Real Estate

Garden Tips: The need for design


How do we come up with design ideas? All gardens but those tied by history or notable designers face re-design at some point. Often simple plant replacement can alter a good design, causing imbalance and distortions.

Another common problem is caused by maintenance that is not suited for a design. Sometimes it is just age that causes a landscape to lose its appeal. Plants get old, sculptural elements lean, ground and pathways shift, and borders disintegrate. I was going to write about synthetic grass versus real turf and how that affects the overall look of gardens in a city. I decided that design included that subject and many more, so this month I will give tips on design. These tips apply to residential gardens and landscape plans but can be used in cityscape, parks and diverse suburban applications.

Hopefully design precedence will improve all ornamental and functional use. Here are the tips:

1. Assess your garden for repair or replacement in order to restore the original design. This is a first step to see if the design can be saved.

2. Use this sequence of checks to help determine the needs. Check pathways, irrigation, major plantings as well as damage and overgrowth.

3. Decide if you will do a complete redesign or a major renovation.

4. Do a cost and time analysis for either project. Include water-use improvements, economy and efficiency of maintenance and aesthetics. Will it look much better afterward?

5. Ask "Will I need a designer an architect, a landscape contractor, or can I do it myself?"

6. If doing a repair/replant job on the property, ask yourself if you have an eye for and/or the experience with plants and their growth to make a DIY makeover work.

7. Decide, if doing a redesign, if you will start the design process with or without a professional designer. Again, if you have design experience and plant knowledge, you might want to go for it and see how it goes.

8. If the project is big (check the local construction laws and regulations), you may need a permit and inspections. I don't recommend trying to get around these; it can be quite costly.

9. Make a plant list after extensive research and advice. I cannot emphasize this step enough. Know their growth needs and patterns as well as their care and possible problems. One example of a bad decision is to plant a eucalyptus tree where you would have done better with a Japanese maple.

10. Put it all together and set a date to get started. Consider season, time required, permits, who will do the work and when the job is expected to be done.

Good gardening!

Garden coach Jack McKinnon can be reached at or 650-455-0687, or visit his website,

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Like this comment
Posted by Jessyca Frederick
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 10, 2016 at 8:04 am

One of the reasons we are bombarded with messages to conserve water is that we think about "design" and aesthetics first. If we first think about how much water we want to use, and THEN design our gardens with plants that help us reach that goal, we will find conservation becomes something you only need to think about once in a while.

Also, my business is a proponent of the idea that it is not necessary to remove your turf and redesign your whole yard to save water in the landscape. Start by buying a "smart" controller (one that uses weather to automatically adjust your watering schedule) and then look at repairing and maintaining your irrigation system—these changes can save 40% or more of your outdoor water use each month.

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