As we staggered though the worst most miserable part of the winter-that-never-ends, it’s finally time to think about what changes in the garden to make this year.

This is the prime time to get professional help if it’s needed because once the weather settles into being dulcet the stampede is on and you may end up at the back of the line.


Decide whether you need a major overhaul with a serious new design or a simple freshening up easily handled alone.

It’s crucial to an extensive garden renovation to have a budget. Of course what you want to know is “How much will it cost?” But you should be saying: “I’ve got xxx dollars, what can I get for that?” Then look for someone who can do the work within your price range. People often won’t reveal how much they can really afford to spend. Then begins the Client Gavotte with neither side being very happy. No matter what, you should be able to get an untarnished estimate of what it will cost to fix the soil, get rid of weeds and unwanted plants === in other words make a good background for the work of art you ardently desire.

That’s when the gasping starts. Prep is the most expensive part of a garden renewal—at least it should be. Going cheap at this stage will disappoint massively down the road. It doesn’t matter how delicious the concept is, good basics make good gardens.

I wish I could give you a formula, but I can’t. So much depends on the quality of the soil, how well it has been managed over time and what problems lie beneath the ground.

Some of the other elements to consider are: labour, excavation and removals, administration and design costs, deliveries, soil, compost, mulch and, last of all, the plants. I always remind people plants are the cheapest part of the job.

Then there’s the great unknown: garbage, real garbage. Stuff that’s been buried by the last chap who took a run at the garden. Hauling it away is always expensive and it is where many landscapers save big bucks. They throw some soil over muck, stick plants on top and add a lot of mulch (usually dyed) If there’s bad stuff below the surface, you’ll be paying to have it dug up, hauled away, weighed and turfed into a landfill whether you do it now or later. An estimate is just that—an estimate. And trying to figure that out on your own is very difficult.


You’ll need a Landscape Architect when:

The garden has serious problems with grading; building retaining walls; anything requiring permits and drawings; or you want complicated hardscaping. Gardens on flood plains; next to valleys or any public right of way will need a professional who knows the area. L. A.s are highly trained and very good at design/build. Not all of them know a lot about plants or how plants will perform over the long haul. But you are assured of excellent basics on which to create a true garden.

You’ll need a Landscaper or Garden Designer when:

The garden needs to be revitalized; renovated and re-planted. When you need major digging out of new beds, planting trees, adding a fence, pond or stone work and the more essential parts of hardscaping such as a gazebo, trellisage or paths.

Beware of:

  1. The fly-by-night gardening companies. Many are mowers and blowers: good at cutting the grass and shoveling snow but they don’t really know about either plants or garden design. And don’t touch anyone who is putting peat moss around and saying that they are fertilizing the soil. They know nothing.
  2. Keep in mind that, like all renovations, the cheapest estimate is not necessarily the best one. Ask anyone who’s had a landscaper quote a low price along with a bunch of computer-produced designs. A garden without a soul. The Landscaper Look: dozens of hydrangeas, some grasses and perennials all done in a pattern. Dull, dull, dull.
  3. Patterned modern gardens: they need a lot of care. Don’t believe anyone who says they will give you a no-maintenance garden. They are easy to do and to install (ergo relatively inexpensive) but they will need constant attention to look properly groomed. And, they don’t necessarily build up an ecosystem to attract the right bugs including bees and butterflies.

Discuss a garden renovation with the same intensity you would for renovating your house. Find out what kind of ideas, what style they have (if any) and see if it matches what you have in your head. Ask what garden magazines they subscribe to, the last garden book they read. If you get a blank stare, move on.

Sustainable Design

A sustainable garden is ecologically sound in its combination of plants and uses water efficiently. It is geared closely to site demands of light and shade; has native plants included and sticks to a relatively limited 
colour range.

The latter makes it simpler to organize a design for the long term and pretty much concentrates on perennials. A riot of colour can be expensive because the fastest way to get it is with a big whack of annuals. They need constant watering, deadheading and must be replaced every year.


My own garden philosophy is to go at any design slowly and in stages. I always concentrate on foliage colours and combinations to build up a more complex palette year by year. Our gardens might look a bit raw when they are first completed, but within a few weeks they make sense. Don’t look for instant results. Perennials take three years to really come into their own, shrubs and trees may take longer.

We usually prune madly for shape and form because this sets the stage for future plants. But if trees need trimming be sure to use a certified arbourist who is well-trained and has the proper insurance. Tree pruning is tricky and a brilliant bit of arbourism can make an enormous difference in the look of a garden.

We are good at what we call bonsai pruning. Shrubs, vines and small trees are shaped aesthetically in a careful way by hand. The result can be shocking (it looks so different) but within a season the reason for this trim becomes very clear: it looks way way better. I keep using the analogy of a really good hairstyle and I’ll stick to that.

Then comes the placing of the plants. This requires a superb eye and an aesthetic. It also means a lot of fiddling about, shifting, and turning of plants. Sometimes just moving a tree over a few inches can make a huge difference to the final result. It takes time and cannot be rushed. Speedy gardening is usually sloppy gardening.

The sustainable garden uses compost and mulch rather than chemicals to keep it fed and happy. Good maintenance is critical. Why spend money if you aren’t going to look after your investment? Be honest about how much time you really want or are able to spend with your plants or what sum of money you want to fork over to a gardener. No matter how low maintenance a garden is promised, it’s never going to be work-free. You must be committed to regular weeding, watering, composting and mulching and, like any renovation, it will need upkeep and care on a regular basis.

Take a good hard look at your garden in the coming weeks. You might want more colour but if it’s full shade adjust your demands to gentle tones. Research your own space for quality of soil, strength of light and water needs. Knowing these things will help if you hire a professional and may save money down the road.

Whoever works in your garden this year should know and love plants as much or more than you do and be willing to help you develop your own skills. Most gardens are collaborative affairs and the right hortbuddy will mean you’ll have a lot more fun.


Marjorie Harris April 2015

Contact me if you need help or would like a consultation: marjorieharrisgardens@gmail.com