By Mel Bellar
When I walk onto a new property, the first thing I do, without even thinking about it, is to take in the big picture. This initially involves the feeling that the place evokes. It can be calm and peaceful, exuberant, wild, warm, formal, or sometimes confusing and unintentional. A garden space can feel loved and important, or just kind of there. Beauty, as we know, is in the eye of the beholder and most preferences in life are subjective. This is a given. My wife often reminds me of this when I am mystified that someone thinks a garden is beautiful and I think it is, well, a little messy or worse. She tells me “our people just don’t see things the way you do, Mel!”
By the way, my wife (Peggy Bellar; love of my life) is my muse, spiritual advisor, and constant editor who has saved you from some (many?) of my harsher thoughts and feelings over the past 8 years. She also spares you more snarkiness, emojis, implied curse words, run-on sentences and off-topic diversions like this one 😊. Please give her a round of applause and thank her when you see her.
Back to the big picture and the elusive subjectivity of beauty. The question, and fine line I walk, is whether my vision will be appreciated by the recipient. Sometimes they just can’t visualize it until it is demonstrated, or perhaps they prefer it the way it was, thinking that my vision is too much in some way. However, generally when folks hire a professional they are looking for a change! Communicating what that looks and feels like can be a challenge. That is why we go through a series of drawings, renderings, and collaborations before we actually bring in the heavy equipment (real and metaphorical). Even with all that preparatory work, sometimes folks are still shocked by the reality. Thankfully, though, once we have done the transformation and the garden comes into its own, I have never had anyone express disappointment. Folks are generally thrilled and appreciative of having their vision expanded.
The idea for this column came about from a recent experience with a client where we were cleaning up and revamping some gardens on a property. The main assignment was to clean up and restore a large island bed that had been overrun with years of weeds and neglect. There were big patches of Siberian iris, day lilies, some phlox, bee balm and a few other plants that we wanted to expose while creating some order and space for new ones. We spent many grueling hours at this task as well as shovel-edging this bed to create a nice shape. This property was on a steep slope (as are most, as well as the bane of my existence) and while all of this work was going on, I noticed that on the uphill side of the flat area that the house and gardens occupied, there were some outcroppings and even a little waterfall lurking behind tall weeds: mostly goldenrod, brambles and jewelweed.You know me… I had to uncover those rocks. I spent about 45 minutes pulling out the weedy stuff and exposing those beautiful rocks. In my humble opinion that was the most important thing we did that day. That simple task had more impact on the look and feel of that property than any of the other much harder work we completed. It was, indeed, low-hanging, but perfectly ripe, fruit.
When we are doing maintenance on a property, and especially a new property, my co-workers generally start with weeding, deadheading, and cutting back in the beds. I typically go in search of that proverbial low-hanging fruit, usually with my weed-whacker in tow for starters. Why, you ask? I really like a bed with an edge, and in general I like some separation between elements in the property so that it looks intentional, and the weed-whacker is a great tool to accomplish this. We shovel-edge beds that meet turf once a year with a straight shovel and then maintain the edge with the weed-whacker turned on its side. It makes a bed look like a million bucks in no time at all. It can also be used to quickly clean up around the trees and areas where the mowing doesn’t do the trick; it makes a huge difference.
Another effective trick is to use the weed-whacker to beat back the grass that is growing over stepping stones or paths. We have discovered beautiful and completely obscured stepping stones on properties that are covered with grass. When we expose them by taking the grass back to the edge of the stone, they just spring to life and add a whole new element. It may take more than one pass, but it is a great tool for this and well worth the effort. Weed-whackers/string trimmers/weed eaters are all the same thing and there are excellent ones out there that are lightweight, and battery operated, making it easy for everyone to start and wield them to great effect.
Another pet peeve of mine (and one that is easily corrected and maintained) are lousy mow lines. Many times, the mown area of a property goes right up to some obstruction or messy area, or an area that is just hard to mow. Rather than a shapeless lawn determined by obstacles, make a nice mow line that avoids the obstacles, looks graceful, and obscures the difficult or unsightly areas. If you need to access them, incorporate a mown path for access. Creating a nice shape for a lawn and leaving the rest as meadow is one of the best examples of low-hanging fruit and yet often one of the hardest for folks to visualize and implement.
Pruning is also right up there for bang-for-the-buck! Many times, I have transformed an eyesore into a thing of beauty simply by pruning out deadwood and suckers from a shrub or a small tree. This can take 5 minutes to a couple of hours, but as far as landscaping projects go, it is still small potatoes with big results. With a little more finesse, you can shape a scraggly shrub into a welcome landscape feature.
One more thing (although I could go on) that is a little more work but highly effective is to clean up the area between your claimed area and the wild, if that situation exists. If you just cut down the saplings and wild stuff that naturally grows in the area between the mown or brush-hogged areas and the woods, you get the beautiful view into the peaceful shadows and dappled light of the woods. It is also easily maintained with your handy weed-whacker. After you get it done once, it will be well worth the effort.
Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a
passionate Andes gardener.~