Extreme makeover -- don't be afraid

Sometimes, you have to rip it up

designers can help

In The Garden

January 11, 2004|By Marty Ross | Marty Ross,Universal Press Syndicate

Exuberantly healthy shrubbery has a way of hiding the potential in a beautiful garden. When you can no longer see the garden for the bushes, it may be time to take a fresh look.

"People get used to looking at what they have and they can't really see anything different," says Kristopher Dabner, a garden designer and owner of the Greensman (www.thegreensman.com) in Kansas City. "They have no idea that their gardens could be dramatically different."

Dabner works on all kinds of residential landscaping projects, and garden makeovers are a big part of his business. Helping clients discover the beauty of their own yards is part of the fun of every job, he says.

Dabner's own cottage-style house was hidden behind old yews and a big mugho pine when he bought the place 10 years ago. He tore everything out. It was a tough decision, but the existing plants didn't fit the garden he envisioned.

"If there is something really great, you're going to be inclined to work around it," he says, "but you have to decide whether, in the end, it's going to give a result that you like."

In his new front-yard garden, a wide flagstone path leads between two mixed borders full of perennial plants, flowering shrubs and small trees. The layers of plants provide privacy from the street, and the design lets Dabner try twice as many different species and varieties as he could in a traditional foundation planting across the front of the house.

Often a client's garden is a hodgepodge of intentions, say Dabner and other designers. Overgrown plants and trees and shrubs struggling along in the wrong places are typical after a succession of owners have attempted to define the space as their own. Gardening preferences may also overlap awkwardly: One owner's infatuation with dwarf conifers, for example, may not really be compatible with the next person's interest in English flower borders.

Like redecorating projects indoors, garden makeovers require the ruthless evaluation of existing colors, textures and combinations. It is the garden designer's job to determine what clients use their garden for, what styles and colors they like, where they like to sit, and whether they need outdoor space in which to entertain.

"I see a lot of great gardens that just need to be updated," says Brian Kissinger, a garden designer and owner of Thomas and Todd (www.thomasandtodd.com) in Paradise Valley, Ariz., in the Phoenix area. "Gardens are like people -- just like a person, they go through changes."

You don't have to work with a professional designer to reinvent your garden, but a good garden designer can save you time and hard work, and some disappointments. Professionals know how to solve drainage problems and have the staff or resources to build garden walls, decks or patios. Experts also know local nurseries intimately; they can find unusual plants that will thrive in your climate, and they know where to buy and how to handle large specimens, when they are called for.

Although professional help should give quick results, don't expect to leave for work one morning just as the landscaping crew pulls up and return in the evening to find the project finished. "A makeover is a process," Kissinger says. "I tell people, 'We have to make it ugly to make it pretty.' " He tries to help clients focus on the results while he handles the messy details of the job.

Dabner and Kissinger both like to start with plant specimens large enough to give new landscapes an established look. Older clients typically prefer larger trees and shrubs, anyway, the experts say, and nongardeners usually want an instantly gratifying look. If you like gardening and are doing the work yourself, you'll probably be willing to start with smaller specimens, which are easier to plant and cost significantly less. Many gardeners also feel that watching their new plants grow is a big part of the pleasure of a new landscape design.

When he plants flower gardens, Dabner chooses perennials in one-gallon pots and plants them close together so the combination of colors and textures will look beautiful together their first summer. He fills in the inevitable bare spots with annuals. "In my garden, for the first few years I planted annuals and tropical plants, things I knew would be short-lived, to fill in space until the really cool things got growing," he says. "Now I couldn't wedge a canna in there if my life depended on it."

Quick fixes

If you don't have the time or the budget for a complete garden makeover, try a few quick changes, says Brian Kissinger, a garden designer in the Phoenix area.

Here are some projects you can start and finish in a weekend. (Some you may plan now and actually install this spring.):

* Paint your front door. It's not really gardening, Kissinger admits, but it will give the front of your house a whole new look.

* Get yourself a comfortable bench. A private sitting area, landscaped with a couple of handsome shrubs or a few pots of flowers, invites you out into your garden and offers fresh perspectives.

* Shrink the lawn and make existing flower beds larger. Once they are established, many perennial plants and shrubs need less attention and watering than a lawn, and they're more interesting.

* Create vertical gardens. Ready-made trellises and arbors can be installed in no time, and the flowering vines they support will give you years of pleasure.

* Put a few flower pots out front. Buy big pots that are in scale with your house. Fill them with a combination of annual and perennial flowers, or plant a shrub in the center with annuals trailing around it.

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