This week I’m thrilled to spotlight Jen McGowan of Jen McGowan Gardens. In case you missed my live chat with her on Instagram yesterday, Jen is one of the most talented and inspiring landscape designers on the Main Line. At my own home, she helped landscape our renovated backyard and outdoor living space to perfection (see below!) with gorgeous, low-maintenance shrubs, plants and flowers that bring me such joy!
With spring just a few weeks away, I wanted to pick Jen’s brain about how best to prep our gardens and yards. Keep reading for her must-have garden tools, a Trader Joe’s tip and more…
• How did you get your start?
I grew up down the street from the former Main Line home and garden mecca Waterloo Gardens (now the site of Terrain in Devon), and as a kid I would spend my pocket money there on plants for my little garden. That led to studying horticulture in college and spending my summers working at Chanticleer. After college, I worked at Waterloo Gardens for a bit, and customers started asking me to design their gardens. I spent time working for other landscape companies on the Main Line and writing for gardening magazines, but I was always designing.
• How would you advise someone who doesn’t have a green thumb but wants to learn more about landscape design?
Think about your learning style and go from there. Are you a visual learner? Pinterest and YouTube are great places to start. Do you learn by listening? Google “gardening podcasts” and you’ll find dozens of great recommendations. Do you prefer the written word? Your local library is a wonderful resource. You can also sign up for an online course–there are so many to choose from at the moment! Do you learn by doing? Look for in-person, hands-on courses offered locally through places like Main Line School Night, Chanticleer, the Barnes Foundation, Longwood Gardens, etc…
• Say you want more greenery in your home. What are your favorite low-maintenance indoor plants?
Anything potted from Trader Joe’s! I also love the longevity and height that I get from an orchid as well as the color and texture of a Kalanchoe. Honestly, I’ll try anything indoors–hellebores, azaleas, you name it.
• Can you share some best practices to prep your garden for spring on the Main Line?
Ask your landscaper to focus on edging your beds with a step-on edging tool, pulling weeds out by the root and hand pruning your flowering shrubs. Insist on the majority of the work being done by hand and not solely with gas-powered tools.
• What should we do ourselves and what should we outsource?
Nothing makes me happier than seeing a teenager pushing a lawn mower (I can hear a collective groan from the teens of the Main Line)! When it comes to getting your arms around your property–from the gardens to the hardscape to the way you want your family to enjoy the space–the comprehensive planning, creativity and collaboration that come from working with an experienced landscape designer are invaluable. I also recommend keeping a skilled arborist in your contact list. “Skilled” being the operative word.
• What are some must-have gardening tools?
A wheelbarrow, a shovel with a round-shaped blade, a four-tined pitchfork, loppers, Felco bypass pruners and a Japanese garden knife. Don’t worry if you don’t have a garage or shed because you can put your tools in or under your wheelbarrow. A leaf blower is also nice to have so you can clean up after yourself in the garden and quickly prep your outdoor space for guests.
• Do you have a favorite project to date?
I love all of my projects equally because I’m constantly inspired and challenged by different exposures, borrowed views, terrains, architectures and existing plantings. I am a big fan of clean lines, hydrangeas and boxwoods but beyond that it’s important to consider what the garden will look like from November to April. I always design with the winter garden in mind.
• How do you keep up with your own garden?
“The shoemaker’s children always go barefoot” is one of my favorite sayings because I am so invested in the successes of my client’s gardens that my own yard often goes neglected. Over time, I’ve designed my garden to be low maintenance but bring in year-round structure and interest via blooming periods from Memorial Day through Labor Day, since I’m back and forth from the Shore during the summer.
• What’s your design process like?
I start by meeting clients for a consultation, which is basically a 30-40 minute walk around their property. I then create a detailed outline of suggestions for each area of their yard. For DIYers, this might be enough to get them started, but most clients request landscape design services for one or more areas. It’s a very collaborative and conversational process, and I’m a strong believer that open communication yields the best results. During the bidding phase, I put the project out to bid to my list of trusted artisans and installers. I can then oversee the installation and help homeowners protect their investment by overseeing the maintenance of their new landscape.
• Your top gardening tip?
Put the right plants in the right places. When gardens are designed thoughtfully, you should love walking out your door and pulling up to your house no matter what time of year it is.
Thanks so much, Jen! Your gorgeous gardens have me dreaming of spring!