PlanPlant 11
Written by Leslie Gregory Haukoos Illustration by West Maätita

Deciding to hire a professional to design our garden nearly caused a marital breakup.

PlanPlant 4We had just moved into a new home in Agoura that was surrounded by nothing but bare dirt. Our budget was very limited . . . as in very limited.

My husband thought we should take the do-it-yourself approach—conserve our funds and put all we had into plants. He figured a landscape architect was something like a gardener with a business card. Better to figure it out on our own as we went along.

I put my foot down and said I’d rather invest in a good garden design, even if it meant we’d have to leave half the yard barren for the time being.

PlanPlant 6We battled it out. As the gardener of the family, I wanted a truckload of new plants delivered to my driveway more than anything. But I knew in my gut that a good plan would be a sound investment, guiding all our later garden decisions.

My husband, who tends to argue in favor of maintenance-free cement patios and plants that don’t attract bugs, aims more for convenience than nature’s splendor. The more we spent on a plan, he reasoned, the less we’d have for plants and the longer we’d be living with dirt.

PlanPlant 1I held out and finally convinced him. We hired landscape architect Marsh Sanders to design the whole yard, even though much of the plan was, at that time, lofty dreaming.

The process was simple, or so it seemed. We told Sanders our vague and ambitious ideas: we wanted paths leading to places, a covered pool that wouldn’t require much heating and could be off-limits to our three small children. We wanted it to feel like the gardens at the Westlake Inn. Nothing major, just make it like an aging Tuscan estate, we urged, on our miniscule budget, in an area prone to drought. . . . We didn’t have the Plansmoney for garden benches, fountains or furniture, but we could envision them, so we needed places where they might work later on, when we could gradually add them to the garden.

Somehow, Sanders took all of our half-baked ideas and drew up a lovely plan. It had paths leading to destinations where we could eventually rest on garden benches. It had pairs of pepper trees lined up like soldiers down a meandering garden path. It had a step-up patio and a graceful water feature connecting Jacuzzi with swimming pool. The weed-covered slope would become a fruit orchard and grapevines would climb the arbors.

For quite a while, that drawing was the closest we came to having a yard. At least we could sit on folding chairs on the bare dirt and imagine.

Nearly 10 years later, we finished implementing that plan. We had completed it in stages, when we could, and enjoyed it poolalong the way. And because we took the time and used the resources to think ahead, today we have a cohesive garden rather than a hodgepodge of plants.

Our neighbor, who has since moved away, was the first on the block to build her pool when the whole neighborhood was new. We were all a bit envious as her family splashed in their tropical pond that first hot summer while the rest of us watched our small kids play in bare earth that required a whole lot of effort to keep out of the house.

Months later, this neighbor confided in us. She was lying awake at night, haunted by a maddening thought: she had put the pool in the wrong place. It was too close to the house. It sliced the property in two, cutting off the back part of the yard, which used to have lots of potential but now would be like a separate planet.

PlanPlant 9PlanPlant 12Because it was right next to the house, the pool was shaded most of the day, even while the rest of the 1-acre lot was fully in sun.

Obviously, it was a little late to do anything about it.

It’s good to have a plan.

That said, the beauty of a garden is that it is a living, breathing thing. It evolves and urges us to be flexible—to let it grow figuratively as well as literally.

That’s why the garden path with roses climbing the arbors has been updated with shade-loving climbers now that the pepper trees have matured. (Of course, our wise landscape architect predicted that years ago when he planted the baby pepper trees.) And after fighting an existing oak tree’s piles of fallen leaves for a number of years, we finally conceded and let them remain, a natural carpet underneath the grand tree. (Wait, that was Sanders’ idea, too.)

But even with the plan, we still had plenty of personalizing to do. It took us a couple of years to figure out where a fountain should go, then another couple of years before we could afford to put one there.

Turns out my husband is now a great fan of our garden. He’s out there almost daily with his laptop and his martini.

PlanPlant Garden