Touring old Nova Scotia gardens is one of the great joys of my work as a landscape designer and gardener. I love discovering hidden perennial treasures, old rock walls, vines intertwining with natural plants, ruined foundations and weathered fruit trees. These gardens have worn the test of time. They have been forgotten and rediscovered, perhaps many times over. They tell us stories of the past while offering dreams for the future. When I find old plants, I love to imagine the gardener-past at work creating their oasis. Digging into the soil of an old garden feels like directly connecting with them through time. I like to imagine some future gardener also reconnecting and rediscovering the garden, with my care and contribution, perhaps long in the future. That is what makes old gardens magic.
I am often called in by clients who have inherited an old garden and don’t know what to do with it. It can be overwhelming to look at the whole, complete with rambling plants and weeds. It begs the question, “Where to start?”. My advice is to begin with simplifying the canvas by learning about and caring for the existing plants. Once you do that, you will be able to observe and get to know your garden. Over time, you can fill gaps with new plants you love, transplant as desired, or even change the garden shape more easily.
Here are my recommendations for simplifying that canvas by giving your old garden some TLC:
1. Learn about the plants in your garden. Take a look around at different points in the season and notice interesting plants. Take pictures so you can compare year-to-year. Identify what you can. Guide books and gardening books are helpful tools here. Keep a close eye out for rhubarb, peonies, columbine, roses, sedum and asparagus because these plants are long-lived and popular traditional garden plants in the region. Also look for old shrubs and trees such as lilac, apple, and spirea. You can also engage a professional like Earthshine Gardens if you need more support. Contact us to book your complementary site visit.
2. Clear out excess deadwood, brush and leaves around plants. Deadwood and leaves are helpful in your garden to a point. They provide habitat for critters, protect the soil and help create humus. In an old garden though, it is likely that these materials have piled up to an extent that they are inhibiting plant growth. Carefully rake up leaves where they are a thick mat. Prune deadwood off shrubs and trees, and shear dead plant stalks as needed. These materials can be composted onsite or woven into an ornamental brush wall.
3. Weed. Old gardens are often very full of plants competing with each other for space, light and nutrients. Giving the garden a good weed will help desired plants thrive. I recommend waiting until early summer if you are just getting to know your garden, so you can see what is coming up. What is a weed is entirely up to you. Plants are just that, plants. We humans label a plant a “weed” when we don’t want it to grow in our garden. If you like the wildflowers such as daisies, dandelions, buttercups, asters or goldenrod- let them be. They are adding to your secret garden vibe, and they are food for pollinators. You may consider adding bark mulch after you weed, depending on your aesthetic.
4. Control aggressive perennials. Not all garden plants are created equal, and some plants will naturally out-compete others in a garden that goes many years without care. Hardy geranium is a good example. It’s a popular plant that is tougher than nails. It spreads by rhizome, deer don’t eat it and it’s super low-maintenance. It is a dominating presence in old gardens that chokes out other plants. Limit the more aggressive perennials to patches and clear out space around desired plants that are being smothered.
5. Feed struggling plants with compost. A quick top-dressing of a high-quality compost will help those struggling plants thrive. 1-2 handfuls for herbaceous plants and 2-4 handfuls for shrubs and trees should do it. This should be done at least once per year in the spring and summer. I like Stormcast seaweed compost from Bear Cove Resources.
Trust me, that old garden is worth the time and effort. You are doing a service for people and nature; past, present and future. Plus, when we give our old gardens love, they share their secrets. Who knows what you might discover!