Tips for Planning a New Garden

February firmly settles us into the new year and is the ideal month for garden planning. The weather is too crummy in most parts of the country to work outside, and garden planning is a fun, hopeful indoor activity.

When referring to garden planning, I mean accomplishing more than listing a few flowers or vegetables to plant in the ground. A good garden plan takes a lot of thought about the layout of a garden, its soil, plants, care, and overall look. Hopefully, the end result will be a garden that gives lasting beauty and enjoyment.

Since this will be a beginner’s exercise, I’ll keep the steps straightforward. The only preliminary tip I will add is to remind gardeners to be realistic. Make sure you have enough money to complete the task and enough time to tend your new garden.

Steps to Planning a New Garden

A beautifully designed garden will provide lasting enjoyment for years!

Step 1- Choose your Garden

Decide what kind of garden you want. Are you interested in growing vegetables, cut flowers, a beautiful blooming perennial border, or a mixed bed with everything? Will your garden be in sun or shade? Will it contain containers paths or other elements? Choose what you like best. I generally like flower gardens filled with mixed annuals, perennials, and some flowering shrubs for broad interest.

Step 2 – Pick a Location

Simple, neatly edged garden beds around the home improve the landscape are are easy to design.

Determine where your garden will be located, and take note of all variables, such as soil type, light value, wind exposure, and water availability. Additionally, decide which direction you want the garden to face for maximum visual enjoyment. Knowledge of your yard will help you hone in on the right plants for the site.

When determining soil information, such as soil type or pH, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture maintains Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) regional or county offices. They can provide a wealth of local soil and agricultural information for the asking. You can also run some simple soil tests on your own. To test soil for soil acidity take ½ cup garden soil; add ½ cup of tap water followed by ½ cup baking soda. If the mixture fizzes, the soil is acidic (pH 6.0 or less). To test soil for alkalinity take a new 1/2 cup of soil, add ½ cup tap water followed by ½ cup vinegar. If the mixture fizzes, it is alkaline (pH 8 or more)

Step 3 -Select Plant Types

If you are not sure what to plant in a flower border in the first year, try adding lots of colorful, ever-blooming annuals.

Choose the types of plants you want for the garden style and their general location. Think of the color palette you want and the growing needs of the plants, such as light, soil, and water. Plant height must be determined for each choice. Typically the tallest plants (i.e., flowering shrubs and bold perennials) should be planted in the back of the bed, mid-size perennials will go in the center, and short annuals and bedding plants will be planted along the garden edges.

Assemble a list of plant species you are considering for your garden. If you don’t have many books on the subject, rely on quality online nurseries. Assure yourself that each species is in the correct USDA Hardiness Zone for your area (Click here to view the USDA Hardiness Zone Map). Also note individual plant requirements for soil moisture, pH, and sunlight. Final plant numbers can be calculated when you start drafting your garden.

Step 4 – Draft Your Garden

Draw up a draft plan for your garden. The draft is certainly the most complicated step and may be simple or elaborate, depending on your skill level. Make sure you have draft paper, tracing paper, a good mechanical pencil, a good eraser, and lots of patience.  Here are some ideas for making your layout easier to draw.

  • Gain an image of your yard and home plan from your city or county. Many municipalities offer them for download online.
  • Using the image of your home and yard as a basis, measure and lay out your home plan on graph paper at a scale where you can show bed locations. Add any existing walkways, large trees, shrubs, and beds on the plan. Be sure to note water spigots and areas of full sun, partial sun, and shade on your plan. Please use a pencil, or you will drive yourself nuts correcting mistakes.

Step 5 – Garden preparation is the next step. Start implementing your plan by marking out your garden on the ground. Some gardeners like to use a hose to lay out the garden lines. Inverted water-based marking spray paint is another option for drawing bed lines on the grass or soil.

With the plan in hand, lay out your garden. Mark the outer corners and boundaries of your garden with stakes. Mark the interior beds the same way. Now you can visually check the actual layout for problems.  Is there anything present that might present a problem?  Is any other yard use potentially compromised? Is any access or right-of-way blocked?  Any problems with setbacks or zoning restrictions?  Make any plan changes now while it is fresh in your mind.

Step 6 – Desod the ground and prepare the soil. The best time to prepare a new bed is in spring. Choose a day when it is dry and the soil is not wet. (Pick a ball of soil and squeeze. Poke the resulting ball with your finger. If it crumbles, the soil is dry enough to work. If it holds together, it is too wet to work.)

Remove obstacles from the area, and remove your sod. The grass is easier to remove when cut short. If your bed is relatively small, remove sod from bed areas by hand. I prefer cutting sod along the soil line using a sharp, flat, nursery spade, such as the all-steel model from King of Spades (The cost is high, but the spade lasts a lifetime.) If the bed is large, sod cutters can be rented from home improvement centers.

Till your soil, working in any amendments such as all-organic Black Gold Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss or Black Gold Garden Compost Blend, and smooth the soil with a hard rake. Work amendments into the soil. (Click here to read our full garden amendment guide and amendment application formula.)

Step 7 Plant, Mulch, and Tend

Make sure to note what you are going to plant in each bed and how many and the year they were planted. When planting a new garden, I suggest ensuring a beautiful bed by buying large, healthy plants for installation. Fuller, more robust plants have more stored energy and become better established faster. Plant according to the instructions for each planting and follow the plant care instructions conservatively. Ask your local garden center representative about the best fertilizers for your plants, and plan to water and weed your new beds regularly.

I advise you to save your garden plan and any notes you have for future reference. It will be handy as your garden grows and changes with the years. Then, once your garden has begun to flourish, enjoy!

Inspirational Classic English Gardens

Inspirational Classic English Gardens

I have always been in love with English gardens, from the informality of cottage gardens, filled with hollyhocks and climbing roses, to more formal gardens around estates and castles, with tidy clipped evergreen topiaries, tree allées, and flower borders.  In many of England’s most famous gardens you find a mix of both informal and formal garden styles. Some designs are attainable and inspire my own home plantings, while others are simply a joy to learn about and see.

Formal English Gardens of the Aristocracy

Both expansive and intimate garden spaces surround Windsor Castle in Berkshire County, UK.

Medieval English gardens (5th to the late 15th centuries) were often most focused on utility as well as beauty. Elizabethan gardens (16th to 17th centuries) adopted the geometric formality of other aristocratic gardens popularized across Europe. In the 18th century, Capability Brown (b. 1716, d. 1783), a lover of broad, sweeping, picturesque and pastoral landscapes, became (and still remains) England’s most famed and beloved landscape designer. Many of his landscapes and gardens still exist today and define the quintessential English landscape–molded and shaped so deftly that the natural beauty shines. The Victorian era (19th century) brought about a revival in formal gardening.

Take the ornate 19th century garden at Elvaston Castle (est. 1840s), just near Derby, England, which was created by the ambitious gardener, William Barron. It was famed for its elaborate and fanciful topiaries, which were used to create great scenes and surround beautiful gardens. (Topiary is the trimming of evergreens into shapes, such as boxes, obelisks, tiered spheres, or even animal shapes.) The garden was filled with all manner of geometric gardens.

The 19th century Elvaston Castle gardens were filled with topiaries and ornate gardens. (Painting by E. Adveno Brooke)

Elements from all garden eras are still found in grand old English gardens today, many surrounding the homes of aristocrats. Carefully clipped, formal hedges edge long drives up to the house and frame big expanses of lawn as well as pleasing gardens between. A prime example are the grounds of Windsor Castle (established by William the Conqueror in 1070), the favorite castle of Queen Elizabeth II. The east terrace garden, which recently was opened to the public, contains expansive geometric gardens with fans of fragrant roses and other prized flowers, large pools, and cooling fountains. Formal allées of trees and shrubs add to the splendor of the property.

In the eighteenth century, Capability Brown softened the formal English landscapes of aristocrats with grand open spaces and pastoral plantings. (Image at Stowe National Trust)

In addition to the grand gardens of the aristocrats, there was always a kitchen garden somewhere on the estate and often an orchard. Those who worked for the Lords and Ladies were the ones who initially had the cottage gardens.

My Favorite English Gardeners of the 20th Century

English gardens tend to be flower-filled and rambling yet well-tended and beautiful.

Nostalgia for the beauty of England’s old gardens helped shape newer English garden styles of the 20th century, which most inspire me. Two famous English gardeners (and garden writers) with smaller houses on much smaller estates, have helped me the most in my garden design.  These men were John Beverley Nichols (1898 – 1983), and Christopher Lloyd (1921 – 2006) of Great Dixter.

Christopher Lloyd

Christopher Lloyd (Image care of the Great Dixter Charitable Trust)

Great Dixter is one of the most famous gardens in England, and the estate is only 4 acres.  It was owned by Christopher Lloyd who inherited the property from his family.  Since his passing 15 years ago, the historic gardens have been maintained and nurtured by horticulturist Fergus Garrett. The house has three parts: the oldest from the early 1500s, the second from the 1850s, and the last  from 1912. The latter two have been restored to look like the original.

Brilliant floral color combinations were the fame of Christopher Lloyd.

Lloyd’s garden philosophy was, “if you like it, do it.” He often chose wild combinations of flowers with contrasting textures and colors. His bold plantings became world-renowned for their sensational looks. For example, in one spring garden he had a mix of purple and red tulips, colors not usually grown together.  (Try reading his inspirational book, Color for Adventurous Gardeners (2001)). Lloyd divided Great Dixter into 15 different gardens including topiary, exotic, sunken, meadow, peacock, and the ‘essential water garden.’  A long flower garden runs across front of the house.  The beds are filled with flowers, shrubs, roses, ivies, topiary, and ornamental grasses, all mixed up, to make fabulous, and unusual displays.  Great Dixter is open to the public and visited by thousands of people every year.  His many books on gardening have excellent advice and fantastic photos.

Beverley Nichols

Down the Garden Path is the garden book that Nichols is best known for writing.

The other English garden addict that has inspired me and my gardening is (John) Beverly Nichols.  He started out writing murder mysteries in the 1920s, but in 1932 he wrote his first garden book, Down the Garden Path. It became an instant best seller. My favorites, and his most famous books, are a trilogy that include Merry Hall, Laughter on the Stairs, and Sunlight on the Lawn. The uplifting books mix reality (there really is a Merry Hall, and the gardens mentioned were real) with fiction and humor.

Nichol’s property was only 5 acres. After he got rid of all the existing plants, except for very old trees, he filled it with his own gardens. He put a grove of trees in one corner and flowerbeds all around.  His love of snowdrops were evident in the early spring beds he created, and many others show his artistic pairing of roses, shrubs, trees, and flowers. He also had what he called his ‘essential water garden.’  Beverly loved garden art–classic pillars, urns, cherubs, and statuary–which he would buy like an addict, whether he could afford it or not. His purchases were made in stealth; he would sneak away from his butler, who handled the money, in order to buy them. Despite any minor garden-art transgressions, his gardening advice has been invaluable to me.

Creating Your Own English Garden

Rambling plantings of daylilies and other flowers are among my favorites. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Following the advice of these English gardeners, I have very full gardens, some created in the English cottage style. My favorite garden flowers are daylilies, lilacs, roses, hostas, and rambling clematis vines. Many new annuals add yearly color to my beds and containers.

Following Christopher Lloyd’s advice, my trees, flowers, and shrubs are mixed together in unique arrangements that please me. I have one garden with many different hostas, rhododendrons, and smooth hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’), all under a tri-color beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Roseomarginata’); another bed contains a variegated lilac with lots of the dainty ‘Freckles’ violets that bloom in the spring; another has two large, arching beauty bushes (Kolkwitzia amabilis), with their small, pink, trumpet flowers etched in light orange, surrounded by colorful coneflowers, bearded iris, and bee balm in front of my ‘essential water garden.’ All of these beds are fortified yearly with quality compost, such as Black Gold Garden Compost Blend, to keep my gardens fertile and performing at their best.

The English made the everyday cottage garden something for beauty and enjoyment. I hope learning a little about old and new English gardens encourages you to read more, experiment in your garden, and follow your own garden path, wherever it leads you.