I worked with a friend in her garden this morning suggesting which shrubs to move and remove so that the garden once again feels inviting on a human scale and not over grown. This was an inherited garden, and the prior owner planted far too many large specimen shrubs and not enough of the goodies - grasses, perennials, ferns etc. We are rectifying this with strategic eliminations and bringing in masses of a few types of grasses and perennials. In short, we are editing.
Spring always reminds me just how important editing is in creating a garden. Fortunately for me, my clients allow me to return year after year (or sometimes I show up on the doorstep) to check on the design and make adjustments. A great garden is neither created in one season, nor in one design. It must be revisited because gardens are living art and they change. We have to adjust with them, and at times, intervene and redirect. For those who have inherited a garden that was perhaps wonderful 5 years ago, but now is overgrown due to lack of editing – do not fear taking charge. We must be ruthless editors at times. Often a friend or neighbor will gladly help reduce your jungle by taking some plants and also offer an extra pair of hands to take them out.
Making choices for editing is not unlike pruning. As with a tree or shrub, we start with the deadwood. In editing, this equates to the plants shrubs that are not doing well. If they can be rehabbed in another area, give it a try but do not be afraid to compost a sulky plant. If I balk about taking something out, a landscape installer I work with always says “they are plants, not puppies.” She is right. It’s all too easy to anthropomorphize plants…but you might feel different when the sulker is still looking ratty in mid summer – it can bring down an entire area. So don’t lie to yourself that the one good branch means the thing will finally come back this year. Man up and get rid of it.
Next up in editing is similar to the “crossing wood” step in pruning. When we prune a tree or shrub, we take out the crossing branches to allow others to thrive. In editing, look for over grown plants that are crowding out their neighbors. This is the oft committed gardening sin – planting cute little shrubs that grow to be monsters. Here in the Pac NW, the sin is double when these sleeping giants are placed near the house…and ultimately grow in front of windows. We need light here, and keeping plants from shutting out the light is a must for our mental health…not to mention for preventing wood rot and critter invasion. I once consulted with a woman whose garden had blocked most of the windows in her little rambler. Many of the shrubs were not healthy as they competed for light. The views out the windows were naked rhodie legs. Not pretty. After much hand wringing about taking out these shrubs, I finally had to be firm. “Take back your garden”, I told her. “The plants are eating your house.” Learning from someone else’s mistakes is a good lesson for when you select new plants. Don’t just look at the nursery tag, they are often incorrect (or lie). Look up the plant online or in a book to make sure you know ultimate landscape size. Another educational experience is a trip to a local arboretum…always sobering to see those cute little guys at 40′ tall. Makes you think.
In pruning, after deadwooding and taking out crossing branches, we look at over all shape & form and make adjustments. Same goes for editing. Once the scraggly sulkers and mammoth monstrosities have been dealt with, see what does not work aesthetically. For some this is the most intimidating step. If you feel overwhelmed, bring in some design help. One easy technique that I use is to figure out what is working, and add more. Pretty simple, but it works. After all, massing and repetition are the secrets to a fabulous looking garden. Next up, I consider the garden as a whole in terms of color and form…and determine whether I need to pull a specific foliage color, texture or leaf size into this area. Finally, I look at seasonal performance. Is this a tucked away area in the part of the garden that only gets a summer audience, or is this smack by the front entrance? This makes a tremendous difference in plant choice. No point in putting a ‘Diane’ witch hazel out in the back 40 where no one goes in January (when it blooms), nor would I put a plant that looks like a soggy mess in winter right by the front door. Eww.
Finally, remember to take notes and photos throughout the year too. I take notes in every season, and use these with photos as the basis for my editing. Otherwise, I can easily forget that the Rheum will indeed grow to be 4′ wide, and I cannot put anything in that open spot. Or perhaps it’s the Rheum that needs moving if the empty space is too noticeable in winter…there I go, editing again…
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