One way to begin planning a new garden is to pin down exactly what it is that you want. This might sound easy enough, but how many times have we ended up guessing wrong on our own desires? In the words of Backyard Farmer host Kim Todd, try starting with “I want to—” rather than “I want a—” when you consider your landscape. This change in perspective can help lead you to the yard you want rather than the yard you think you want, often saving time and money to boot.
For instance, if you hear yourself saying “I want a row of columnar shrubs along my property line,” you might be better served by figuring out what you really mean by this—that is, your underlying aim behind the shrub row. In this case, it might be “I want to maintain privacy between myself and my neighbor five feet away.”
This subtle shift from form to function often opens up possibilities that might otherwise have been overlooked, which might be especially helpful in this situation since columnar shrubs are typically slow-growing and expensive. When approaching the project from the lens of achieving privacy, yes, the shrubs would work, but so might a vine-covered fence or a group of tall grasses. Now suddenly you have more options and can weigh them in terms of the money, labor and time involved. Additionally, you can determine how they would each help achieve any other goals that you have. If you’re also thinking, “I want to make my own wine,” then a fence or trellis with grapes growing on it would address both desires at the same time. If instead of privacy you just want to demarcate your property line, then a whole different set of solutions applies; you could probably get by with a split rail fence or a well-placed tree.
Simply put, “I want to—” helps you figure out why you want what you want, which can be incredibly enlightening. (How much of what we want is to keep up with the Joneses? Or to buy that thing we saw on TV?) It’s a tool to try if you’re stuck on parsing out your true desires. Here’s a few examples:
When you say you want mums, do you mean you want fall color… in which case native asters, bluestar or ornamental grasses might work.
If you want a playhouse for kids a low-limbed tree, logs or stones or a pile of dirt or mulch might offer just as much fun.
Instead of a bluegrass lawn, a sedge meadow or no-mow groundcovers might be easier.
If you’re not wanting large-growing trees, is that because you want to avoid damage/liability from falling limbs or expensive tree removal? Or are you wanting more sunshine, in which case small-leaved trees with filtered sunlight might work?
Oftentimes people want a hedge when what they’re really trying to do is to mark boundaries, which can be done with a planted berm, low trees or tall grasses—elements that can withstand the loss of one plant better than a row of shrubs that are all the same height.
Easier than building a pergola might be planting a tree or placing a bench for a good view. Instead of a high-maintenance fountain, maybe the real desire is for a focal point, nearby water or a way to attract birds or butterflies. In that case, a dry creek, rain garden, sculpture or bird bath might offer the same advantages.
Rachel Anderson, Nebraska Statewide Arboretum, plantnebraska.org