When you buy a new house or inherit one, chances are a garden will come with the property. If you bought the home from strangers, it’s yours. Go ahead – do anything you want with garden. If you inherited it from a loved one, it’s still yours, but you might want to preserve as mementos some of the plants the original owner particularly loved – or even the overall garden layout.

That said, there will be changes. Gardens always change.

The people who lived in the house before you may not have realized the sugar maple that once provided just the right amount of shade would now have huge branches that overhang the house and bang against the roof during violent storms. The branches might have become intertwined with power lines. That’s a safety issue, and you need to bring in a licensed, professional arborist to deal with it.

Or maybe there’s a shrub that blocks the view of oncoming cars when you exit the driveway or a rock wall that’s in danger of falling down. Deal with such safety problems immediately.

Aside from those, wait a year before you change your garden. You have enough to do unpacking, repainting and organizing the cupboards and closets. While waiting, watch. If you can get a list of plants or even a garden plan from the former owner, do so. If you cannot, draw a rough map of your property, showing where the gardens are. Then observe the plants, and write down on your map the time, color and shape of the blooms.

If you recognize Rhododendron Nova Zembla, be specific. If not, write down “red rhododendron – or evergreen shrub, 8 feet tall, round red bloom, early June.” List the color and shape of the foliage, too. Note if there are gaps or if the plants are too crowded.

Make special notes of how the garden looks from the places you see it most often – the kitchen window, the dining room, the spot where you have a before-dinner drink or work on your computer or read the newspaper. How do things look after a snowstorm? When it’s raining, are there puddles on the patio? You’ll particularly want to notice where the plow pushes your driveway snow and where the snow piles up on its own.

Take pictures. You won’t remember all the plants and what they look like. Then organize a slideshow in your computer. When you go to your local garden center, you can show the horticultural expert what you have, get names for the plants you don’t know, and recommendations for what you want to add.

After that year is up, your first job probably is going to be removing things. Many shrubs will be too big. They might have naked trunks, with foliage and blooms only at the top. They might block windows or the view of other plants. If the problem is really bad, or you just don’t like a plant, remove it. Yes, plants are living things, but they don’t have feelings. There are no laws banning euthanasia for plants.

Even if you don’t want to kill it, you might want the shrub to be smaller, so prune it. Proper pruning is a column in itself, for some other time.

Other plants will be too crowded, smothering their neighbors. In early spring or late fall, get a shovel and dig them out. Once you make sure no weeds are growing among the plants’ roots, you can replant them in another spot in your garden – checking your plan for what area needs color at the time the plant blooms. The new spot can even be a new garden, where you’ve removed some lawn. Give any leftover plants to friends or neighbors or a local plant sale. Or simply compost them. I repeat, euthanasia of plants is perfectly OK.

At this point, you can shop – if you want to. If you’ve always wanted a magnolia or a dogwood, for example, buy one. But if you stretched your finances to the limit just to buy the house, see how things look for the next year after your no-cost garden renovations.

Once you have extra funds, then you can start buying plants to give you the garden you dream of, from the bones of the garden that came with the house.

I keep reading that most people stay in a home for fewer than five years. If that is you, ignore the next paragraph. Otherwise:

After 10 years with your garden, pretend you are inheriting your garden from yourself or that you’re thinking of selling your house and you want “curb appeal.” Have you let the trees and shrubs get too big? Are there safety issues? Do you have color where you want it? Are you sick of some of the plants? Don’t live with a garden that isn’t what you love. Life is too short.

If you still love it, great. If not, renovate.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

[email protected]

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