Gardens are never more beautiful than in midwinter when we dream of spring and entertain visions of glorious flowers to come. Now, no project seems too daunting. How about starting a brand-new garden? Or rehabbing an old one? If you are ready to take on either task, this brief “how to” will work for both.
Start with a plan. What size garden? Formal or “cottage”? Do you have a color scheme in mind? What types of plants and flowers do you hope to grow? Will they need sun or shade? Are you in the correct USDA zone for the plants you’d like to grow?
Site your garden well. Keep in mind that most flowers need at least six hours of sun a day. Choose a level area that drains well. And remember that bigger is not always better. Too much space or too many plants can be overwhelming. Start small. You can always expand later.
Work it out on paper. My big mistake in my Maryland garden was planting some shrubs and a climbing rose too close to the house foundation. I didn’t take into consideration how big the plants would be when they were mature.
So before you dig your first hole, refer to garden catalog descriptions or plant tags to see how tall and wide your plants will become. Draw a layout roughly to scale of where each one fits in your design.
Consider the “layers.” You’ll want tall varieties in the back, smaller perennials and annuals up front, and in-between growers in the middle.
Roll up your sleeves. If you are starting fresh and want to turn an area of lawn into a garden, you’ll first need to get rid of the grass. The most labor-intensive, but quickest, way is to dig it up in strips or pieces with a sharp spade. Other methods take more time or require the use of chemicals. Ask someone at your local garden center, perhaps.
See what plants you’ve inherited. If yours is an existing garden, see what’s doing well and what you like. After buying our house in North Carolina, we waited a year to see what plants were already in place before making any changes. In the end, we decided to remove just about everything except for a few daylilies we marked.
After yanking out the old stuff, we used a spading fork and turned over the top eight inches of soil, removing unwanted plants, roots, and rocks. I then took a soil sample to our local cooperative extension agent to get an analysis of our soil’s pH (acidity or alkalinity) and to see what nutrients we needed to add. This is important for every new (and previously untested) garden because soil quality varies and the dirt around houses is not usually flower-friendly. Amend the soil as recommended.
Plant, water, mulch, enjoy. Now comes the fun part, when the dream becomes a reality. Distribute new plants in the garden according to your plan, and check plant tags to see how wide and deep to dig the holes.
Once the plants are in the ground, water them well. Don’t let them dry out while they’re getting established.
Finally, lay down about two inches of mulch to deter weeds, and keep roots cool during hot weather. According to Dee Nash, author of “The 20-30 Something Garden Guide,” mulch is one of the secrets of a successful garden. “If you use natural mulches, they will degrade and decay, becoming part of your soil and making it better,” she says. She recommends shredded leaves (especially oak) and finely ground pine and cypress bark. Avoid larger chips that “take forever to decompose.”
Be patient. Unless you’ve purchased mature plants, your new garden will look a little sparse. In fact, it may take two or three years to achieve the look you want. Use annuals to fill in and add color in the meantime.
The most important thing to remember is that if the result isn’t perfect, you can always change it. Every great garden is a work in progress.