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A big garden is a delight until — suddenly or gradually — it’s not. All those magnificent flower beds, the great, sweeping green lawn and your own personal arboretum might become more of a burden than a benefit when the kids are grown and gone and you’re ready to pack your bags and see the world. You still want to stop and smell the roses, all right, but perhaps just one rose bush is all you need.
Downsizing in the garden doesn’t have to be demoralizing.
“It’s interesting. For me, it’s good. I can be creative with that,” says Kristopher Dabner, owner of The Greensman garden design business in Kansas City. Dabner often works with longtime clients to redefine their gardens after years of residence in one house. He helps other clients who have moved from a large property make the transition, gracefully and happily, to a smaller space. Yes, you can take your grandmother’s peony plant with you, he tells them, but “think of this as a new opportunity to be creative, and to think about your garden in a different light.”
Distilling the beauty of a big garden down into a more compact frame can be exciting and invigorating. It might involve putting smaller spaces to work for more than one purpose, and drawing on your experience with a large garden to choose the plants that look great through all four seasons, Dabner suggests. Shrubs that bloom in spring, produce bright berries that attract birds through the summer, take on brilliant autumn colors, and have interesting structure that reveals itself in the winter, more than earn their keep in a garden, he says.
A smaller but no less beautiful garden will call for a choice selection of smaller trees and shrubs. Dwarf conifers and small shrubs may need a little pruning from time to time to keep them trim and tidy, but “they don’t need hacking back,” Dabner says. Instead of a full-sized ginkgo tree — a great pleasure in a big garden — plant a dwarf ginkgo, he says, “and you can have the great texture and glorious fall color on a scale that works with the scale of your garden.”
Mary Palmer Dargan, of Dargan Landscape Architects in Cashiers, North Carolina, also takes a special interest in downsizing for clients who no longer have the time, budget or desire to work with big garden spaces. Baby boomers are moving in this direction, she says. Often, downsizing is precipitated by a life-changing event: The kids move away, a spouse dies or you buy a summer home halfway across the country. Older clients may not be as agile as they once were, “and there are hazards you didn’t even think of,” she says, such as negotiating a winding path of rough-cut fieldstones or climbing up and down steps between two garden levels.
Dargan helped her mother reinterpret her garden when “she didn’t need all those garden rooms” anymore and no longer needed a big, flat lawn for parties under a tent. You don’t have to move to make the transition to a smaller space, Dargan says: Just change your focus. Make the most of the back porch; add on a pretty terrace or a courtyard. Replace flowerbeds, which need and deserve a lot of attention, with fine shrubs. Add lighting so you can enjoy your garden late in the evening without venturing out. If possible, let garden-maintenance companies handle the mowing.
Clients who shrink their gardens, either by moving or by redefining what they already have, often don’t want to give up entertaining outdoors, and they don’t have to. “Socializing is important,” Dargan says, but maybe you don’t need a great big picnic table any more. Scale it all down.
Garden art and fountains are high on the list of handsome and undemanding garden features clients want in their smaller-scale gardens, Dargan says. Indulge yourself, she tells them. “This is the last time they are going to do it, and they really want something of lasting value, something that resonates with their heart.”
No matter what your circumstances or situation, the best way to get started downsizing is to start with some judicious editing, Dargan says. Simplify your flowerbeds. Limit your collections.
Take advantage of a lifetime of experience. Concentrate on plants that do not need pampering, and plant them in generous sweeps and repeating patterns throughout your garden. Changes like these will make your garden simpler to care for.
Good design, careful decisions and pinpoint focus make the transition exciting. “Clients tell me, ‘I love my garden so much more now,’” Dabner says. Smaller gardens really are not a compromise: There’s still plenty of room for charm.