Getting it right in my next garden


Of all the mistakes I've made in my garden over its 26 years under my direction, there are two that I won't be repeating in my next garden. (Here's my recent post about selling my house and moving on.)Back1985

1.  Neglecting to take "before" photos is something I've regretted a gazillion times over the years.  It's simply impossible for visitors to imagine the jungle-like state of my back yard when I moved in – I barely remember it myself.  This sole photo from 1985, while documenting the ugliness of the rear facade, faces away from the jungle.  It didn't occur to me then to photograph the chaos.  (Also, I wish I'd taken some shots without me in them.)

But for my next garden I quickly grabbed these photos from the realtor's slide show about my new rowhouse, and I took a bunch more as soon as my offer was accepted – before all the leaves dropped. 

The perfect-size-for-me-back yard is, except for a few azaleas which will soon be offered to anyone who'll dig them up, a blank slate.  Goody!  On the right is the view from the back door, where my new screened-in porch will go.  I've coveted these bug-free oases for years now and soon I'll have my own!AAANov20114-1

Below, the front yard is all lawn with a few more azaleas (the default shrub for the Mid-Atlantic, no matter the exposure).  Like the azaleas, the lawn is doomed, to be replaced by some seating for sure, but what else?  That brings me to the next mistake I won't be repeating.


2.  Not getting design help.  Now to be fair to my 1985 self, I did enlist the free services of a nursery's designer for my back yard, and have thanked her a bazillion times for creating the bones of a great design and steering me toward great shrubs I'd never heard of (because they aren't azaleas) like Viburnums, Pieris japonica and cherry laurels.  But I had a small budget and most of my current garden has been a DIY job, design-wise and plant choice-wise, and my mistakes still show. 

Especially challenging has been my small front garden – small spaces being much harder to design than larger ones – and I hated the result until finally (after nine years) I paid all of $250 for a fabulous design that transformed not only the front garden but this gardener into the avid one I've been ever since.  (Here's my 2006 post about the transformation and the landscape architect who made it happen.)

This time around, every square inch of my manageably sized garden will be professionally designed before the first daffodil shows its face in March.  Terraces and paths will be created and the larger plants installed before I start playing with the small stuff.  Can you see the determination in those italics? 

Of course I'm still a cheapskate, hoping for great results without paying much for design help.  The good news is that garden writing, as underpaid as it is, attracts the occasional freebie and I've been offered free design services, as long as I credit the designer with a link.  (No problemo!)  Then I'll no doubt be posting the designs here and soliciting feedback from our very talented readers (and crediting them, too, if I use their suggestions.)

See, I'm already anticipating that whatever design I'm presented with, I'll be fussing with it and making it as weird and personal as the garden I'm leaving behind.    

Your mistakes, please?

So help me out here. What would YOU do differently if you were starting all over in your garden, or starting a new one? 

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Susan Harris

Susan’s a garden writer, teacher and activist in the Washington, D.C. area. Co-founder of GardenRant, she also wrote for national gardening magazines and independent garden centers before retiring in 2014. Now she has time for these projects:

  • Founding and now managing the pro-science educational nonprofit GOOD GARDENING VIDEOS that finds and promotes the best videos on YouTube for teaching people to garden.
  • Creating and managing DC GARDENS, the nonprofit campaign to promote the public gardens of the Washington, D.C. area, and gardening by locals.
  • Creating and editing the community website GREENBELT ONLINE to serve her adopted hometown of Greenbelt, Maryland (a “New Deal Utopia” founded in 1937).

Contact Susan via email or by leaving a comment here.

Photo by Stephen Brown.


  1. I am good about photo documenting the beginning of the garden season. But when the harvest comes on, and it’s time to pick and can I forget to get enough photos…so tired from “real life” forget to share. Giggles That’s what happens when you pass 50.

  2. I did take the before pictures, pointed in the right direction and they still didn’t convey the reality of the “before” state. I guess you have to give up gardening and adopt photography as your new hobby and buy a fancy camera to really pull this off.

  3. Congratulations, Susan! It will be great. And I LOVE my screened porch. Certainly the best money I’ve spent on my current residence.

    The next time I make a garden, presumably at another house, I will spend way less on the house–and way more on the chicken shed, swimming pool, fence, stone terraces, and outdoor pizza oven.

    Houses are nice, but not where I want to be. I want to be outside.

  4. If I were starting out in my current yard, I would pay way more attention to the infrastructure–hose bibs, retaining walls, hardscape, lighting, etc–than I did. If/when I move to a new place, it’s likely to be much smaller; I’ll still pay attention to the infrastructure, but also think long and hard about how I will most use and enjoy it, BEFORE I start planting! Also, I would try to be more ruthless about existing plants–it’s always been hard for me to uproot existing plants, even when I know they don’t belong there.

  5. What would I do differently if I was starting all over in my garden, or starting a new one? EVERYTHING! First, I’d prepare bigger beds and add TONS more organic matter. Second, I’d use the heck out of poly row covers and start at the beginning of March instead of waiting til almost June. Third, I’d add more herbs, many many more herbs. That’s just for starters…

  6. I’d buy no perennials for at least a year. Or if I couldn’t resist then none under 3 ft tall. I got to excited about my garden and ended up with lots of perennials and no shrubs, which, when I discovered them, I had to do a lot of wrangling to get them in and it still looks a bit of a mess to me.

  7. Mistakes ? Lawn. And not keeping a close eye on the roots of the neighbor’s maple (they are now up in my iris beds, making thinning impossible, & wrapped around the sprinkler pipes). Lack of follow-through on my vision for the front landscaping (it was the siren call of pretty & unique nursery plants that led me into design danger). Not recognizing that eventually the kids grow up & I should’ve bought the place I want to live in once they get past the needier stages of life. Suburbia’s okay, but I want chickens & bees & not to curse the neighbors’ shade trees encroaching on my veggie garden.

  8. I think the hardest thing about a new place is to go slow and mostly watch the first year. For instance, I moved into my current house at the end of June and didn’t notice until the following Spring that I have a huge bed of Solomon’s Seal. I’m very glad I didn’t rip it up before I found out what was there.
    If another gardener previously lived in your house, there may be delightful surprises in store for you.

  9. Forget zonal denial. Make sure your “bones” are at least a zone hardier than you think you need. That way, if you get a bad winter, they won’t be six inches tall, and not doing their job. Zonal denial is for ephemera.

  10. I most regret my “Noah” impulse: I bought two of everything I saw with no thought to how they would add to an overall plan. As a result I spent most of years 3 and 4 moving stuff around, offer outliers to friends and generally being caught up in trying to impose a plan on what was a hodgepodge.

  11. I believe the fun part is precisely to have to dig and replant if something doesn’t appeal to the eye, or if the plants fail. I am in favour of trying and testing ! after all, isn’t it all the delights of climate change ?
    We have just got rid of our boring and aging hedge. Have a look on From now on, it’s a new adventure starting ! It’s like having a new garden. And the neighbours love it, being able to peer into our formely well-hidden plot !

  12. More mistakes than I could list, but what I’m regretting most just now is not taking firmer hold of the “wild” part of the yard, which is currently growing a fine crop of invasive weeds. But for the most part I value all the false starts and abrupt endings, and it’s not like it’s ever going to be finished.

  13. A few things:
    – Ignoring pH requirements in a VERY alkaline area (water and soil).

    – Presuming my front (north) yard is just as well as my back yard for all plants. That poor xylosma…

    – Disregarding the benefits of barrier plants to keep insect predators at bay w/o poisoning my entire garden.

  14. “I believe the fun part is precisely to have to dig and replant if something doesn’t appeal to the eye, or if the plants fail. I am in favour of trying and testing ! after all, isn’t it all the delights of climate change ?”

    Celine, in twenty years you may find less delight in digging up and moving large plants. Once a person has reached a certain age, rearranging is also for ephemera.

  15. Dithering and not doing anything was one of my biggest mistakes. Nothing got done, right or wrong because I would be paralized by choices. Another mistake was relying on a two dimensional site plan. What looks marvalous on paper doesn’t necessary translate to real life three dimensional. And finally never ever believe those little tags on trees and shrubs regarding the full size. That is the size at 10 years, not full size.

  16. I would have cut down the 65′ silver maple that dominates our garden above and (those roots!) below. Better to live with no shade for a few years than that beast. Five years in, now I’m just scared that a big chunk of it will fall and annihilate our mixed shrub border.

    And I second the evergreens suggestion. I would hate a “boring” evergreen hedge less than my neighbors’ awful yards.

  17. I wish I had been more realistic about the way I thought I’d use the spaces in my landscape. I had romantic notions of toddling out to the “back 40” with a glass in hand to read a book in solitude on the carefully placed bench surrounded by fragrant perennials. The reality is, once that screened porch is built the “back 40” may become a neglected mess. Oh yeah, and the second mistake – don’t think you have to cultivate every square inch of your property. As I have aged I have pulled out entire beds and turned them to patio or ground covers. I just don’t have the time, energy, or even inclination for high-maintenance gardens any more.

  18. I have to second the ‘dithering and feeling paralyzed by too many choices’ and ‘allowing weeds to take hold’ a couple of summers long ago when I was absent, late, distracted or otherwise slack on weeding.

    I also have regrets about focusing so intensely on growing (mostly annual) edibles, that I have reached my 60’s and haven’t really gotten that shrubly structure and perennial border started.

    Ironically, a couple of shrubs I planted accidentally have done well, but they are both wrong plant and wrong place. These ‘accidents’ occurred during various remodels, when construction required the digging up of small plants but I didn’t have time to figure out their proper future location, so I stuck them in the ground any old where, and now they are in the way, and I feel guilty whenever I think of taking them out.

    For me, my regrets mostly come from things I haven’t done, or haven’t done in a timely manner. Acting on impulse (cute plants at nursery), deciding I was going to have an all-native plant landscape, never installing a decent watering system 30 years ago. Looking back, I can’t believe I am still hauling HOSES around all summer (I’m in the arid West).

    Damn, the age thing creeps up on us — I thought for years my yard was way too small for everything I wanted to grow, but now I am mentally turning many a growing area into deck, patio or pavers. Change in the garden never stops.

  19. While “vigorous and fast growing” are good descriptions for a big, bare, beginning garden, they quickly become “rampant self seeders, invasive and too big” for gardens as they mature. And never, ever, never, ever, plant Bishop’s Weed again. The word “weed” in the name should have been an indicator.

  20. Eradicate invasive and persistent weeds (including plants that become weeds) over at least two years before thinking an area is clean to plant. Stay away from as many plants that reseed as I don’t want to get rid of because they became weeds in the future. Amend the soil for drainage before beginning. (I had a high percent of sand in my soil two houses ago and miss it terribly. Sand is cheap!) Be BOLD in the design so there is a striking element during each main season – early spring, spring, June, summer, fall and winter.

  21. This may sound counterintuitive, but one good thing I did when I moved to this house was to mostly just live with the land for a few years, listen to it, pay attention to where it was sunny and shady at different seasons, the microclimates, and, well, what the land wanted.

    You’ll love your screen porch; I pretty much live on mine from April through October and entertain out there a lot.

  22. Wow, there are great suggestions here and I will have to come back and look at this post again for myself.

    Mistakes we made were not to bring in soil instead of trying to amend the “rock” that calls itself soil in this yard. You can’t amend rock. We should have looked at the soil first and made raised beds.

    We also did not make one of our pathways wide enough, and we did not give consideration as to how difficult it would be to mow in certain areas with the lay out of the beds in the backyard.

    I second someone’s comment above that you don’t have conquer the entire yard with a garden…It can be too much.

    (Aside: I had my first set of folks look at my house today. It’s FSBO. They will let me know soon if they want to buy it, so I may be in the same boat.)

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