July 13, 2012

How to plan a garden (the lazy way)

This is not a post on the correct way to plan a garden, but rather a documentation of the method that works for me.  I do believe that some prep time makes a big difference.  If you just go to the garden center and get whatever is on sale (or whatever looks pretty), you may not be happy with the results long-term.  However, I'm not realistically going to measure my lot, draw to-scale renderings of the proposed beds, test the soil's pH levels, and all of those other things that you are supposed to do before enthusiastically pulling that rusty shovel out of the back of your garage.

I've tried to maintain the beds in the front of our house since we moved in, but our backyard was looking pretty bleak.  Here's the process I used to try to spruce it up a bit this year (warning, it's a long post, so stay tuned for "before" and "after" photos coming soon!).

Step 1: Face reality
Here is a "before" picture of the area I wanted to redo.  I find that taking pictures helps, mostly because it shows me just how bad things really are, thus giving me motivation to follow through and complete the project, and as a reference point for later so I can really see my hard work.  Pictures also show you what is working and what is not.  In this case, the deck gradually faded so that we didn't think it was all that bad, but taking a photo showed how badly it needed to be restained.

Another critical thing to do at this point is answer some questions: Is this area wet or dry?  Big or small?  Sunny or shady?  Equally important are the questions whose answers will vary more depending on your personality: How much upkeep am I willing to do?  Do I want this garden to look formal or more natural?  Are there any colors or plants that I really love (or hate)?  How much money can I spend on this project?  Do I want to finish the project this year, or do I want to keep expanding it in stages each year?  Knowing what you want and what is required by the setting will make choosing plants and a layout much easier.

Take, for example, these viburnum I planted.  The one on the left got planted (correctly) in a sunny location, and the one on the right dwells primarily in shade all day.  It's hard to tell from these pictures, but the one planted in the sunny location is double the size of the plant in a less desirable site.  So while you can compromise a little with the soil or light requirements of the plant, it's best not to stray too much from what the plant prefers.

Step 2: Gather inspiration

Nursery centers are great places to get ideas for plant and color combinations.  Here, I was able to see how the hydrangeas looked in front of a Japanese maple, a plant pairing that I was already thinking of using.  I also like how the maple is espaliered and planted in a container.

Visit public gardens or botanical centers for more ideas.  Many times the plants are labeled, or you can find helpful experts who can give you more information on certain plants or gardening techniques.

 I took this picture at our local Menard's because I liked the hydrangea beside the gray color of the fountain.  This is a really elegant fountain too, that is, if you're not into fountains that spray water from concrete cowboy boots and owls and miniature children holding umbrellas and such.

A lot of times I take pictures of color combinations that I like: in this container, it's the pink/blue/purple/gray combo that I like more than the actual plants themselves.  I'm always stopping to take pictures of colors and plants I like--at museums, malls, along streets, or even when driving through other neighborhoods.

I also find gardening books very helpful.  I own a few, but mostly I check them out from the library to get some ideas.  I'm not looking for a landscape that I can copy exactly, but I am reading to get a sense of what I like and what I don't like.  One tip: if you're looking in your local library, keep in mind that the gardening books are housed separately from the landscaping design books, so look for both (the gardening section has more specific information on types of plants--everything you would ever want to know about trees, or deciduous shrubs, or roses, for example--while the books in the landscape design section have better pictures of the whole garden and how paths, edging, patios, and beds play into the overall design).

Online sources are great too.  There are many great gardening blogs out there, or you can try looking at Better Homes and Gardens' set of free garden design templates to see if any of their plans would be appropriate for your yard.

Step 3: Make a general plan
I have tried a lot of techniques for mapping out my plans.  Sometimes I draw them on paper; other times, I take a picture on my phone and then import it into a drawing program and sketch in the bed digitally.  I have spray painted the edges of the beds directly onto the grass too.  For this bed, I used a hose to mark the edge of the bed and then used tennis balls to show where plants might go.  (This particular technique kind of drove the dog crazy...all those tennis balls were so tempting!)  As silly as it looked, it worked well because I then took a tape measure outside to see what a 4' x 5' foot shrub would really look like.  If it seemed too crowded, I just moved the tennis balls further apart until I could get a good feel of the spacing.  My tendency is to plant everything too close together, so this helped me visualize how big all the shrubs would be at maturity and plan accordingly.

Step 4: Start shopping (but don't buy anything yet)

I usually start by shopping around at a variety of places -- local nursery centers, big box stores, hardware stores -- just to see what plants are available and at what price.  I take a lot of pictures of the plants and the price tags since I find it much easier to snap a picture with my phone than have to write down the information.

 Also take any photos of other material you may need: mulch, hardscaping, furniture, lights, planters, fountains, arbors, edging, etc.

James comes along on a lot of these scouting trips.  Generally, he likes shopping for plants since there are always little frogs to be found, rogue sticks that can be brought home, and gravel to kick around.  He has strong opinions on plants, though, and is very partial to red flowers (too bad, because I don't like red flowers, so we've had a few red vs. pink showdowns!).  Here, he's trying to entice me to buy this orangey-red honeysuckle.

I usually try to snap photos of the front and back of the identification cards on the plants, so I don't have to remember which shrub grows to be six feet wide, which likes part sun, etc.
 After I have looked at all the options and determined who has the healthiest looking plants, which ones fit into my budget for the project, etc., I get online and start researching to learn more about the plant's appearance at maturity; its soil, sun, moisture requirements; and suggested plant pairings.

  I also really like to look at the Google Image search; this is an easy way to see plants in various stages of growth and to check how other people have used them in their gardens.

Step 5: Build your garden

Once you've purchased your plants, try to get them in the ground as soon as possible.  Follow the planting instructions on the tag, but you also may want to double check your online resources to see if you should add specific soil amendments or plant using a special technique.  I am not very good about amending the soil.  My dad was laughing because I bought one bag of topsoil to plant eight shrubs...not the best approach!  But I do try to at least loosen up the root ball, break up the surrounding soil, mulch thickly, and keep the plants really, really well watered for the first season.  If they can't tough it out with that level of care, they probably aren't a good fit for my yard!  :)


My mother-in-law suggested using newspaper to help create beds, and I used that approach with our new backyard bed (shown above in various stages).  In the past, I have dug out the sod to make a bed, and it was extremely tedious, difficult work (especially for a large bed), so this time around we mowed the grass very low, then laid out double-thick sheets of newspaper and topped the paper with a thick layer of mulch.  We dug out the grass around all the new plants, but for the space in between, we relied on the newspaper to kill the grass.  You may need to go back and do some spot treating (with Roundup) to get any grass that manages to survive the newspaper/mulch combo.

Step 6: Document your garden

After all that hard work, you want to ensure that your plants thrive in their new home.  I keep the plant identification tags and tape them into a little notebook my grandma gave me.  I also jot down any helpful information I found online: this plant blooms only on new wood, prune in the spring, deadhead flowers to increase blooms in the summer, fertilize once in the spring, don't overwater, etc. because I know I won't remember without writing it down.

Enjoy your new space!


Sarah said...

Looks amazing! I am with J, I live red flowers. I hope this means your toes are doing better.

Kara K said...

I'll have to have you and my mom come over and plan out my landscaping. Just this weekend she told me that she's going to come back in the spring to pull out my rose bushes in front and plant day lilies instead. The only plant I ever ask if I can have are hydrageas. My mom then points out that my north and south sides of my house aren't suitable and that the only good places would be the east and it would be too much sun. Unfortunately unless I can eat it, I don't have too much interest in growing it. Which is probably why my vegetable garden gets more attention than the rest of the yard combined!

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