The One Woman Garden Makeover

It’s that time of year for us here in Canada. The ‘May 24’ is our mark to get planting! Last year at this time I took on a complete overhaul of a front property for someone very special. However, I am not ‘wonder-woman’, nor do I have any labourers so it needed to be quite manageable without compromising style. We all want BIG effect for LITTLE work, don’t we?! Well… check out how ‘I’ managed it all by myself; ‘The One Woman Garden Makeover’ without even having to dig!

This is the way the property came; basically the way most people design. Small straight borders, dull design and monster tree. It did have some really ‘showy’ hydrangeas though so there are some elements to keep which helps the budget.

The Plan:

I always tell my students; have a plan. The artist in me likes to be able to visualize things first. Draw out a plan, use graph paper and you can draw one to scale. (make each square represent a measurement and you can easily map it out)

Big lawns are overrated in my opinion; as they require so much watering, weeding, grub control etc. Less lawn = less fretting.

Design has a few elements that you should think about; line, shape, space, colour, texture and pattern. I remember those from my days at art college! It really does apply to any type of design whether the front yard or a an oil painting.

Line: I wanted a nice flow and curve to connect the garden beds into one and carry the ‘eye’ along. Think bigger rather than smaller! Plants grow and you’d rather be enjoying it than mowing the lawn so give it space. To give you a good way to see it lay the hose out to the shape. Keep kicking/nudging it till it is a nice smooth shape and check it out from all angles. Don’t worry, there won’t be any big digging… I promise.

It always looks worse before it looks better! The blue spruce is nice if it would stay small, but it won’t! It will eventually get so wide at the bottom and then the bill to chop will be huge. Soooo, for now it will get a nice trimming and open up the space but it’s days are numbered. The grass is a bit stressed but that can change with a bit of TLC as well.


Once you are happy with your overall shape it’s time to give it some edging. I like a good crisp line to the garden edges! Get the knee pads on and start to set in your material for edges. I HATE the black plastic stuff, and prefer the individual stones. They are forgiving of you ever need to ‘fix’ one and they stay put quite well. Set them in to about the level of the grass soil. I have not seen any difference whether set with screenings or just well cut into the soil. Now’s your chance to sit on the lawn and take it the garden smell… Follow your hose-line and curve gradually even with straight stones. They make a nice pattern as well.


Keeping things on a manageable small scale has me buying-by-the-bag and using only a car. I will enhance the soil somewhat with top soil and add a ground cover of cedar mulch. Mulch is a saving grace as it keeps weeds down, requires less watering and provides a great backdrop. Well, no need to go to the gym this week!

Since there may be some perennials coming up and the hydrangeas along the side I did not need too many new plants. Let me say; I LOVE my hostas! They give great colour and texture with the many varieties available! Every year I have some at home that need dividing so I chop off a piece when I see the tiny points coming up. Cheap and cheerful.

Such a nice curving line! Luckily there were way too many pavers to use as edging. Don’t worry about the grass sections in the gardens, I have a solution that does not need digging.

The Cover:

I dug in the new plant additions like the hostas and some other sniped perennials from home. To finish the garden and kill the grass within it I cover it well with layers of newspaper. Yes, really!!! It does work quite well. It was windy so I needed to wet it down to make a good contact to the ground. I’d say approximately about 6 sheets thick. Don’t leave any gaps.

Cover well with mulch to weight it down before it dries and flies away.

Sounds ridiculous I know, but it works so well. I am sure the neighbours were wondering what heck the crazy lady was doing!?

Quite a transformation already! Keep the paper weighted down with the mulch and by stomping on it and watering. Grass is sometimes a bit stubborn.

Some fertilizing/feeding the grass to make it happy really makes a big difference. May brings the vivid green colours and everything comes alive!

Pink creeping phlox and euonymus will bring colour each year.

Other elements:

I’m not a ‘pink flamingo’ type of gal, but I do like some additional elements in a garden. (obviously since I LOVE concrete)

To add some stepping stones, you guessed it; make some! They blend so well with the natural element and also provide some texture.

This easy method of making an address stone has fooled so many people! ‘How did you carve that stone?!’ Haha, I didn’t…

Ok, yes there was a bit of grumbling when hauling the bags of soil and mulch, but it was quite doable in a week. And yes, those muscles will be happy again…

A couple months later and it was thriving quite well. It required minimal stooping to pick out the odd weed or determined grass but on a whole (yippee) it worked so well! When adding some annuals for colour plant in multiples for a pattern, 3 is a great number!

It was such a transformation that it won a Trillium award for landscaping that we have in our city. Notice the texture as well as colour that each plant brings.

Everything has grown full and seems quite happy!

Enjoy your spring/summer! Take time to smell the ‘whatever’ is growing in your space, large or small. If you are thinking of designing your own, this may help: ‘How to Make an Award Winning Garden Design’

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  1. Barb, your yard is beautiful! I love how it flows. It’s so much nicer than the original layout. I’m sure your neighbors are envious.

  2. I understand the one woman job. I have used newspapers for 50 years. I have a bucket of water and dip them in the water first. I made a mistake and used the black cloth once and still regret it. Not easy to pull up with weeds and grass growing thru it.
    I love the address sign.
    Great job.

    1. I used the landscape fabric many years ago and the weeds grew through it. It also kept the decaying stuff from blending with the soil. Eventually the newspaper is gone… Happy gardening.

  3. Hi Barb.
    This was such a wonderful find. Your garden is exactly what I am looking for. I have arthritis and am finding trimming large overgrown bushes is getting more difficult by the year.

    Would you do me a favor and tell me what you planted as a guide. I recognize the hostas, hydrangeas, but wondered what other perrenials you used, as well as annuals. I have a full sun garden.

    1. Maybe some of the answers are here. I used a lot of existing ground cover and creeping phlox, periwinkle, creeping sedum. I like species that are easy to pull/maintain and give different colour in foliage as flowers may only last a short time. Look for perennials that have nice full mounded shapes instead just a pretty flower. Heuchera is another of my favourites. Good luck, it’s a process…

  4. Fantastic! You have inspired me, thank you for all your information, I will be putting it to good use in the spring!

  5. I love your design. It looks beautiful. I enjoy watching the birds come to drink and bathe
    in the birdbaths in my front and back yards. The curve between the tree and flower bed would be an ideal spot to include a beautiful stone birdbath for the birds to enjoy – I do think it would add to your lovely outdoor space.