Start with the Basics
When planning a new garden it’s best to make a list of plants that you like and colours you want to use. There’s no sense having a garden you don’t enjoy. What size do you want it to be? Are you new to gardening? If you said yes to the last question start small and add on as you gain experience. It’s easier to enlarge a garden than it is to make it smaller. An experienced gardener usually has an idea of how much garden they can manage. Sketch out the shape of your garden and do it on graph paper so it will be easier to see if the plants will fit in the space as they mature. When I sketch a garden design I use one square on the graph paper to represent one square foot of area. Most of my gardens are large. A smaller garden can be enlarged on graph paper as long as you keep it to scale.
Time & Budget
Do you have time allocated for tending your garden? If you like to go on vacation a garden may not be the right choice. Most plants grow from late spring to late summer and will need watering and tending. You can’t go away for two weeks and expect your plants to be thriving when you get home. If summer vacations are a must, you will need a friend to water while you’re away or you may need to install an irrigation system. Plants need extra attention in their first year until they get established. Does your budget allow for a garden? If you need to add soil to your garden it’s a big investment. The cost of plants, seeds and the necessary tools will also have to be factored into the budget.
When I plan a garden I decide on what the bones of the garden will be first.The bones of the garden are the main features as they provide interest all year round. This could be evergreen or deciduous trees and shrubs. This is when you need to do some research. What size plants can fit in your space? Are there plants with interest year round? Do they have interesting bark, good fall colour, spring or summer flowers or do they attract pollinators? An example of a four season plant is the blueberry. It has small white flowers in spring, fruit in summer, gorgeous fall colour and red branches in winter. And yes, you can plant blueberry bushes in the ornamental garden. Of course, there are your standard evergreens such as cedar and yew which always act as a good backdrop to shrubs with red twigs. I’ve stopped recommending cedar trees as they are water hogs and with our intense heat in the summer they struggle to survive. Last year I planted yew trees as a backdrop to a new garden and over time they will grow together to form a hedge.
Think about the shapes of plants as you design your new garden. You don’t want everything to be a mounding shape or all vertical elements. You want a mix of shapes and sizes in the garden. Take a lesson from public gardens that you’ve seen. Take photos of what you like and copy it in your own garden. Take a walk in the woods and you’ll see that Mother Nature is a series of layers. Trees for the canopy with mid size plants as the second story and lower ground level plants as the lower storey.
Sun, Shade, Wind & Microclimates
As soon as you decide to plan a garden start watching where the sun shines on your garden throughout the seasons. If the area you want to plant is in full sun in the summer you can use plants suitable for a sunny garden. If its shady in the summer then the same factor applies, plants that like shade would be used. There are plants suitable for all types of gardens. If the garden is in an exposed area where it is subject to winter winds you may want to use plants a bit hardier for that area. All gardens have what is called microclimates. You may notice that plants do better in certain areas of your garden. Perhaps they are protected by a wall that reflects light and warmth into the garden. Where I live we are surrounded by water which means our winters are very mild so we have mild winters and cool summers. For example, a rooftop garden would be a microclimate of its own as it has extreme exposure to sun and wind compared to a garden flanked by two tall buildings.
Before you start a garden you may want to have a soil test done. A soil test will tell you how healthy your soil is and what nutrients are lacking or in excess. There are three types of soil; sand, loam and clay. Some plants like sandy soil and will not do well in heavy clay and there are some that don’t mind a clay soil. I deal with clay soil all the time so I’m always adding organic matter like compost to loosen it up and add nutrients. Loamy soil is the perfect soil for most plants. It’s the kind of soil that when you grab a handful and try to make a ball it sticks a bit but is still friable. Clay soil will form a wet sticky ball in your hand and sandy soil falls through your fingers. All types of soil benefit from the addition of compost. It adds structure and nutrients to your soil. The PH of your soil also determines what plants will grow well in your garden. Here in the lower mainland of BC we have a lot of rainfall which creates an acidic soil. PH is measured from 0-14 with 7 being the ideal range for plant growth. PH under 7 indicates acidity. Ph over 7 indicates alkalinity. You can test your soil yourself using testing kits found at garden centres. Again there are plants for every soil type.
My newest garden was installed in the fall of 2020. I drew out a sketch of the area with its measurements. I had looked up the mature size of the plants I wanted for the garden. I wanted privacy from the street as our neighbours had lost their large beech tree due to disease. I decided to use Cotinus coggryia as the main shrub in the centre of the garden. I already have one in our back garden and it attracts a lot of small birds plus it has beautiful mahogany foliage and cloud-like flowers in summer. This shrub will grow to about 20′ high if left unpruned. In the background I decided to use five Yew trees as a green back drop for other plants. In a shadier corner of the garden I planted Aucuba or spotted Laurel. This shrub will also easily get to about ten feet high and six feet wide and provide winter interest. Scattered throughout the garden are lower storey plants of Dusty Miller ‘New Look’. They provide silver foliage for much of the winter. I cut them back in early spring and new growth quickly fills in once again. In between the Cotinus and Aucuba are some small hydrangeas. They may come out if we continue to have intense heat in the summer. Although they get some afternoon shade nothing could prepare the plants for the 36C heat last June. Once I had the main shrubs in I started planting spring bulbs of Liatris and Narcisuss. That was followed by perennials of Achillea, Asters, Salvia and Scabiosa. In the spring I filled the garden with annuals such as bachelors buttons, dahlias, cosmos and Tithonia. It was full of colour all season long and became a bee haven.
Gardens are always evolving. As plants grow they may need dividing and need a new home in another part of the garden. There is no such thing as planting a garden once and you’re done. Plants come and go. Some are short lived due to their nature and others may be taken out by pest or disease. I always look at the loss of a plant as opportunity for a new plant because there is nothing more fun than going to a garden centre.