There are few things more daunting than starting a garden from scratch. Whether you’ve just moved into a newly constructed home with a few basic plantings, or you want to refresh your garden by starting over, or you’ve inherited an older house with a lawn but no landscaping, these four basic steps will help you through the process:
1. Define the purpose. Imagine that you’re moving into a home without any interior walls. One of the first things you’d do is decide where to put your furniture and appliances, such as the bed, sofa, and stove. Placing these items throughout the house would help you identify a purpose for each area. Then, by adding walls between those spaces, you could clearly define rooms for sleeping, relaxing, or cooking.
In the same way, you can transform the open, undefined space in your yard into “rooms” that match your lifestyle and interests. Think about how you’ll want to use your yard. Do you need a patio big enough for two people, or would you like to entertain larger groups outdoors? Do you need a stretch of open lawn where children and pets can play? Is it important to you to have a quiet sanctuary somewhere in the garden where you can relax and read?
There are several advantages to starting this way rather than immediately running out and buying plants you like. It creates more manageable-sized spaces, it expands your home’s living area, and it helps unify your home and garden. And when it comes to buying plants and art for these rooms, you’ll find it easier to choose items based on the setting’s function and color theme.
2. Evaluate potential problems. As you consider creating garden rooms in your yard, think about modifications that will make each area match its purpose. The best time to address these issues is before you start planting. For example, perhaps you long for a cozy place to put up your feet and relax, but your yard borders a busy street. A fast-growing hedge and a bubbling water feature can provide privacy and a soothing sound to mask the noise. In other areas, you may need shade for a dining area, a screen to block an unsightly view, plants that provide protection from the wind, or tile to drain a wet area.
When starting a new garden, one of the best investments of your time and money is soil preparation. This is particularly important if you live in a newly constructed home surrounded by soil that’s been disturbed and compacted by construction equipment. Plants can survive in bad soil, but they won’t flourish. Before planting anything, till lots of organic matter into garden beds. A soil test from your local cooperative extension service—or a commercial soil test—will tell you whether your soil lacks any essential nutrients.
3. Create a plan. When you know the purpose of each garden room and what modifications to make, you’re ready to outline the boundaries of each area. Some people find it helpful to photocopy their plot plan and sketch in plants, art, paths, and other garden elements directly on the plan. Others prefer to mark areas in the yard using surveyor flags (found in home and garden centers) or sections of garden hose.
Be sure to give yourself enough room for the activity you plan. For instance, if you’re creating a dining area, set up a table and chairs in the setting to see whether they fit. If you’re planning to add a children’s sandbox and play area, measure equipment ahead of time to make sure it fits in the space with some room around the edges.
To define the boundaries of the area, plan some pretty plant borders. In a small yard, 2- to 3-foot-wide borders make the most sense, but if you want the look of an English cottage garden, the borders should be 6 to 10 feet deep to accommodate plants with varying heights and continuous bloom. As you plan your plant borders, create shapes that are easy for a mower to navigate with no extra trimming.
To decide whether your garden should have a formal or informal design, take a look at your home’s architecture. If your home’s windows are equally spaced on either side of a centered front door, use geometric shapes and bold symmetrical plantings that mirror that style. If you have a bungalow or ranch house with off-center doors, windows, chimneys, or porches, an informal garden with sinuous curves and relaxed, loose plantings would look right at home.
4. Finish one room at a time. Budget and time may not allow you to install all the plantings and hardscaping at once. Instead of trying to plant your entire yard and becoming overwhelmed, finish one room and feel good about your accomplishment. Tackle another one next month or next season.
Start with the room’s framework, which could be a fence, a hedge, a flower border, or screening plantings, as well as paths and hardscaping. Trees and shrubs take the most time to mature, so plant those first. I like to create borders that combine trees, shrubs, and long-lasting perennials so you don’t need to replant each year. To fill in the gaps as these plants develop, use colorful annuals, large containers, and vertical structures such as obelisks. Choose styles and colors that match your home’s décor to unify the design.
Fill in the gap
While you’re waiting for your trees, shrubs, and perennials to grow in, your beds may look a bit sparse. Try some of these annuals to help plump up your garden with color.
Annuals for sun
Annuals for shade or partial shade
Amethyst flower or silver bells (Browallia speciosa)
Wishbone plant (Torenia spp.)
Annual vines for sun
Hyacinth bean vine (Lablab purpureus)
Sweet pea (Lathyrus)
P. Allen Smith (www.pallensmith.com) is a professional garden designer, host of two national TV programs, a regular guest on NBC’s “Today” show, and author of P. Allen Smith’s Colors for the Garden (Clarkson Potter, 2006) and other books.