Where is the garden going to be? Study your yard. Is it sunny, shady, both? It’s important to know the conditions in your yard so you can choose plants that will like your environment. Here’s a quick guide for the U.S. about when to plant.
Spend some time getting to know the plants you might want to grow. Buy some magazines, cut out pictures of gardens that you like or you think would look good in your chosen spot. Look at the combinations of plants in the pictures. Magazine pictures are gorgeous and I love looking at them, but I doubt my gardens will ever look that perfect. That’s not the point. I garden because it gives me pleasure and my accomplishments are for me. Every little thing I learn or every plant that thrives for me gives me pleasure and that’s what it’s all about.
That doesn’t stop me though from studying professional publications. My mother always used to tell me that if I learned one new thing from something and was able to apply it then the course was valuable or the magazine was worth buying etc. It’s a good philosophy and one that I’ve made my own over the years.
Do you have color preferences? Flower catalogs are great for getting just the perfect color as they usually can show you many varieties for starting a garden. I think the best gardens though are always a surprise. Even if you’ve researched your colors carefully, a flower may not bloom exactly the same in your garden. There are a lot of factors such as sun, rain, temperature, etc. that you can’t control. Enjoy whatever your garden produces and revel in the fact that you grew it.
What’s the condition of your soil? It makes sense doesn’t it that the better your soil, the better your plants will grow. Most plants like a loose, dark brown soil called loam and that might not be what is in your yard. You can easily amend your soil though to improve it before you put your plants in. Adding organic material like mulch or aged manure will improve both heavy clay soil and sandy dry soil. It makes the clay soil less dense so it will drain better and it makes sandy soil moister; so it will hold more water.
Even in an established garden, it is a good idea to add some kind of organic matter at least once a year. I like to add manure in the spring. I try to dig it in around the emerging crowns of my perennials before they get too big. Then I add a layer of mulch. Which not only fertilizes my plants, it provides a way to keep unwanted weeds out of my garden. In autumn, I like to dig in some of the fall leaves that cover my gardens.
If possible it’s a good idea to send a sample of your soil to your county extension office (usually at no cost or perhaps minimally expensive). They will analyze it for you and tell you what you need to add to it to make it a better environment for your garden. In general, plants desire a slightly acidic soil (a pH of 6-7). If your numbers are high you would add ground limestone to lower the pH, and if it was low you’d add a wettable ground sulfur to make it more neutral.
If I could only give you one piece of advice about starting a new garden, I’d tell you to start small. It is easy to extend your garden in year two or three but to be truly successful start with something small and simple. It is far easier (and cheaper) to dig up and or amend a small garden. Then gradually add new sections to your garden if you want it larger.
Laying out your Garden Space
So now it’s time to actually dig up space for your garden. A lot of people like to grab the rotary tiller and just plow things under, but that’s really not the best way. You will have a lot fewer weeds if you remove the sod completely instead of chopping it up and burying it. Buried clumps of grass will eventually grow right back.
Once you have a sort of area cleared you should lay out a rope or garden hose in the shape you want to create, and again keep it simple. Do the rest of the sod removal the hard way-by hand with a shovel. When the sod is completely removed you can use your rotary tiller to break down the soil better and then amend it. The more peat, compost or manure you can add the better. Remember the plants you grow are only as good as the soil they’re planted in.
Laying a Path
Now lay a path or two through your garden. The paths are considered hardscaping. It’s what remains of your garden when the plants die back. Paths can be created with stepping stones, bricks, or mulch or pea gravel, but whatever you use, use something that pleases you and matches your vision of your established garden.
I don’t have acres and acres of land to devote to a garden so when I first made the garden in my back yard I wasn’t sure I wanted or needed a path. My thinking was that every inch of acreage should be used for plants.
Since my garden was quite small, I thought I’d be able to reach everything from the borders and I didn’t want to waste any of my precious space on a path, but 10 years later I am so glad I had the foresight to do that. Plants do not stay the neat little size they are when you get them. Now that my garden is mature, it’s tall, and without my paths, I wouldn’t be able to reach anything.
A good rule of thumb is if your garden is much more than four feet wide, you should have a path so that you can reach everything from all sides. If the garden backs up to a wall or a fence leave a path between it and the garden so you can get back there, too.
Placing your Plants
Finally, it’s time to add your plants. Even if your goal is to have a perennial garden that is in bloom all season, you want some instant color so buy some delightful little annuals that will not disappoint you and will bloom continuously all season. Annuals come as seeds or in six-packs or flats. Buy a few dependable easy to grow perennials and let them settle in and mature while your annuals are stealing the show.
Perennials usually come in one or two-quart sized containers. They actually can also arrive bare root if you order them from a catalog or in very small pint sized containers. If you are putting in a very small plant be patient because it probably will not flower the first year. The bigger the container the older(and more expensive) the plant and some perennials do not flower until their second season.
To remove your plant from its container tip it upside down and gently shake the pot it so that the plant drops out and into your hand. If this doesn’t work, and it might not check to see how dry your plant is. Sometimes watering it will help to loosen it from the sides of its container so that it falls out easier.
If it is root bound, meaning that the roots have circled the pot and started growing out the drainage hole. You might have a little more difficulty removing it. Usually, if you take the plant by its crown and gently pull as you tip and shake you can encourage your plant to slip out of the pot.
Try to tease the roots out of their cramped shape with your fingers and spread them out into the hole you have prepared. Replace the soil around it, watering once when you’re half-finished and once again when you’re done. Tamp the soil down and make sure your plant is buried no deeper than the original crown.
Newly planted plants need to be watered rather frequently at first. So keep a close eye on your plants. Try not to let them wilt as this puts more stress on your plants, but if it does at first. Don’t panic. Chances are watering it well for a couple of days will help it to adjust to your garden and it will perk up. Once established your garden will pretty much take care of itself and you shouldn’t have to water very frequently at all.
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When you order plants from catalogs they will usually come bare root. They are shipped when it’s time to plant them and they should be planted as soon as possible. If it’s not possible to plant them immediately, you must keep them moist and preferably in a dark place until you are able to plant them.
When I was first starting my garden, I didn’t always have a lot of money so I got a lot of my plants as clearance plants or from neighbors and they weren’t always in the best of shape when I got them. With a little tender loving care, I could usually salvage them. If you are organized you’ll know the probable height of your mature plants. Try to put the taller ones in the back. However, if something grows rapidly or seems to overpower its neighbors don’t be afraid to dig things up and put them in better locations.
I change the placement of some of my plants every year. That is part of the charm of a garden. It’s never finished. Every year it will look different. So if something needs dividing or you don’t like where it is, take notes. Next season move it. You are the designer and whatever you decide to have to work for you.
When you have finished placing and planting your garden, it’s time for mulch. Mulch serves many purposes. It helps to your garden to retain moisture so you don’t have to water so often. It enriches the soil as it decays and it helps to keep the weeds at bay. As your plants mature, they’ll take up more space and your weed problem will lessen; however, even so, I like to apply a fresh layer of mulch every spring. I have to apply it by hand because my garden has actually become quite crowded; nevertheless, in the spring when things are small it’s fairly easy to do.
Now that your garden is planted, the hardest work is over and maintenance will be a lot less labor intensive. That isn’t to say that it will be totally maintenance free though because it won’t. Every few years many perennials need dividing to maintain vigor, and there will always be something that needs some attention. It could be deadheading a plant to encourage a second bloom or taking a tall, lanky plant or just plain wedding. That’s the joy of it though.
I think that gardening is a place to make use of your natural sense of creativity. Below are planted stakes in a teepee shape to help support and contain rangy plants. It’s attractive, useful, and adds charm to a cottage garden.