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Garden Design, Part One: Designing a "From Scratch" Garden

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I typically design two types of gardens—gardens “from scratch” and renovations of existing gardens. I’d like to share with you some basic design principles that you can employ for either type of garden, to help you with your planning and minimize errors.

First up—the “from scratch” garden.

So where do you begin?

Know your site—a south-facing bed will receive many more hours of sunlight than a bed that faces north. This will impact the types of plants you select. Looking at your garden-to-be now? If you live in a cold-winter zone like I do, there are no leaves on the trees. But come summer that sunny spot may turn into one that is cloaked in shade. Spend some time observing your site to understand its light conditions over several seasons. This will reduce the chances of installing a plant in the wrong place.

Mix it up—even in the smallest gardens I employ a variety of plant types. The result is a garden that offers interest in every season and does not become a forlorn patch of dirt come winter. Ideally you want a mix of the following:

Evergreen shrubs—make sure to have a least a few of these. They provide structure, a neutral backdrop for the rest of your plants, and color year-round.

Flowering shrubs—typically spring-blooming, they provide a burst of color early in the season. If you have the room, try to plant a variety of shrubs that bloom in different months (some as early as February). Even better? Select shrubs with pretty fall foliage, colorful or unusual stems and bark, or winter berries.

Ornamental grasses—a must-have in any garden. They offer stature and structure like a shrub, but are soft, swaying in even the lightest breeze. They change color in every season and look especially striking after a snow fall. They are virtually maintenance-free and reliably deer-resistant. And they come in a range in heights, from six feet to over seven feet tall.

Perennials—the show-offs in the garden. Again, you want to go for a mix of plants that will result in flowering in almost every season. And, like shrubs, go for features beyond the bloom. Unusual seed heads and striking foliage add interest long after the plant finishes blooming.

Okay, so now you know what to plant—what else should you keep in mind?

Maintenance—do your homework. If a plant needs a lot of staking, deadheading, etc., to keep it looking good, know this in advance. If you love the idea of constant puttering in the garden, then go for it. Otherwise, pass it by.

Think in multiples—better to have fewer varieties of plants, but several of each. This will result in the most impact, even in a small garden. Try to plant perennials in groups of 3 or more, so that whatever is in bloom really makes a statement.

Don’t fall for a pretty face - photos in books and on-line can be so enticing. You then wind up purchasing a particular plant, only to wonder why it looks nothing like its picture. How to avoid? Go to your local nursery and actually look at the plant—as it’s growing—in your zone. This will give you a precise indication of how it will perform once you get it home. Straggly? Covered with mildew? Lots of staking to keep it upright? Pass.

Plan now for good soil and irrigation - all plants—whether a $10 shrub from the home improvement center or a $100 specimen from that mail-order nursery—are only as good as the ground they are planted in. Properly amended soil, topped with a good organic mulch and paired with the appropriate irrigation system, will provide your plants with a happy home and a great chance for survival.

Plan for access—whether you are cutting flowers to bring indoors, staking plants or pruning shrubs, you need clear and safe access to all of the plants in your garden. Excessive stepping around in the garden is something to avoid—aside from the obvious risk of crushing plants, repeatedly stepping on the soil leads to compaction, rendering the soil unworkable. If you cannot easily reach all of the plants in your garden, lay stepping stones where needed—they will evenly distribute body weight (better for the soil) and provide a safe, clear path (better for you).

In my next post I’ll share some tips on how to design for an existing garden—and, as always, I’m happy to answer all of your gardening questions here!


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