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How to Have the Garden You Want

Gardens are definitely not “one size fits all”. Most of us start out with a vision of what we want in our surroundings. Of course, there are real conditions such as climate, soil moisture, topography, and municipal codes that impact possibility. But with all that it is still important to have a dream and the more detailed it is the more likely it is to be realized.

When I bought my new house on a bright, late summer, day, I had no idea that it was surrounded by a swamp for six months of every year. The swamp frequently entered my basement as well. I noticed that the lawn was spotty and there was no planting, but I attributed it to the fact that some people just don’t have the time or an interest in gardening. I quickly learned that heavy clay soil and a high-water table combined to make standing water the predominant landscape feature. As a landscape designer, I like a challenge, but this was more than I had bargained for.

During my career I have worked with many people who found themselves facing landscape issues than they never bargained for. One family bought the house of their dreams not realizing what a maintenance problem the steeply graded rear of the property would pose. Another bought in a cul-de-sac at the end of a subdivision. At the first hard downpour they found the whole subdivision was graded so that all the water flowed to and through their property.

These and many other landscape nightmares can be turned into garden assets by an experienced landscape architect. As a horticultural designer I turned to the registered landscape architects of Wallace Landscape Associates to help me solve the grading, drainage and soil problem and allow my property to become the garden I had hoped for.

The first order of business was removing a large brick terrace that had sunken toward the foundation of the house. The impermeable surface channeled water directly into the basement. I had looked forward to sunning and dining on that terrace, but it quickly became obvious it had to go. After the brick terrace was turned to rubble and carted away, soil was brought in to build up the area surrounding the foundation. That step immediately reduced the water seepage into the basement after heavy rains.

Grading the whole rear of the property came next. A Rain Garden* was planned for the lowest area of the property to collect excess water. Beds were delineated and built up with topsoil to redirect drainage into a grassy swale leading to the rain garden. A dry pond was created to handle overflow during winter rains. Downspouts were piped into the “pond” to move that water away from the house.

Dry streams and ponds are often used in Japanese gardens to suggest a water feature when it is not possible to have a real stream or pond. In my case, after the first hard rain the “dry pond” filled with water and became a real pond and has continued to be a very special feature of my garden. The shimmering reflected light from its surface brightens the Rain Garden which is often an island of color with bright daylilies, ironweed, false turtlehead, native hibiscus and other moisture tolerant plants.

Today my once dismal swamp has become a breathtaking garden with colorful flower beds enclosing a shaded sitting area where family and friends meet often. I enjoy growing my vegetables and herbs in a rear corner, screened by a cut flower garden. And I love sitting by the pond and watching birds and butterflies visit the sparkling water. With the expert help of Wallace Landscape Associates, I have the garden I have always wished for. I do have a few restrictions on plant selection. Plants that need sharp drainage will not thrive here. But the pond and the rain garden more than make up for the few things I can’t grow.

So, after all that, let’s go back to the question of getting the garden you want. The first step is having some ideas of how you will live in and use your garden. A walk around your property with a landscape architect will help you develop a realistic vision. They will ask a multitude of questions such as, “Will you be enjoying the garden in every season or do you spend part of the year in a second home?” “Will you have the services of a professional gardener?” Do you have an interest growing your own vegetables or herbs?” The many questions can help guide you to see what type of garden fits your lifestyle and your taste as well as helping the designer create a design that fits your lifestyle.

An experienced landscape architect will also point out assets and liabilities of the land surrounding your house. Are there established trees to add a sense of permanence and stability to the landscape. Is there borrowed scenery that you can incorporate into your garden picture. They might point out drainage situations or other issues you need to consider. It is time well spent to understand what is possible and what is not likely to succeed.

It is said that behind every magical garden is the hand of a magician. Behind the magician is vision, expertise and hard work. A partnership between an experienced landscape firm and an engaged homeowner will result in a notable landscape that brings joy every day of the year.

Wallace Landscape Associates

1598 Baltimore Pike

Chadds Ford,  PA  19317


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