Planning a Garden
A beautiful garden can be a welcome addition to any home. Besides providing curb appeal and visual charm, a garden can give you satisfaction, a worthwhile hobby– even lunch! It does take maintenance, however. Before you embark on any gardening project, there is a certain amount of planning involved. Then, once you have finished your preparing and planting, you will have to stick to a weekly schedule of pruning, watering, and weeding to keep your plants lush. However, as long as you know what you are getting into and do your research well ahead of time, it should be a manageable and enjoyable task.
Before starting a garden, the aspiring green-thumb must ask themselves ten questions about the project, the area, and their own goals. Once these are answered, you can head to your local nursery to get materials and get started!
1. What type of garden do I want? Are you looking to grow your own herbs and vegetables? Will this be a significant source of produce for you, or just decor? Decide whether you want to grow food, flowers, or both.
2. What kind of look do I want? Take a walk around your neighborhood and get a feel for which homes have landscaping that inspires you. Are you drawn to the wild, uneven, or almost overgrown look? Do you like the orderly lines of trimmed hedges and pruned rose bushes? Will you build a raised garden for your vegetables, or plant them in rows in a patch?
3. What are my soil conditions? Soil can be chalky, dry, clay-like, rich, acidic — much more complicated than you would expect from a handful of dirt. If you are not comfortable analyzing it yourself, shovel up a few scoops and go by a nursery or garden store near you. Their experts will probably be able to tell you about your soil, and which plants will be happiest growing in it.
4. What kind of sunlight will I have? The three main categories are direct sunlight, partial sunlight, and shade. The amount your garden receives is determined by the hours of sun a day. Anything under four is considered shaded, while anything over eight is quite sunny. Some plants are hardy enough to make it with very little sunlight, in fact, certain flowers cannot handle burning sun for too long. By understanding your light conditions, you lessen the risk of drying out your plants.
5. Am I building or starting from scratch? Maybe you bought a house with untrimmed hedges, weeds that have spread out of control, and a smattering of perennial flowers. A little love and care can give you a good start on a fresh garden without ever having to go to the store (except for gloves and trimmers of course.) On the other hand, if you hate what your yard looks like now, or if you have dry soil or a rock garden, you will most likely need a lot more supplies to get to a presentable state. Which brings us to our next question…
6. How much money can I spend on this project? If you’re planning to take on gardening as a serious hobby, you can buy exotic flowers, an array of peppers and leafy vegetables, potting soil, fertilizer, soil aerators — the whole works. Struggling college students or new homeowners may feel more comfortable starting with a window box or a small herb garden. You can invest very little money and still have a lovely patch of land to come home to.
7. How much time can I invest in my garden? All the money in the world will not make a bit of difference if you do not have time after work to water your flowers. Can you prune and maintain a rose bush? Or should you start with some hearty petunias or ivy and see how it goes?
8. How big is my ideal garden? When shopping for plants, you will want to have a good idea of how much space in square feet you plan to plant in. Many flowers have a note on the tag indicating a quick or slow growth rate. This should help you gauge the amount needed to fill an area. Vegetables will often have a similar reference guide, letting you know how much space each plant requires. You do not want to over-crowd, but you also want to make sure you are not left with huge empty patches of dirt between sparse flowers.
9. What are my most significant challenges? Whether you consult a gardening book, a magazine, or an expert in your neighborhood, you should be aware of problems that could arise. Do you have a beloved pet that has digging issues? Are any of your current plants sick? Though it seems strange to think of plants as contagious, a single orange tree suffering from greening could infect new plants of many varieties and waste your investment.
10. What is my primary goal? Overall, what do you hope to achieve by starting this garden? Many new gardeners are looking for a hobby to keep them occupied. Others, overwhelmed by their busy lives, are hoping to create a sanctuary where they can become lost in the simple pleasures of watering and weeding a few times a week. Are you trying to live “greener” by making some of your own food? Could you eventually see yourself sharing the fruits of your labor with friends and family, or even selling flowers or veggies at a local farmers market? Having a clear concept in mind keeps you from getting overly ambitious, and gives you a concrete goal to work toward as you begin to work. Once you have mapped out your plan and jotted down simple answers to these ten questions, all that remains is preparing your space, shopping, and maintaining your new garden throughout the year.
Before you go to the store, get your yard ready for the garden. Cut the grass, and use a turf-builder or fertilizer to make sure it is coming in thick and healthy. Blow or rake leaves to let sunlight and moisture get to the soil. Clear the garden area of rocks and twigs, and if necessary do some watering. If you are not quite ready to invest in a built-in sprinkler system for your home, twenty dollars or so will get you a hose and an oscillating sprayer. Plan to spend at least one week getting to a base level of health in your lawn, depending on if you need to include more complex preparations like aerating or weed killing.
Once you have done the research and the legwork, it’s time to hit the stores. You can shop at a local nursery or a big box store like Walmart or Home Depot. Bear in mind, though, that small, family-owned businesses are more likely to take the time to personally help you to plan your garden. As an added bonus, they may be familiar enough with the soil and climate conditions in the area that they can help you address any of your unanswered questions at this point. Consider how important these issues are to you in comparison with price and selection, and the ability to get a wide variety of supplies at one place.
You’ll almost certainly need to get a bag of potting soil or fertilizer. Read the back of the bag carefully; your knowledge about the size of your garden and conditions of the space tell you all you need to know when choosing. Next, select your plants. For flower gardens, you’ll want to consider aesthetics and life cycles in addition to the factors we’ve addressed so far. Choose flowers you find beautiful. A variety of heights, shapes, and colors makes for a more visually striking garden. Play around with non-traditional flowers and more common varieties, such as posies, sunflowers, or impatients. Think about how often you will want to replant.
For vegetable gardens, think about the produce that often makes it onto your grocery list. Then consider your skill level. For rookies, a tomato or pepper plant can be very forgiving. It produces fruit often and can handle a little bit of neglect or accidental ill use. Rosemary and basil are good starter herbs; they can even be grown in a kitchen window or patio in pots, then planted outside once they are a little stronger. Once you feel comfortable, expand into cabbage, spinach, or berries. Ask the employees at the nursery which plants do best in your area, and during which seasons they should ideally be planted.
Once you have your plants, soil, and fertilizer, make sure you have a watering can, gloves, and any supplemental supplies suggested by your guides. Many gardeners swear by glass watering bulbs that control the flow of water to potted plants. It is a great way to prevent over-watering new plants, not to mention getting a feel for the amount of water each plant will need.
You did it! You’ve plotted your plot, dug in the dirt, and your new garden is looking just the way you want. To keep it thriving, it’s important to constantly consider the soil, moisture levels, sunlight, and weed control. The soil should take care of itself, but some plants can be a little taxing on dry earth, so be prepared to fertilize up to once every couple of months. You can do this naturally with a compost pile, or pick up a large bag of commercial fertilizer to keep on hand. Moisture is a huge factor in the growth and health of plants. Plan to water twice a week (maybe when you take out the trash). Window boxes and hanging pots have slots at the bottom which make it almost impossible to use too much water, but once plants are in the ground you want to avoid drowning them. Check the soil with a pinky finger and adjust based on weather conditions. You may not need to water for a while after a heavy storm, but flowers surviving a drought will need near daily watering. Sunlight conditions are unlikely to change, but do a check on overhanging branches every three months. You may need to trim back. For some low-lying plants a thin layer of fallen leaves can actually serve as a natural fertilizer and shield from the elements, for others it can mean almost instant death. Keep things clean accordingly. Finally, every gardener must contend with weeds. They can quickly choke out a garden and tarnish a beautiful landscape. Like fleas on a dog, you can opt for a scheduled chemical blast or try to keep up by hand. Weekly pulling up of rogue weeds can work just fine, as long as you pull up the whole root and the problem does not become overwhelming. Once weekly is also a good schedule for pruning bushes and hedges; you will not believe the benefits of a simple trim. Start with dead branches or overlong stems, and use clippers to make a clean cut. Within days you should see new green sprouts coming from the dry brown wood you cut. By continuing to prune, you can grow a rose bush or holly hedge exponentially into a flourishing plant.
Garden planning is hard work, and the process is unique for each person and area. Take into consideration the environment you will be gardening in and remember, the beauty of a garden is that nothing is permanent. If a flower simply fails where it is planted, you have the opportunity of choosing a new one and learning from your mistakes. Often your garden will take on a life of its own and bless you with unique surprises. Be prepared to slowly expand your garden as you become more comfortable, eventually including plants you would never have dreamed of cultivating– you may never have even heard of them before you embarked on this journey! Above all, take your time and enjoy the process.