6 ways to UnDesign your garden

When it comes to gardening, we sure are glad that we’ve decided we’re UnDesigners. Because we don’t know the first thing about designing a garden.

This (sorta) Old Life: gardening

While we love the canna we planted last year–it was gorgeous!–we didn’t purposely put a 6-foot plant here.

Nonetheless, we’re pretty happy with what we’ve done so far, and we thought our methods might be helpful for some of you–especially if, like us, you consider yourself a gardening newbie.

How we started

When we bought our house we knew we wanted to make changes to our front yard:


Aside from the giant Snuffleupagus of a Japanese Maple (which Cane hacked back down to a reasonable size within a month of moving in), the biggest offender was the hedge that bordered our driveway:

This (sorta) Old Life: UnDesign your garden

We don’t have a great “before” shot, so this will have to do.

It was big and boxy and overgrown, and it created a barrier that we didn’t like. (As we explained in this post, we want our entry to be more open and welcoming.)

So, in the way that things often happen around here, one day Cane just up and ripped all those plants out.

This (sorta) Old Life: gardening

Never fear, we didn’t just commit some horrible plant genocide. He replanted them in other places in our yard…

This (sorta) Old Life: gardening

Ah, nice and organic in its shape now.

…which helped us discover:

UnDesign Gardening Idea #1:

Think of plants the way you think of furniture.

Furniture can be bought. It can moved around. It can be given away. Just because you put it in the ground one place, that doesn’t mean it can’t be moved later.

This (sorta) Old Life:  gardening

We let that giant canna stay where it was all summer, but before the first frost we dug it up so we could move it.

Digging up the hedge and transplanting various pieces of it left us with a pretty good sized empty space–but it wasn’t too big. Hence…

UnDesign Gardening Idea #2: Start small.

Just as there’s no way we can tackle everything about our home at once, there’s no way we can make over the whole yard at once. This hedge was one part of the yard we found particularly unappealing, and it seemed like a good size for our first real foray into garden renovation.  Not too big, not too small, it was just right.

This (sorta) Old Life: gardening

In addition to tearing out the hedge, we also took out a line of pavers that made a wall between the hedge and the lawn.

UnDesign Gardening Idea #3: Gather inspiration

This is our favorite part of UnDesigning. For Cane and me, gathering inspiration means walking. We love to walk neighborhoods and look at yards and houses.

From many, many such trips, we had a good idea of what we wanted this strip of garden to look like. We kept using words like these:

Unstructured, full, varied, interesting, modern

We had in mind something like these:

This (sorta) Old Life: gardening

This (sorta) Old Life: gardening

This (sorta) Old Life: gardening

We didn’t make lists of plants, or mood-boards, or anything too design-y. We just had our guiding words, and we took them to a local nursery, where we developed…

UnDesign Gardening Idea #4:

Buy what you love and get the best quality you can.

We really don’t know much about gardening, but we know what we like in terms of design. So we looked for colors we like (yellowy greens, oranges, deep purples) in saturated hues. We looked for variety–some shapes spiky-sharp-minimalist, and others round-bunched-abundant. We just started putting things on our cart and then taking them off and playing around with with them.

This (sorta) Old Life: gardening

We do know enough about gardening to know the difference between annuals and perennials. We bought almost all perennials. Yes, they cost more, but if we don’t kill them they will come back every year. For us, this is a good investment.

This (sorta) Old Life: gardening

One thing we learned last year about quality is this: It was worth it to pay more at our local nursery.

We bought some plants from a big regional retailer, and many of them died. Everything we bought from our local nursery thrived, most tripling in size. We’re getting everything from there this year.

This (sorta) Old Life: gardening

A Tale of Two Cannas: The front canna was from the chain, the giant in the background was from a local nursery. Obviously, they are different varieties, but the front one never looked as healthy and vibrant as the giant one.

Speaking of those cannas, here’s one more idea about buying: Pay attention to the info on the label.

We made sure we bought plants that would do well in the kind of light this area gets, but we didn’t pay much attention to the information about how large the plants would grow. That giant canna grew to at least 6 feet last year!

It was gorgeous, but it didn’t exactly blend in with the other plants in its playground.

UnDesign Gardening Idea #5: Don’t over-think/over-plan.

To place the plants, we used what we’ve learned from undesigning our interior spaces:  We like to clump things. Three is often a good number. Variety of heights, colors, and shapes is good.

With those guiding principles, we moved our pots of plants around until we thought they looked good.

This (sorta) Old Life: gardening

Once we came up with something that looked pretty good to us, we went with it and didn’t look back.

This (sorta) Old Life: gardening

What it looked like right after planting last spring.

UnDesign Gardening Idea #6:

See what happens and adjust as necessary.

Once we planted our garden last spring, we were amazed at how it developed. It went from this in April…

This (sorta) Old Life:  gardening

…to this in September:

This (sorta) Old Life:  gardening

A few weeks ago, we decided it was time to a little further renovation on this garden bed. Again, we forgot the before shot (!), but we had a big hole where the giant canna had been.

We decided to go to the nursery to pick up a few things to fill in that blank spot and the new spot we’re tackling this year–a small strip of ground at the front of the house, where the mailbox lives. We decided that we’d move the giant canna there, and we picked up a second canna to keep it company.

This (sorta) Old Life:  gardening

This is the next small step we’re tackling this year.

The little strip in front our sidewalk was filled with lava rock. Lovely.

Looking at the garden, we decided that while we loved the full look of the plants we’d put in last year, it was actually a bit crowded, and it would look funny to have bare/spare patches and super-full patches. So we decided to move some of them around. We divided some, too, and moved  a few things to the new patch.

And now it all looks like this:

This (sorta) Old Life:  gardening

This (sorta) Old Life:  gardening

It doesn’t look like much now, but we learned last year that the plants will grow and fill in quite a lot. That sad mailbox is a project we hope to tackle soon.

Unlike interior UnDesign, the fun part of garden undesign is that we know it’s going to grow and develop and change all on its own.

It’s been fun this spring to see what has come back from last year’s efforts:

This (sorta) Old Life:  gardening

We planted a dogwood tree at the end of the driveway garden plot, and its leaves drooped all summer. So nice to see that it’s blooming again.

And it’s just been nice, really, to see evidence of growth and life and the ending of winter.

The last few months haven’t been easy ones. Through our garden, we get tangible evidence that life goes on, things are continually changing, and new growth–like warmer weather–always comes.

This (sorta) Old Life:  gardening

And it’s also really frickin’ encouraging to see how much progress we’ve made through small projects over time.

This (sorta) Old Life: gardening

Even as we’re encouraged by this, we’re realizing how important it is to keep things in perspective.

If you read our last post, you know that an old friend of mine is in the last stages of his life. On Saturday, Cane and Ella and I visited him, and on Sunday Cane and I dug holes for some of these new plants and made garden plans that assumed both time for growth and that we will be here to see it.

“It doesn’t have to look great right now,” one of us said. “It will fill in and look great in a year or two.”

And, of course, at that moment I couldn’t help but think of my friend–who showed us many of the house and yard projects he and his wife have DIYed in the past 7 years they’ve owned their home. He talked also of projects still in the works.

I wondered what it must be like, to know you won’t see the growth and flowering of things you’ve planted. I wondered if it matters, if it turns out that for some reason Cane and I won’t see this garden mature. Would we regret this day we’d spent digging holes and running to Home Depot for mulch and getting dirt under our nails and ground into the knees of our jeans?

This (sorta) Old Life:

In the end, we decided that it wouldn’t matter. We’d spend our day exactly the same way, even if we knew this would be our last spring. While we hope we get to see these plants fill in and bloom for years, while we hope we get to see our dreams and plans come true, we agreed that the important thing is not the garden.

We aren’t doing this just to have a nicer yard. We’re doing it to make something together. We’re so grateful we get to keep doing that, for however long we can.

How about you?

Have any great garden-designing tips? Is it spring yet where you live? What’s the deeper meaning of gardening for you?

(Sharing this post with the always-inspiring William Morris Project at Pancakes and French Fries.)