The Ultimate Garden Planning Guide

Follow our tips now to ensure you will have the most beautiful growing season yet.

Dreams and Designs

Sketch your ideas on paper. It's easier to make changes with an eraser than with a shovel. This is the time to consider garden views from inside the house, traffic patterns throughout the yard, and ways your family uses the yard.

Draw permanent structures such as paths, walls, fences, decks, and gazebos, even if you don't intend to erect them immediately.

Reserve space near hedges, walls, and fences for plants that benefit from the extra protection and shade. Keep plants an ample distance from one another and from nearby structures to allow for growth. Give wide berth to new shrubs and trees; when fully grown, they can take up a lot of space.

Remember to leave open play areas for children. Add exercise areas for your pets where they won't trample plants. Leave yourself room to work. If you plan large beds, add space for stepping-stones or a winding path that will allow access to plants in the middle of the bed.

Include bulbs in your garden with these planting tips.

13 Best Tools

To anyone starting a first garden, buying all the tools can be pretty intimidating. This list covers the basics that you'll need to get started.

  • Trowel
  • Spade (for digging and transplanting)
  • Shovel (for moving earth and mulch, flipping compost, etc.)
  • Hoe
  • Pruning shears
  • Sharp knife
  • Narrow digging tool
  • 5-gallon bucket
  • Cart or wheelbarrow
  • Hose
  • Watering can
  • Hat (for sun protection)
  • Gloves

Assess Your Soil

In the excitement of spring planting, don't forget the part of the garden beneath the surface. Soil improvement is the most important step for creating a successful garden.

Prepare your planting beds well and your garden will thrive. Loose, crumbly earth that lets in air and moisture and doesn't become waterlogged encourages plant roots to develop.

Be sure your garden has the proper pH (acid-alkaline balance) and fertility. Most county cooperative extension services provide soil testing. Or you can buy a soil-testing kit at a local garden center for about $12. It will tell you if your soil is too acidic (sour) and needs lime, or if it's too alkaline (sweet) and needs sulfur or gypsum. Most perennials like an average pH count of about 6.5.

Soil tends to be acidic in rainy regions, alkaline in desert areas. Midcontinent gardens generally lean toward neutral soil.

Even when very fertile, soil that is too acidic or too alkaline will let plants die of malnutrition because some nutrients don't dissolve as well under acidic or alkaline conditions. The presence of organic matter, such as compost, makes the soils at either end of the spectrum more neutral.

Build a Garden Bed

Try this simple, no-dig way to transform a patch of lawn into a garden bed.

Step 1

1. Cover the area with a layer of newspaper about 12 pages thick.

Step 2

2. Cover the paper with 3 inches of compost, or a 50-50 mix of topsoil and manure (composted manure is virtually odorless).

Step 3

3. Wait for six months while all the layers, including the sod, decompose to create a 6-inch layer of topsoil ready for planting.

Raise Your Sights

If poor soil or drainage problems plague your yard, build a raised bed. Deeper soil fosters vigorous root growth and adds protection from encroaching grass and weeds. The extra elevation allows a flower bed's soil to warm earlier in spring so you can stop dreaming and start doing.

If your beds will be permanent, build retaining walls. Railway ties are one option, but brick and treated lumber are longer-lasting. To enjoy the advantages of a raised bed without the cost or labor, simply mound up about 10 to 12 inches of earth in your flower bed.

Once your soil is up to snuff, you'll be ready to dig in and start selecting plants.

The Right Plant for the Right Spot

When selecting plants, choose varieties that can thrive in your garden's environment.

Just because a plant does well in your neighbor's yard doesn't mean it will be happy in yours. That's because even within your own yard, there can be several microclimates, each with its own unique combination of soil type, sunlight, shade density, moisture, and exposure to the elements.

Here are suggestions for choosing the right plants.

  • If you yearn for a plant that hasn't done well in your garden before, ask local garden center experts for a similar one that can adapt better to your garden's conditions. Some varieties tolerate shade, drought, cold, or heat better than others.
  • Resist exotic specimens that need coddling. Hardy plants that are native to your area will perform more reliably.
  • Avoid spraying by choosing disease-resistant varieties.

Light Requirements

Instead of groaning about limited light in your garden, celebrate the perks of shade: slower-growing weeds, fewer pests, less need to water, and cooler temperatures.

Any area that receives less than six hours of direct sun a day is considered shady.

These categories will help you select the right plants for the shady spots in your garden:

Partial shade. Receives direct sun in the morning or afternoon, or lightly dappled sunlight all day. This is the lightest form of shade in gardens.

Light shade. Receives an hour or two of full sun during the day and supports a wide variety of plants.

Half shade. Shaded for four or five of the brightest daylight hours. Gardens with no direct sun but lots of reflected sunlight also fall in this category.

Full shade. No direct sun. Found under mature trees with large leaves and a dense, wide canopy, such as maples and oaks.

Heavy shade. Deep, cool shadows cast by evergreen trees or tall buildings. Not many plants can grow in heavy shade unless they receive some reflected sunlight.

Garden on a Budget

Size matters when you're gardening on a budget. Here are five ways to make the most of your money.

  • Sow seed in wide drifts to produce a dramatic effect in the long term.
  • Plant perennials sold in flats or 2-1/4-inch pots. They cost about one-tenth as much as 1-gallon plants and will catch up in size by the second growing season.
  • Include pint-size plants or bare-root stock (available from mail-order nurseries). They will bloom the first season and are large enough to draw the eye, but they are still less expensive.
  • Plant a few large container plants of the same variety as your seedlings and smaller plants for showy focal points right away.
  • Look for free or deeply discounted plants at end-of-season closeouts. Shop community plant sales and swaps. Take advantage of seeds, cuttings, and root divisions from other gardens.

Knowing how to care for your plants now will help your garden prosper in future years.

A Case for Skimpy Cleanup

Don't be too quick to tidy up your garden after frost. The muted hues of the dormant black-eyed Susans and purple coneflowers are beautiful. So are the ornamental grasses and the sturdy heads of tall stonecrops, such as "Autumn Joy" sedum. Plus, dried seed heads will attract birds to the garden, adding to its winter charm.

Extra snow piles up around dried foliage in winter, helping insulate the plant roots from fluctuating temperatures and providing extra moisture.

On the other hand, fall cleanup is a good way to combat a few diseases and pests that sometimes harm perennials. Examples include gray mold, a fungal disease that shrivels peony buds and turns them black, and borers, a serious insect threat to iris rhizomes.

A modified autumn cleanup is probably best for your garden. Remove the foliage of trouble-prone species, cutting it back to the ground. But allow your other perennials to stand, painting the winter garden canvas with their subtle colors.

Water Wisdom

Most plants need about an inch of water a week. When plants are young, regular watering is especially important.

A soaker hose, which puts the water on the roots rather than on the leaves, is best. Overhead sprinkling encourages fungal diseases and wastes water that is lost to evaporation. The ideal time to water is early in the day so the foliage can dry before nightfall.

If you have an automatic sprinkler system, guard against overwatering plants when you water your lawn. Too much water is just as lethal to plants as too little. One solution: Elevate the beds for better drainage. Or, install plants that like it wet.

Much Ado About Mulch

Mulch is a blanket of anything that covers the soil. Because it holds in moisture and keeps down weeds, mulch is a great garden shortcut.

Fabric mulches made of nonwoven synthetic material are long-lasting and (unlike plastic) porous. But the best choice is an organic mulch, such as shredded bark, chopped leaves, pine needles, or chemical-free grass clippings. These can be moved aside readily when you want to transplant or fertilize, and they slowly decompose to feed the soil.

Mulch offers climate protection, insulating roots from intense heat or cold. In winter, pile mulch over spent perennials to help prevent heaving caused by alternate thaws and freezes. To avoid fungus problems, remove the mulch in spring as soon as plants awaken from dormancy. If your winters are warm and wet, winter mulching is not such a good idea because it could foster disease.

Plan a Garden That Works

Spend your landscaping dollars wisely with these tried-and-true plant picks.


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