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A game plan for reviving old gardens

Is your garden looking tired and overgrown? Like anything organic, gardens are never "done." Areas which look wonderful one year can be disappointing the next. Trees grow larger and throw more shade. Plant bullies crowd out beautiful but frail competitors. In fact, it's always a jungle out there in your peaceful-looking back yard.

However, if you think your garden's a challenge, consider Maureen Smith, a long-time Allied Arts Guild of Menlo Park volunteer who was asked to head the Guild's historic garden renovation project in 1986.

She has spent 12 years reviving the beloved Spanish-style gardens, which were originally planted in 1929. Every decision she has made has attracted comments from Guild members, employees and visitors.

"And people stepped forward to help us out at every turn. It was an extraordinary experience," Smith said at the March meeting of the Western Horticulture Society at Loyola School in Los Altos. Using slides to illustrate, she explained the garden restoration process and passed along many tips relevant to Peninsula-area homeowners:

Clear away overgrown ivy from the ground, fences, and buildings. In the process, you may discover interesting, long-buried features such as walkways, reflecting pools, or even low walls.

Trim and re-shape old trees and shrubs so that they can revive with new growth and you can appreciate their potential beauty.

Gather any old photos of your garden, if available, and talk to neighbors who can remember what was planted over the years - you might get some good ideas.

Visit gardens of homes of similar vintage for more ideas. You can also dig out old gardening books and magazines at used books stores and garage sales which will have pictures and plant lists for typical gardens, decade by decade. In Smith's case, the Allied Arts Gardens were supposedly modeled after the Alhambra in Grenada, so she studied art books in libraries and Guild members brought her books purchased in Spain.

Consider taking horticulture classes to broaden your botanical horizons. Smith studied horticulture at the College of San Mateo. Foothill College offers a wide variety of ornamental horticulture courses.

Ask yourself and family members how the garden will be used. Homeowners might make a wish list including features like a children's play area, raised vegetable beds, a trickling fountain, a composting area and a bed for cutting flowers for use indoors. In Smith's planning, she had to increase the parking area and provide a comfortable place for visitors to wait for tour buses.

When traveling - around town or around the world - keep a notebook to jot down garden ideas you admire. In France, Smith saw exactly the wisteria arbor she wanted for the Allied Arts visitors' patio. She made sketches, took pictures, and had the arbor duplicated in Menlo Park.

Eliminate features which you would not be able to maintain over time. For most people, this means substituting long-lived perennials and shrubs for large beds of annuals.

Make sure your garden has good "bones" before putting time and money into plants. This usually means restoring or building new paths, terraces, walls and flower bed edgings plus installing appropriate irrigation.

Choose plants and trees that you love and plant enough of them together to make a visual impact. At Allied Arts, one spectacular flowering crab apple, planted in the 1950s, for instance, inspired the planting of an entire row of crab apples near the Wick Candle Shop.

"With azaleas, which bloom at the same time, they are spectacular," Smith said.

Undaunted by her adventures at The Allied Arts Guild, Smith now coordinates the gardens at the Ronald McDonald House near the Stanford Hospital.

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