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New house? Don't rush the garden

My daughter bought a house. It’s an exciting moment for a parent, but even more so for this parent because the place has no garden or landscape. It’s a blank slate, and she wants my help.

Even when it’s not in the family, it is good when a landscape professional can help a new homeowner – before mistakes are made. The right adviser can save you, young buyer or downsizing retiree, from frustrating and expensive mistakes. Best of all, with the right help the project can be fun and fulfilling, and leave you feeling ready to care for your little piece of the earth.

Let’s start with some principles for do-it-yourself homeowners, including those that have spent all their money on the house, closing costs and making the inside livable.

Wait a year

Sometimes it’s smart to do nothing (except some weeding), especially when you have acquired a landscape and gardens that prior owners created. Gardeners often tell sad stories of gardens that were full of perennials and special shrubs or trees. The buyers swore they loved gardening and would take care of the garden, but in no time the special plants were ripped out – decades of gardening gone. It’s heartbreaking for gardeners to move and let it all go, and everyone says, “Never look back.”

But it’s not just sad for prior occupants or the plants. It’s also sad that the new homeowner doesn’t take time to watch and learn what is growing, and what the landscape looks like in all four seasons. A perennial garden looks barren in early spring but might contain hundreds of precious plants. Many green shrubs seem plain and unimportant when you close on the house, but could have fantastic flowers, berries, fall color or value for birds or butterflies. Give the plants time to show you.

Two other reasons to take your time with landscape transitions:

• Work to be done on the house. If you are going to paint, fix gutters, replace the windows or driveway, or build a deck, let the landscape wait. Workers often don’t recognize gardens. They don’t see the young plants that you see, or don’t want to take the time to work around your flowers, and can do a lot of damage by wounding trees, putting weight on root zones, and damaging soil. Rather than fight that fight, set up barriers or protection for the plants you know are important, and wait to do anything new.

• Figuring out what you want. Your first ideas won’t always hold up. “I want a swimming pool; we’ll grow vegetables; I want cherry trees; we’ll get a swing set; I want a tall fence there; we’ll have a puppy. …” You may want a new patio or deck, but first find out how hot the afternoon sun feels on that side of the house at dinnertime.

You’ll learn which neighbors’ activity you do or don’t want to see from your picnic table. You’ll find out that deer pass through regularly, or what it’s like when the nearby school lets out. After a while you’ll know what you really want and you won’t have wasted your landscaping money.

A good tip for the waiting year: Invite real gardeners over or hire a knowledgeable garden consultant to walk around the yard with you. The right advisers can identify perennials and weeds, suggest keepers and plants to thin or remove, recognize diseases or other problems, suggest proper pruning, and offer design suggestions.

For a bigger project, make an appointment with a certified nursery and landscape professional (or a quality arborist in case of large trees) – but you may have to wait some weeks during this short and busy season.

Make better choices

My daughter will do some waiting to make backyard decisions, but with her mother’s advice she will make some front yard choices that prevent headaches later. What I wish everyone would do:

• Make front landscape beds, aka “foundation plantings,” wider and farther from the house than you think. The typical 3-foot bed smashed up against the house is disproportionate to the size of homes and doesn’t support healthy, appropriate plants. (They can’t get sunlight or rain!) Leave a couple of feet (maybe with gravel) next to the foundation to walk on when you want to wash a window or work behind the bed. Then make the planting bed 5 to 8 feet wide or more (in design theory one-third as wide as the height of the house). That doesn’t mean you have to cram it full of expensive plants. Begin with a few good plants and make an elegant and simple frame around your home.

• Choose better shrubs. You may have to remove some overgrown oldies whose usefulness has passed, but it doesn’t mean they should all go. You may have a fine old viburnum or lilac that has been pruned badly or not at all; fix it and keep it. Then go to a professional nursery or garden center knowing your site – the amount of sun and shade, direction the beds face, wind and other factors – and let a pro show you plants that suit the site, the architecture, and you.

• Don’t be oversold, or buy plants that will grow past your windows or sidewalk in a few years. I cringe to see landscape jobs where somebody bought three times the number of plants that the space can accommodate once they start growing. Buy plants according to what they will become, not what they look like right now. (Fill the bed with annuals or container plants if it looks sparse at first.)

• Include flowers. The paradigm is skewed toward front yards with lawn and all green shrubs, but flowers belong out front, for beauty as well as pollinators.

• Do your soil homework. Get a pH test if you have any doubts or want to grow a rhododendron. If the soil is worn out and compacted, replace it with quality garden soil, and in all cases add compost as you plant new plants.

A new home landscape is a joy and an adventure – for my daughter and maybe for you.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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