the emotions that such a move elicits.
It also boasts one of the things so missing in modern house-before-garden construction – a generous fenced lot that complements the home and is not dictated by perc tests and Porsche payments (or have developers moved on to Audis?)
Perched on the top of a hill and bathed in south-facing sunlight (and no doubt buffeted by strong winds in the winter), it presents an opportunity for those who might take it, and a get-out-of-jail free card for those who might not. And the view, whether on your knees or on your bottom, makes either choice very appealing.
So here they are. New house. New garden. Overwhelmed by the choices ahead. And here – in between mouthfuls of frozen pizza and sips of high-end gin – was the advice I had for them.
Plant nothing for a year.
This is by far my favorite thing to say to friends or clients considering their new outside space, as I find it wickedly amusing to watch the sense of relief cross a face, only to be instantly squashed by nobler impulses.
It is nonetheless said in all seriousness.
With the exception of the rag-tag bunch of half-potted cuttings and uprooted heirloom plants you brought from your last house, it is best that nothing go into the ground for at least one year while you learn the lessons your new garden is teaching you. (And that shabby collection should preferably go into an out-of-the-way nursery bed while you carefully consider its fate.) The only conceivable exception to this golden rule is if a friend brings you a magnificent yellow-twigged dogwood as a house warming present. In which case, she will tell you exactly where it should go.
Keep your existing beds weeded.
If you have existing beds and the last owners were good enough (or spent enough money with the listing agent) to keep them clear of weeds, take the beautiful gift that has been given to you and do not let anything get in the way of making sure that they stay that way. Mulch if you must. Employ children. Buy a decent trowel.
A single Japanese stilt grass has the potential to deposit a thousand tiny seeds in the seed bank that is your garden soil – a Johnson grass left to mature will hurt you before it is all over. If you are not sure of what your weeds look like, ask a knowledgeable friend to come over – and tell her to skip the lecture on ornamental grasses.
ID your existing plants.
Again, a knowledgeable friend comes in handy here, or an expert you can hire to tell you what’s what. Identify your existing plants and watch them carefully through four seasons. Then decide what you do or don’t like about them.
There is no guarantee that the person who planted your landscape before you knew what they were doing, so use this year as a chance to get familiar with what you have, what it needs, and whether or not you wish to keep it. If you’re on the fence, don’t remove anything until you have a plan – a boring shrub is usually better than bare soil. Usually.
Look for drainage or runoff issues
Carefully observing problem areas prevents future headaches when you finally start gardening your site. It takes time to create new features in a garden. Don’t waste that precious time constructing a castle on sand, or a garden in a swamp, or indeed, a new perennial bed where the gutters wash out the soil each time it rains. Financially, you may not be able to solve those problems all at once, but you should be able to work around them.
Be realistic about the time & energy you can give to the garden
If, after a sit-down audit of the things that conspire to steal your time, you decide that three hours a week is all you can spend in the garden, and you create a garden that reflects that reality; you will be happier than those who foolishly pulled a number out of the air, went on to create a garden around it, and then spent the next few years feeling profoundly inadequate. If you can only devote one hour a week to the garden – own it. Create a garden that needs an hour a week, and reassess in a year’s time.
That one hour has the potential to be the best hour of the entire week – or the worst. Being truthful from the beginning gives you a fighting chance.