Own It!

In search of my mother’s garden, I found my own.
– Alice Walker.

Some time back, I had the pleasure of visiting a garden so lovely that my first reaction was that I must be at the wrong place. I’d arrived to meet with a client who had said she needed to do over her entire property. In our communiques, she had failed to mention that there already was a mature garden in place. I was puzzled about what was needed. Having arrived a bit early and ahead of the client’s return home, I took a walk around the grounds.

This beautiful garden was lush. Ancient oaks, tall cedars, American poplars and majestic beeches stood around like sentinels. Well manicured lawns dotted with large flower beds filled with all sorts of plants begged for closer examination. Roses abounded. In fact, a quick count said there were 18 types of them. The boxwoods that edged all the beds were meticulously clipped and shaped. This was no simple garden. Much work had gone into its making. It came as no surprise when I learned that the previous owners had created the gardens when they had built the house some forty years ago. I was beginning to understand my clients dilemma.

Nobody wants to destroy an existing good garden. The guilt alone would keep one awake for eons of nights. But, times, tastes and circumstances change. How much is a new owner obligated to maintain what is in place? Neighbors tend to adopt a certain proprietorial attitude and count on the garden remaining as is. “ Hope you will keep the Smith’s garden going! You are very lucky to have a ready made one! This has always been such an asset to the neighborhood!” Is this reasonable? What is the new owner to do?

It is possible that the new owner has the desire, skills, time and means to keep the ‘inherited’ garden as is. But that is hardly ever the case. One does not usually purchase a home to become the caretakers of another person’s passion. One must claim the place for oneself.

Gardens are never static. Their very nature is to change – through the seasons, fluctuations in the weather patterns, the gardener’s ever changing mind and, the inevitable effects of time. Like all living things, gardens age. A garden works best when it reflects the owners tastes. Even when restoration of gardens occur, they are invariably interpretations of the original. Coming back to that question, what should the new owner do?

First and foremost, the owner needs to assess his/her own attitude to gardening. Its importance, one’s interest, taste, needs and means. Even if the existing garden is exactly what is wanted, is he/she going to be able to maintain it? Happily, there is no immediate rush. As with any new property, it is wise to wait the year to see the garden through all the seasons. This wait period gives a very clear idea on what it takes to keep it up. Make note of what one does and does not like. Take plenty of photos because the memory will fail. I guarantee.

With such a list in hand, add other factors such as budget, time, sustainability, alternatives to those plants that must go – you get the idea. Unless, you are a seasoned gardener, it helps to get the advice of either a professional or a veteran gardener.

Old gardens often have exotic plants. As long as they are thriving, it seems logical to keep them. However, a little research will enlighten you if they are high on upkeep, prone to disease etc. Also, a garden today should, in good conscience, have a reasonable quantity and variety of native plants. This is the only way to bring up the numbers of our native pollinators and pest controllers. It behooves every gardener to maintain the right equation of natives and non-natives in the garden. This is particularly true of large shrubs and trees. With this in mind, the flower beds can be redone. Large lawns can be shrunk with the addition of trees and shrubs.

Gardens should be in keeping with current knowledge and practices. This involves the aforementioned native plantings, application of organic materials to promote growth as well as control pests, consumption of less water, reduction in the use of fuel powered tools and, catering to the personal needs and style of those who will enjoy this space. Time is always at a premium. It then is logical to eliminate elements that demand too much time and energy. Fussy plants, in my opinion should be got rid off altogether. A garden must always suit the lifestyle of the owner.

So, what did my client do? The handsome trees remained as did features like pergolas, benches and pond but the flower beds and lawns were disposed off. All the banished plants were disbursed amongst the neighbors so they could have a piece of the previous garden. Being a chef/caterer, the owner put in a huge vegetable garden – one that would supply all her needs for fresh herbs and produce. Soft fruit shrubs were added. The plots also boast plenty of flowers so they can be used to adorn the tables at events. It is a practical garden but still very beautiful.

I recall the much publicized outrage when England’s Christopher Lloyd ripped up the roses from his already renowned gardens at Great Dixter. He went on to replace them with the vivid oranges, reds and yellows of plants more tropical in nature. He was simply claiming his ancestral home for himself. It had to be a reflection of his personality. This new style went on to become much admired and today, it continues to evolve under the care of Fergus Garret who was Lloyd’s head gardener.

The process of taking ownership of the garden and putting your personal stamp on it, is merely creating an horticultural palimpsest. While the original is effaced, traces of it will remain. And that, is perfectly okay.
Enjoy some seasonal photos:

(c) 2013 Shobha Vanchiswar

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1 thought on “Own It!

  1. I know you’re right – but I do wince when beautiful gardens are changed. They are so personal, or should be, that it’s inevitable. Now that you mention it, I almost completely redid the garden at my house when we moved in 15 years ago. And then added gardens where none existed. Somehow that seemed like the thing to do. But the thought of the next inhabitant changing and plowing through – horrors!

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