Landscape Design Challenge: The Mature Landscape Renovation

by Ben Bowen

The Challenge Of A Mature Landscape, Accepted

Every landscape design has it's own challenges. I've talked about our general design philosophy, and offered design tips that apply to many landscapes. I think one type of landscape, in particular, can pose a real challenge: the established landscape.

A mature landscape can be completely transformed, as shown by this project, completed in 2010.

A mature landscape can be completely transformed, as shown by this project, completed in 2010.

I was speaking with a potential client last week. She has great landscaping originally installed in 1978 by Kurisu International. However, over the years it has not always been maintained properly (she just purchased the property) and parts of it are in need of repair. She wants the style to change a bit to fit her lifestyle and needs to carve out a little more usable space. The problem? She can't see through what is already in place.

Trying to envision a new design for a mature garden is like trying to whistle the tune to 'Hey Jude' while listening to 'Karma Police'.

How can a person cut through the noise of the existing landscaping to design the new?

Landscape Renovations

I go through a mental process to design a renovation to a mature garden. Here are the basic steps:

This Lake Oswego garden has contributions from at least three landscape designers and the homeowner!

This Lake Oswego garden has contributions from at least three landscape designers and the homeowner!

  • Empty the space. Envision or sketch the property with all the plants, hardscape, boulders, etc. gone. This helps me learn how much space we actually have to work with. Overgrown plants can make a space feel much smaller than it actually is! I spend time on the elevations as well. We deal with a lot of steep slopes and grade changes here in Portland, which can also be obscured by mature landscaping.
  • What has to stay? Next I put back (in my mind or on paper) all the elements that absolutely can not be eliminated or moved. The 45 foot tall fir is not going anywhere. Neither is the 1400 lb. boulder.
  • What will be added? Now we start making changes. The homeowner most likely has goals for the space: a larger patio, new water feature, or gardening space can now be placed in a space that works for them.
  • What can stay? Now that I have decided what has to stay and elements that will be added I can start saving existing elements that will work with the new landscape design layout. Some plants may have to be pruned in order to fit into the new plan.
  • What can move? The Lion's Mane Maple located where the new paver patio will go? It can be transplanted next to the new water feature.
  • What is being eliminated? Some elements, including plants, have no place in the new design. They have to go. I find that many clients struggle with this. Sometimes even really great plants just don't work anymore. It's time to say goodbye. Maybe a neighbor would like it...

If you have an older landscape, change can be intimidating. The daunting task of designing a fresh landscape that incorporates the best of the old can be done.

Simplify the process by breaking it up into baby steps. Soon you will find the potential and beauty in even the most tired garden.