Well, here it is Winter, once again. All the leaves are picked up, perennials cut back, pruning done, most everything is in it’s dormant season. I guess that means it’s “dormant season” for us gardeners too, right?? WRONG!!

WINTER is a great time to plan out new GARDEN DESIGNS, PLANT and TRANSPLANT most trees, shrubs, perennials, etc. (late Winter - early Spring). As many plants are still in their dormancy, planting this time of year makes the most of a much longer period of cooler weather and abundance of rain, in order to better establish itself as Spring rolls in.

Planting (especially trees and shrubs) closer to the hotter, drier months of Summer can significantly reduce the chance of success in your new tree or shrub getting established and surviving. Also, the decision to wait to plant after the rainy season is a much costlier one, in terms of the massive water bill you will be receiving. Not to mention, come Spring, you will already have your hands full with plenty of other tasks and on-going maintenance.

In this article, we will be discussing some key considerations and other tips, in the PLANNING of your NEW GARDEN! Let’s first begin with the least exciting, yet MOST IMPORTANT and commonly overlooked considerations in planning and implementing a successful garden design, the assessing and MAPPING of the various conditions, such as SUN EXPOSURE, SOIL CONDITIONS & pH, ample or diminished AIRFLOW, consequential variations in landscape grade, etc. throughout your yard! As to why this is an IMPORTANT 1st STEP, three things:

  1. Sun exposure, air flow, significant grade variations (such that it causes excessive run-off, erosion, for example), etc. are all contributing factors in ultimately helping create specific kinds of soil conditions.
  2. this is your best opportunity to assess and make any needed adjustments to your landscape such as, leveling, adding retainer walls or tiers to address water run-off, erosion issues, aesthetic improvements, etc., cut back or remove any existing overgrowth to improve conditions, install and map irrigation systems, etc.
  3. Most plants will only do well within a fairly slight range of the aforementioned factors and often have more specific soil type/conditions needs. Keeping this in mind, when selecting plants for certain locations, will save you tons of money, headache, effort and time, in terms of replacing failed plantings due to poorly matched soil conditions or alternatively engaging in a perpetual uphill battle of routinely amending and replenishing soils with fresh layers of mulch, etc. in order to maintain bare minimum requirements for sustaining said poorly matched plants.

Often times, the surest way to a happy, healthy, successful garden is to simply go with the flow. Your affininty for rose gardens and wild flowers may not be entirely compatable with your mostly shaded yard, but exploring the wild variety of shade loving plants, I am confident you will never run out of truely stunning and inspired design options. And, while we are already on the subject…

Where sun exposure is concerned, you will often find plants falling somewhere into one of the following:

  • FULL SUN: requiring at least 6 -8 hrs of direct sun,
  • PART SUN: requires between 3 -6 hrs of direct sun,
  • PART SHADE: 3 – 6 hrs of less direct sun exposure.
  • FULL SHADE: less than 3 hrs. of sun exposure.

Be sure to READ CAREFULLY the PLANT CARE & REQUIREMENTS tags, commonly included with all new plants purchased at nurseries and other garden centers!!

Next, we will need to assess and map out SOIL CONDITIONS throughout the yard. As mentioned above, the importance of matching the right plants to the right soil type/conditions can not be overstated. Overlook at your own peril!!

Soil conditions can vary quite a bit throughout different parts of your yard, falling somewhere within the spectrum of the following characteristic soil types:

  • CLAY: when wet, the soil breaks into large dense, heavy and sticky clumps when shoveling. When dry, it becomes a rock hard layer. Highly diminished water drainage and aeration. Slower to warm up in the Spring
  • SAND: Soil feels, gritty, loose and sifts easily through your fingers. Diminished nutrient and moisture retention. Drains and dries quickly.
  • SILT: Feels soft, moist and often described as “soapy” feeling. Higher level of available nutrients and moisture retention. Soil structure is such that it can compact easily due to moderate to higher traffic, etc., thus leading to reduced water and air penetration.
  • PEAT: A more ACIDIC pH soil. Acidic pH levels slow the decomposition process, so soil will have a higher mix of partially broken down organic matter. Reduced available nutrient content. Darker, feels like a damp sponge. Retains water, drains poorly.
  • CHALK: A higher ALKALINE pH soil. Rocky, chunky soil, often overlaying limestone, chalk bed layers. This can impact the level of available essential minerals, leading to stunted growth of many different plants. Yellowing leaves are common symptom. Drains freely.
  • LOAM: Ideal for lawns and plant & veggie gardens, etc. Perfect, even mix of the better attributes of sand, silt and clay. Good soil structure to allow for desirable level of drainage and also moisture retention. Nutrient rich soil. A more NEUTRAL pH soil, though tending to lean more on the acidic side. Great for a wider range of plants.

There are a wide variety of “DIY Home Soil Test Kits” on the market, available at most garden centers, nurseries. The majority, often at best, will only really give you a more general, rough assessment of soil conditions and levels. For a more accurate & thorough analysis, most state universities have a “Cooperative Extension Service”, where, for a small fee, you can send in soil samples to be analyzed, as well as receive recommendations for various ways of amending your soil, etc.

Now that we have a general idea of the various environments and conditions we are working with,…. ON TO THE PLANTS!!!

When it comes to SELECTING PLANTS, there are some additional factors to take into consideration, when planning out your garden designs, with regard to different plant types/categories. One of the surest way to a well-balanced and dynamic design, is by incorporating an even distribution of plants with different “seasons of interest”, bloom times, and such. Here are the BASIC PLANT TYPES:

For TREES and SHRUBS, there are two primary categories EVERGREEN (Coniferous) and DECIDUOUS types. The short of it,

  • EVERGREENS: stay green all year round, (pine trees, arborvitae, boxwood, etc.) while
  • DECIDUOUS: trees and shrubs drop their leaves, most, in Fall or Winter, go dormant, and produce new foliage and bloom in the Spring.

For PLANTS, there are primarily PERENNIALS, ANNUALS and BIENNIALS.

  • PERENNIALS: repeat a cycle of renewal, growth season, die back & enter dormant season, one year to the next. For example, most common perennials die back each Fall or Winter and come back in the Spring or Summer.
  • ANNUALS: only have a life span of one grow season and go to seed towards the end of their cycle.
  • BIENNIALS: complete their life cycle over the course of two years. The first year, growing roots, stems and leaves before dying back and entering a dormant season. The following year they will bloom and go to seed before completing their life cycle.

Now that we have covered the basics of determining our criteria for plant selection, here is a LIST of TIPS and other considerations, in planning your own GARDEN DESIGN:

When laying out a garden design, I tend to think of and arrange trees, shrubs and other plants combinations in terms of

  • “Leading Actors” or prominent focal points, such as large trees, shrubs (can also be some other such large design element as a statue, trellis, fountain, big garden art piece, etc.)
  • “Supporting Cast” or secondary feature points of interest such as more “medium sized” shrubs and other plants, such as azaleas, hydrangeas, winter daphne, etc.
  • “Complementary Companions” like, ferns, candytuft, heather, lavender, dwarf ornamental grasses, perennials like daisies, hostas, heuchera, etc.
  • “Seasonal Accents” such as tulip bulbs or annuals that, although short lived, truly mark the start of a season like for SPRING: pansies, snap dragons, sweet alyssum, SUMMER: Impatiens, geranium, marigolds, sunflowers, FALL: begonias, nasturtium, calendula, WINTER: ornamental kale, primrose, sweet pea.

For each kind of garden environment, there are a wide variety of plants with wildly different leaf/foliage types, shapes, sizes, textures, colors, growth patterns, etc. A well-balanced mix of these will certainly help keep your design fresh, dynamic and fun.

Arrange plants with close consideration to their SIZE at FULL MATURITY. That new 5 Gal. container sized Oak tree and rose may look nice together now, but down the road, the oak tree will likely overshadow the rose, depriving it of the necessary sun exposure to bloom and thrive. Also, said 5 Gal. Oak doesn’t look it now, but planted right up against your house, years from now will damage your gutters, eat your roof, damage foundations, lift and break paved walkways, sewer lines and other underground utilities, and more, with it’s huge root system and canopy.

Similarly, crowding new plants and shrubs into a garden bed, for the sake of filling up the space, with little regard for each plants eventual mature size, often results in everything growing into one another, leading to unbalanced, misshapen growth patterns, overshadowed plants leaning far out from center, seeking sun exposure, where they are more prone to damage and poor development, increased ease of spread of disease from one plant to another, smaller plants getting swallowed up, and things, in general, not looking very good.

Remember, PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE!! Keep “rooted” to your vision of your FUTURE (at full maturity sized) GARDEN DESIGN!

But what of we gardeners (like myself) who say “stick it!” to “patience” and absolutely just have to fill the damn empty space with some damn thing or another, while everything is taking it’s sweet time growing in??! Try incorporating GARDEN ART or other such non-permanent design elements, old wood barrels, TRELLIS, plants in CONTAINERS that can be relocated later.

Other benefits of working with CONTAINERS include:

  1. If you are still absolutely determined to have a certain tree in a specific location, despite the inevitability of it overgrowing it’s location over time, I recommend keeping them planted in containers as a way to restrict the root ball from fully developing beyond a specific point, thus capping the tree’s ability to grow beyond a certain size, in relation to the size of the container. And, better yet, check with your local nursery to see if there isn’t a “dwarf variety” option.
  2. again, they are moveable!!
  3. containers can add height to plants and mixed container garden designs, throughout your garden beds, while other new plants are still growing in.
  4. containers are a great way of incorporating notorious spreaders like vinca, ivy, wire vine, some ornamental grasses, bamboo, etc. without the worry of them breaking out and spreading into every inch of your garden.
  5. containers give you more control of soil conditions, thus significantly increasing your plant options for locations where soil type, pH, etc. are the only incompatible factor.

Fast growing VINES such as jasmine, grape, whisteria, clematis, ivy, when trained to a TRELLIS or similar structure are quick to fill in as much space as you let it. This also makes it a visually striking and economical option for creating large BORDER SCREENS. This is a particularly great option when having to maneuver uneven and difficult terrain in constructing some kind of fence of screen. Evenly spaced containers make both great anchors for vertical posts to attach trellis between, as well as an excellent, easy to control growing environment for your chosen vines.

Some other trees, commonly used for creating a BORDER SCREEN include English Laurel, Leyland Cypress, Arborvitae, to name a few. Here, there are some additional considerations to weigh, in terms of up-front AFFORDABILITY and the ease and affordability of ON-GOING MAINTENANCE of a given tree, shrub, plant, hedge, etc. Each of the three options mentioned above all relatively easy on the wallet, per plant, at the nursery. Where they diverge sharply, is in their growth patterns and resulting on-going maintenance demands.

Laurel and Leyland Cypress are a popular choice for those who want a full, dense, rapidly growing border screen yesterday. Maintaining them at the desired size and shape is a whole other matter and can quickly become a very costly and time consuming and frequent routine endeavor, due to the amount of growth produced throughout the year.

Arborvitae, on the other hand, are an excellent option, due to the fact that they have a far more uniform size, shape and growth pattern and rate, and require little to no on-going maintenance whatsoever. And depending on how big a screen you want, there are a wide variety of Arborvitae to chose from. Of the narrow pyramidal varieties, best suited for border screens, some varieties top off at around 6’ – 8’ ft. at full maturity, while others can reach +30’ ft. and beyond.

Additionally, GROUNDCOVERS, are a popular choice for those who want something fast-growing to fill in all that bare soil, in your garden beds. They can also be great for crowding out weeds, due to their dense and wide-spreading growth patterns. These two particular attributes can also, in the longer term, quickly become a MAINTENANCE NIGHTMARE. Most groundcovers don’t care where YOU think the garden bed should end, and can easily spread into lawns, walkways, rock walls and other such hardscaped areas, cracks in pavement, overwhelm and crowd out other plants in your garden. This can quickly become a costly and regular maintenance intensive endeavor.

That said, GROUNDCOVERS can also be GREAT!! I fully endorse them and use them in designs often. Just before you do,…best to do your homework on them first, instead of being sorry later.

Well, that covers much of the basic considerations in developing your own successful garden designs!! GOOD LUCK and GOOD GARDEN STEWARDING!!

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