You have Inherited a Garden - Now What?

Dianne and Gary Westlake


We arrived in Peterborough several years ago in the dead of winter. There was no time or energy to think about the garden, only about where the furniture was going and whether the moving truck was going to slide down the drive.

When we were purchasing, we were more concerned with the house itself. Structure, layout and decorating style are the first things that attract your attention, particularly if you move in as we did when the plants are dormant.

We had seen the garden briefly the preceding autumn when we were buying the place but other than a general impression, we had little recollection of the details.

By the time spring rolled around, we had dealt with emergency decorating and renovations. It was the time to decide what to do in the garden. Many people find themselves in the same situation with a property that is new to them and no instruction manual about what is in the garden.

In spring, plants pop out of the ground and initially many of them look alike. Patience is important. Plan and observe. Before you take out a shovel to turn over a flowerbed or cut down a shrub, you should try to identify the plants. Sometimes you might have to wait until later in the season when the true colours are obvious. For example, most hostas look alike as they emerge from the ground but as the leaves unfurl you might be surprised to see a different and potentially valuable plant. Sometimes it is a matter of seeing the colour of the flowers before deciding which plants to take out or move. .

Some plants do not come out of the ground until much later in the season. For example, Japanese painted ferns or hardy hibiscus, both wonderful plants, do not usually show themselves until June. It would be a shame to plant something on top of them. The urge to renovate the garden is strong but some restraint the first year may reward you with plants you did not know you had.

There are some changes that may be obvious from the beginning. Often, a home has foundation shrubs that are overgrown and need to be severely pruned or replaced. Frequently, homeowners plant a cute little blue spruce in front of their door. After 15 or 20 years, this tree blocks the sun and takes over the front lawn. If left, these trees will dwarf the lot and make the house look ridiculous. In a desperate attempt to see light again, the homeowners often cut off the lower limbs turning spruces into lollypops. It is hard to cut down a tree but if it is in the wrong place and if the situation is only going to get worse as it grows, then it is best to bite the bullet. The sooner the situation is corrected, the better.

You can buy a little time by planting annuals the first year. Once you know where the existing perennials are, planting annuals will give you a chance to plan what permanent changes you want to make without committing to anything.

Waiting a while will give you the opportunity to see fall colour, drainage problems and the nature of the soil and light conditions in various locations on the property. It is much easier to grow a perennial or a shrub where it is happy than to try to force it to grow where you want it. Choosing perennials is complicated because it involves so many factors Ė light, moisture, soil conditions.

Donít underestimate the time that it will take to deal with invasive or aggressive plants. We have spent years on our property removing invasive species one after another and the battle continues. First there was European Buckthorn, then creeping bellflower periwinkle and lily-of-the-valley. Until you untangle the roots of these thugs from your garden, it will be difficult to grow what you want.

You have to respect the style of your house or it will look out of place but you can and should make the garden yours. Donít be afraid to make changes but take your time doing it at least for the first year.