Garden Design

Re-Engineering Your Garden

Landscaped garden

Re‑engineering is a popular buzzword today. Basically, it means taking a look at where you are and reassessing what you can do to capitalize on what you have. And what holds true for established corporations surprisingly holds true for the established home garden.

As the landscape matures, things change. Trees get taller and cast deeper shade, bushes outgrow their original compactness and places in the garden. People’s lifestyles change, and that area given over to a sandbox or a swing set may no longer be needed. Or you may have purchased an older home with mature plantings that no longer work, or at least they don’t satisfy you. The time comes in almost every landscape plan when re‑engineering is the way to go.

How to Change Your Garden
Pretend you are the new owner of your house and garden, and look at it with as much objectivity as you can. Is there an orderly look to your garden, or has it just happened over time? Even natural gardens have a plan behind them that keeps them looking natural instead of wild. If there hasn’t been a plan, is this the place to start? Depending on the size of your garden and how elaborate you want to make it, you can plan it yourself or call on professional help.

Take one area at a time and think about how you want it to look, and then move on to the next area. If your garden doesn’t naturally break into areas, think about creating them by varying garden bed sizes, shapes, and what plants they will contain. You may want to add a garden bed or two or take some beds out.

A planned garden doesn’t have to happen all at once. If you develop an overall plan, you can work on one or two areas at a time, and save work on other areas for later in the year or even until the next season or two.

Dealing with Shade
In evaluating your existing garden, you may find that some plants don’t perform as well as they used to. It could be that they need more light. Consider moving these to another area of the garden and finding new shade-tolerant plants to replace them. Hostas, heucheras, caladiums, or other shade-tolerant plants can give a bright show of color where daylilies or Shasta daisy no longer perform well.

Try Something New
If you are uncertain about how well a plant will perform in a problem area, do a little research to determine the desired exposure. Check with a Master Gardener or use the gardening website developed at NC State ( Many gardeners regularly try out new plants on a small scale before really committing time or money to them.

Trees and shrubs
One of the biggest changes that can creep up silently on a garden is the growth of trees and shrubs. They not only grow taller and larger, but they can dramatically influence what can or can’t grow under or around them.

Trees can be trimmed professionally to thin out branches and allow more light to filter through to the ground. In extreme cases, such as too many trees planted too close together, removal of some of the trees in addition to trimming may be the answer. Professional advice and service from local tree experts and certified arborists is highly recommended for trimming and removal.

Overgrown shrubs can also be trimmed back or removed entirely if no longer desirable. As much as it hurts emotionally and as much as it can be visually unattractive for a while, a severe trimming almost to the ground can often rejuvenate old and woody shrubs. Once they begin growing again you can control future shaping. Plants planted around the base of a tree compete with the tree roots for water and nutrients. New plants in raised beds will reduce this competition and can add a new feature to your garden.

Focal Points
All gardens need a focal point. A small garden needs only one, and larger gardens may need several. A focal point draws the eye to a special feature or planting and helps give the rest of the garden a more orderly look. Focal points can be as simple as one spectacular plant or planting among the others, a water pond, or an ornamental feature such as a gazing globe, a piece of sculpture or statuary, large rocks, birdbath, or a bird feeder. In larger gardens, focal points can be created for different areas. Tall plants grouped in a mass and surrounded by shorter plants can create a focal point in a garden bed, as can contrast in color or plant type. An arbor trellis planted with climbing plants such as morning glories or akebia can be an eye-catching focal point for an entire garden.

Planning Ahead
Re‑engineering doesn’t always have to be a major undertaking. Once you have a plan in place, small adjustments every year or two will keep you from having to start from scratch.

Carl is the County Extension Director in Orange County with responsibilities in agriculture and horticulture.

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