Experts Rebecca Brown and Norman Cohen come to the aid of a gardening neophyte.

At a stage of life when many people relocate to condominiums and townhouses — where yardwork and community beautification are handled by others — I made the arguably crazy decision last summer to purchase a 90-year-old cottage with an overgrown garden.

Up until then, my gardening experience was limited to once-a-year trips to Home Depot, where I purchased hanging baskets and pots full of annuals I perceived were the hardest to kill.

Yet hope springs eternal. I was excited to pick up a new hobby and looked forward to creating my own little outdoor paradise.

But where to begin?

I decided to turn to Jmore’s own master gardeners, Rebecca Brown and Norman Cohen, who graciously agreed to visit my property and provide some much-needed advice.

A quick walk around my quarter-acre reaped plenty of information. Brown and Cohen identified a variety of trees, shrubs and plants including: Norway maples, boxwoods, photinia, euonymus, azalea, rhododendron, forsythia, Pieris japonica, aucuba and a Leyland cypress.

Norman Cohen

Norman Cohen, a Baltimore County master gardener, offers some home gardening tips. (Photo by Steve Ruark)

They advised removing the forsythia, the climbing ivy and the Leyland cypress that was crowding out the maple; suggested I trellis the climbing clematis vine along the back of my fireplace; and add ground cover, bulbs or perennials next to my driveway.

Since my home sits atop a little hill, they urged me to consider removing the grass on the hill and replace it with plants. This would make lawn mowing easier while also adding some curb appeal.

Despite all of the work that needed to be done, Brown and Cohen were optimistic about my garden’s potential. “There’s a lot of sun,” they exclaimed, “so a lot of things will grow well here!”

Norman Cohen, Simone Ellin, Rebecca Brown

Norman Cohen, left, and Rebecca Brown, right, advise Simone Ellin in her Towson garden. (Photo by Steve Ruark)

In addition to suggestions that were specific to my property, the gardeners also recommended the following steps that can be used by any novice gardener creating a long-term gardening plan.

Step 1: If available, consult a land survey of your property. Sometimes this is provided when you purchase your home. Otherwise, you may need to order one. A land survey is similar to a map that outlines your property’s dimensions, elevation and boundaries. This is helpful in the event that you choose to put up a fence or build a swimming pool or shed.

Step 2: Conduct two soil tests — one for the existing garden beds and one for the lawn areas. For tips on how to do so, visit

Step 3: Use tracing paper on top of your land survey and create a sketch showing the locations of existing plants, trees, shrubs, patio, built-in garden boxes and other structures.

Step 4: Study sun and wind patterns at different times of the day and year. This will help you to determine which plants, shrubs and trees will thrive best in which locations.

Step 5: Have patience. Devise a master plan but set manageable goals for your first year. Be honest about your time, energy and budget.

Consider making two lists — one list of musts, and another list of wishes. If you’re like me, you can’t afford and/or don’t have the time to do everything at once. You’ll need to prioritize.

For example, maybe it’s essential to remove ivy that’s weakening the structure of your home, repair wooden garden boxes leaking into the home’s foundation or transplant overgrown ground coverings. Once those things are handled, perhaps there’s time and money to consider an item or two from your wish list, such as adding a birdbath or a pollinator garden.

Creating a lovely landscape is all about developing a plan and enjoying the landscaping process.

Happy gardening!