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An Eye for Garden Renovations
by Liesbeth Leatherbarrow
by Liesbeth Leatherbarrow

Liesbeth has written for several western gardening publications, including Gardens West and The Gardener for the Prairies. She has also co-authored three gardening books: The Calgary Gardener (with the Calgary Horticultural Society), The Calgary Gardener, Volume Two: Beyond the Basics (with Lesley Reynolds), and 101 Best Plants for the Prairies (with Lesley Reynolds).

July 4, 2004

As your plant collection grows by leaps and bounds, in your imagination at least, and as you commit yourself to finding homes for dozens of new and exciting plants each spring, it's a good idea to think about whether parts of your garden could use some renovating first. Just remember that, when renovating, the goal is to keep the things that you love best about your garden, and plan changes around them.

Finding room for a growing plant collection is only one of the many reasons for renovating a garden. Another is to take care of overcrowding. For example, mature trees and shrubs that were originally planted too closely together eventually outgrow their allotted space. This results in unhealthy competition between adjacent trees, changing light conditions for the plants below, and a wild, overgrown look. Also, when trees and shrubs are planted too closely, the less vigorous and less aggressive ones fade and dwindle beside their mightier neighbours.

The same holds true for mature perennial beds, which definitely benefit from periodic renovation. When reworking a flowerbed, also take the time to remove nuisance plants such as goutweed or chickweed that have invaded spaces where they are not meant to be.

Yet another reason for renovating is to accommodate changing family situations, lifestyles, or gardening styles. For example, you may need less lawn as your children grow older or as you find more time to spend working in the garden. Then again, you may need to make changes to accommodate an older gardener or one with a disability. Maybe your gardening interests have changed and you feel the urge to replace those rectangular, formal flowerbeds that you once loved with less formal, curved ones. Or perhaps the time has come to introduce a new hard landscape feature such as a deck, patio, gazebo, arch, or even to replace the straight concrete-block path with a gently curving brick one.

When thinking about renovations also try to identify areas of your garden that have not been fully developed before. The narrow spaces between houses can easily be converted to small perennial or shrub beds. Shaded areas beneath large, mature deciduous trees, which spell death to the lawns below, are perfect for developing a woodland garden or an area of naturalized spring-flowering bulbs. Boring, blank vertical spaces on walls, fences and garages may be enlivened by trellises draped with annual and perennial vines such as clematis, Virginia creeper, hops, scarlet runner beans or morning glories.

As you ponder the need for garden renovations, first evaluate the existing trees and shrubs and decide which are worth keeping. It's always a difficult decision to remove mature trees, but sometimes a tree that overwhelms a yard must be eliminated for the greater good of the garden. The increased sunlight and reduction in competition will invigorate remaining trees and shrubs and you can always plant a smaller, more suitably sized tree in its place, such as a dwarf evergreen or columnar aspen. You can also prune shrubs to look like small trees in places where it would be impossible to grow full-sized ones.

Small trees and shrubs may be relocated or planted in groupings to show them off to best advantage. Plan groupings for year-round interest so that they include something for every season - fragrant flowers for spring, showy foliage for summer and fall, and colourful berries or bark for the winter.

Once you've taken care of the big picture you can turn your attention to renovating perennial beds. This includes widening or changing the shape of flowerbeds and evaluating your plant collection. Don't feel guilty about getting rid of plants that don't meet your expectations; keep only those that are proven winners and make way for experimenting with exciting new ones.

To renovate part or all of a flowerbed properly you'll need to dig up everything, placing uprooted perennials on a tarp nearby, preferably in a shaded area. Keep plants well watered while they are aboveground. Then weed thoroughly, turning the soil and amending it with a thick layer of organic material such as peat moss, compost or well-rotted manure. This will improve the air and moisture movement in the soil and allow for better root penetration.

Perennials that have become too large or are woody in the center can be divided before replanting. However, try to exercise some self-discipline in the number of divisions you replant because you don't want to have to re-renovate an overcrowded garden a year or two later.

Lawns also require periodic renovation. They may need to be partly or completely replaced, aerated, dethatched or just reseeded in spots.

No matter how large or small your renovation project, if you plan in advance, you will be able to get a head start in early spring. You might even finish making changes before those eagerly anticipated catalogue orders start arriving on your doorstep!

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