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Gardeners, know thyself

Thousands of people visit other people’s gardens every year (more in our region than in most places) and drive or walk away saying “Wow!” Or maybe they just say “Hmmm ... not so sure about that one.” Sometimes they take pictures and write down plant names and ideas about furnishings and art.

Quite often it just stops there.

Why is there so often a gap between viewing a great garden and using the ideas? Sometimes it’s because you can’t or won’t afford that grand pergola, water garden, gorgeous stone walls, or massive flower beds. Sometimes it’s because life goes on, you’re busy, and the garden tour is soon forgotten (along with where you put the notebook.)

There is one more big reason that can trip you up on the road to a more satisfying garden: You haven’t found the true you that your garden can reveal. That’s your own garden’s identity. To know what suits your garden, you have to have a clear image of what it is (can be) and what it isn’t (shouldn’t be forced to be). Just because you like something that she did in the garden you toured, doesn’t mean it would work for you – just as a dazzling dress on a model may look all wrong on you in the dressing room mirror.

Site assessment, landscape use

A professional landscape architect or garden designer starts a project by performing a site assessment. It includes soil analysis, slope and grade, drainage, sun and shade, wind exposure, hardiness zone and microclimates, animal and neighbor factors, and obstacles both above and below ground. These things (just a start) are very important for homeowners, landscapers and gardeners.

Another important questionnaire is about you and the others who will use the garden. In the beginning, professional landscape designers ask their clients lots of questions about how they plan to use the yard, what they want included, and what’s their image for the layout, style and function of the hardscape and plantings. Even if you’re working with your old familiar landscape, try these starter questions:

Landscape Use Questionnaire (short version)

1. Will you entertain in the yard? (What time of year and want time of day?)

2. Do you need activity areas for dogs or kids?

3. Do you want a place for quiet retreat?

4. Do you want a vegetable garden or fruit trees?

5. Where will you view the plantings from inside the house?

6. Are there views you’d like to block?

7. What utilities should be accounted for – a composter, wood pile, bike storage or tool shed?

8. Will you dine or have coffee or cocktails in the yard, and do you want to be in the sun or shade?

9. Are you a bird or butterfly watcher, and do you want native plants and a naturalized area?

10. What is the size and style of your house and grounds, and what does that suggest about the dimensions, landscape style, hardscape and plant choices?

These are only starter questions in what can be a long and surprising process. Many couples find out they had quite different visions of what they want in a home landscape – uh-oh! Better get started…

Know thyself

There is one other set of questions I rarely hear addressed, that I will call the Gardener Assessment. Even if you’re having professionals install and maintain your landscape, decide and tell them how much gardening you want to do – plant the flowers, water container plants, dead-head perennials, pruning?

If you are the gardener it’s important to decide honestly what you will and won’t, can and don’t do, and then what kind of garden will work for you. This step is often bypassed and it’s a main reason for gardener dissatisfaction with her own garden.

It’s also why a gardener doesn’t know what great ideas to bring home from a garden tour. You need to know who you are, and what you want, to make the garden that is right for you.

Gardener Assessment

1. What jobs do you really like to do, and dislike doing, in your yard and garden?

2. Do you prefer to garden in the sun or in the shade?

3. Which weeks/months during the season can you/do you like to work outside?

4. What time of day can you be in the garden?

5. How many hours per week can you dedicate to gardening?

6. What is your physical capability – any back, leg, hand problems or other limiting factors?

7. Are you willing/able to hire any help, and if so, what kind of work and how frequently?

8. What do you like when you see it in your own or others’ gardens. (Quickly – name three things you’ve liked a lot.) What do you not like when you see it?

9. How quickly do you want your garden or landscape to look its best? Do you want immediate satisfaction or are you planning for the long run?

10. On the neatness scale: Do you like a relaxed, casual, cottage-style garden or do you lean toward tightly groomed and tidy?

11. How important is the impression your garden makes on others?

12. Is collecting and nurturing plants, or trying out new things, more important to you than the appearance and garden design?

13. Are you artistic and dramatic, or more introverted and modest? (What does that suggest about your garden design?)

It’s just a start but a little gardener analysis goes a long way toward ultimate satisfaction. Your answers influence the plants and furnishings you choose for yourself or copy from others. Assess your site, landscape use, and then assess the gardener. With these answers you can make a garden that is true to yourself, with requirements you can live with, and a unique and personal garden that you will love.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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