There's a time to maintain and just tweak what you have in your garden -- moving, removing or adding a few plants each year. There's a time to expand. And there's a time to renovate. These winter weeks are the time to think it through, make decisions and develop a plan.
>Time to overhaul
Cars need an overhaul every so many miles. Kitchens and wardrobes benefit. But when does a garden need an overhaul?:
*Lifestyle has changed: you have less time, strength, health, money, interest -- or a lot more of these and can get into it!
*The garden's surroundings have changed: A tree or fence came down; a deck or garage went up; neighbors built closer, and plants are getting too much or too little shade, water, traffic.
*Weeds or aggressive plants are winning: You just can't beat the creeping Charlie, Bishop's weed, Japanese bamboo.
*Your tastes have changed. You want a new garden!
>Preparing to renovate
Don't do this on impulse some Saturday in May when you have spring fever! Make a plan, or you will waste plants, money, effort. Record these decisions:
*What has to stay in place? Which plants are too big or precious to move, and what fence/path/structure is permanent? Are beds permanent or better elsewhere?
*Choose plants you want to reuse but move. Mark with sticks (one color for moving, one for staying, one for dividing.)
*Look at the whole site, the big picture. Can you, do you want to, change the light/shade situation? Backdrop? Outline of the paths, beds, yard structures?
*What are the weeds, how do they reproduce and how can you kill them? This will direct other decisions. You may need a holding bed for a year for all "keepers" to see if weeds regenerate from root pieces you missed; you may need to use black plastic for a season or an herbicide for some weeks (protecting the permanent plants).
*When will you do this project? If you have a whole weekend, you just need a shady holding location to protect plants. Wind, sun, drying out are killers. If it's a multiweek deal, you need a prepared holding bed for incoming and transplants.
*Test and assess your soil, including pH, texture, nutrients. Assess drainage and, if a trench, raised beds are warranted. You may be moving out all that weedy, tired soil or just fixing it. At the very least, renovation is the time to incorporate a lot of compost. Don't shirk this step.
*Make the plan for your vision of the garden. Collect pictures, make lists, figure budget. In spring, browse quality garden centers or nurseries, make notes, get professional advice (before they're swamped). Don't buy willy-nilly; use the plan.
>When to hire a pro
Big problems? Big investment? Need a showplace immediately? If it's too much to handle, get a Certified Nursery Professional (CNP) you like who is a real "plant-person." If you love perennials, be sure the person knows perennials. You can talk to many pros at Plantasia, opening March 23. Meanwhile, dream -- and plan -- on.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer and former Cornell Extension educator.