Well-Dressed Garden: Hand-me-down gardens

By Marty Ross
Special to The Detroit News

Second-hand gardens aren't necessarily second rate. In a hand-me-down garden that becomes yours when you move into a new home, there's often a lot to build on, but there's also plenty of room for your own ideas to take root and grow.

While you're inside unpacking the dishes, arranging furniture and hanging pictures, take time to study the views of your landscape from the windows and try to imagine yourself in the new garden.

Welcome home. Even a pretty garden, well-maintained by a previous owner, may not be the garden you want. Live with it for a while, consider your own style, then put your ideas into play in the landscape.

Don't be in too much of a hurry. When you've just moved into a new house, especially in the winter, you don't really know what may be hidden in the soil, such as spring bulbs or perennial flowers. It makes sense to allow yourself time to get to know your property, observing the patterns of sunlight and shade through the days -- and the seasons. You might want to buy a garden bench and try it out in different spots to encourage yourself to spend time outdoors, where you can keep an eye on how the garden develops through the year. There may not be much of interest, or you may have hit the horticultural jackpot.

Planting in pots your first season, or first year, in a new garden gives you a chance to grow favorite plants while learning about your new space.

In the meantime, you could grow some of your own favorite plants in flower pots or in a community garden plot in your neighborhood. Joining a community garden is a great way to get a feel for local conditions: People love to share what they know with a newcomer. If you brought plants with you from your previous garden but are not sure where to put them, establish a nursery area on your new property, so your plants can be settling in while you decide where they will flourish. This is also a great time to visit nearby botanic gardens to look for inspiring design ideas, get to know local plants and check on interesting plant combinations.

Working with a professional designer -- especially if you have moved to a climate you are unfamiliar with -- will help you make a smooth transition from a hand-me-down garden that's not entirely pleasing to a satisfying landscape that reflects your tastes and interests. Designers are good at recognizing the bones of a good old garden, and they can also help you avoid common mistakes, such as investing in plants that you may be familiar with but that just aren't right for the climate into which you have relocated.

Inheriting a landscape designed to please someone else can raise a lot of questions, but don't feel guilty if a previous owner's dream garden simply isn't your thing, says Laurin Lindsey, a garden designer and the owner of Ravenscourt Landscaping and Design in Houston. "Sometimes people just don't go out there -- they don't feel connected" to the landscaping around a home if they didn't have anything to do with its design or development, Lindsey says. "If they have just moved into a house, it may take them a year or so to decide if they want to personalize it."

Lindsey's clients are asked to fill out an extensive questionnaire to help her interpret their needs. She asks clients about their favorite plants and colors, and she wants to know whether they're interested in a vegetable garden, flower beds, a patio or an attractive naturalistic habitat. Their responses to questions about specific details and more general gardening and lifestyle attitudes form the foundation for a successful design collaboration, she says. (Her robust questionnaire is available on her company's website.)

While you're studying the spaces and plantings in your new garden, place a bench outdoors and try it in a few different places. It will help you feel at home.

Some of the existing plants in your new garden may prove to be long past their prime. "People get worried about ripping old plants out, but it's fine," Lindsey says. Others may be a little overgrown, neglected or the victims of enthusiastic but unfortunate pruning jobs, and they just need time and care to recover. Often, small plants will benefit from being moved into more sun or more shelter. With this kind of editing, you can do a lot to freshen things up and make the garden your own.

Existing trees are another matter. If she can, Lindsey always tries to save mature trees. An arborist should be brought in to do some professional trimming work, if necessary. "It's hard to get a mature tree; you have to wait a long time," she says. "Trees provide shade, and birds live there. You can't re-create that just by putting in another tree."

No two projects are alike. Some clients decide they'd just as soon get rid of every trace of a previous owner's garden and start from scratch, Lindsey says, even if the existing landscape has been well maintained. Others are eager to reinvigorate and re-imagine their hand-me-down gardens without stripping away the foundation of a strong design. Regardless of which approach is taken, a good designer will have the same ultimate goal: "It is really important that your client be able to have a garden they love and connect with," Lindsey says.

Even working with a designer, it takes time to achieve the results you're after. But while taking the first careful steps -- getting your bearings in your new landscape, gathering ideas, distilling your thoughts -- the satisfaction of turning someone else's garden into your own can be enjoyed immediately. Settle in, study the possibilities, check out the neighborhood, ask a designer for help: The threads of your new garden will start to come together out of the old.

A pretty birdbath is an easy sculptural element to set up in your new garden. It will sparkle in the light, invite birds to splash, and encourage you to come outside. If it's not in the right place for your plans, you can always move it.

Lauren Lindsey is a garden designer and owner of Ravenscourt Landscaping and Design (ravenscourt.us) in Houston. The company's website includes Lindsey's questionnaire for clients, which is a useful guide for anyone planning a garden renovation.

Lindsey is on the board of directors of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (apld.org), a national organization of garden designers with regional chapters across the country. On the APLD website, you can see award-winning residential landscape designs, read the organization's quarterly magazine, The Designer, and find a landscape designer in your area.