Planning a Garden

What do you really want in a garden?

Whether it's full of flowering blossoms or bountiful fruits and vegetables to be incorporated in family dinner, gardens can produce beautiful and resourceful results. But having a garden of any kind requires a commitment of time and money. A bit of pre-planning before planting can end up saving you both.

Before digging in, take some time to ask yourself the following questions:

What are you actually going to do in this garden?

It could be a place for relaxing, entertaining or actual gardening. Knowing how the area will be used will help you or a landscape designer configure the best use of space.

When do you intend to spend time in the garden?

A handsome pathway with attractive plantings adds pleasure to every day - even if you're on your way to the car and off to work. On the other hand, don't plant a big vegetable garden if you're gone on vacation every August.

Do you prefer open, exposed space or enclosed, sheltered areas?

Take a look around. You may need to call a good arborist or contract with a builder to achieve your goals. Remember, vegetable gardens and roses love to bask in full sun while play and dining areas are often enhanced by dappled light cast from a nearby tree or shade structure. Privacy issues are a fact of life in city gardens. Artful screens of distraction go a long way toward making nosy neighbors disappear.

How much time are you willing to allot to the care and maintenance of your garden?

If you're going to be responsible for the majority of the maintenance, think of how much time you realistically have to spend watering, weeding, fertilizing and tending to your growing garden. Not planting beyond your capability will help you maximize your results.

Other details to consider: Design for comfort and practicality, not just aesthetics. Plan and plant for your climate; a rain shelter may extend the use of your deck for months as opposed to a few dry weeks in summer. Other practical matters include plotting entryways and remembering to accommodate utility and storage space. Even spacious country gardens have issues.

seeds being planted

When planning a garden you first should decide whether you want to grow your plants from seeds. (Photo courtesy of Thinkstock)

Starting a garden from seeds

When's the best time to plant your garden? That depends on where you live. The general rule is to wait until there's no more risk of frost.

You can buy starter plants at garden shops, or you can start them from seed indoors a few weeks before planting time.

To start seedlings early you'll need:

1. The best and highest quality seed. Read the envelope for the best planting instructions for that particular seed.

2. A seed starting mix, which drains better and is sterile to reduce disease

3. Used nursery six-packs, cottage cheese or yogurt containers or even to-go containers to sprout the seeds. Poke drainage holes in the bottom of the containers as needed.

4. New Popsicle sticks to label each container. Write in pencil. It survives wet and sun the best.

5. Perlite, construction sand or chicken grit. Chicken grit is finely milled granite. Avoid sandbox sand and oyster shells.

6. A plastic mixing tub that's been washed and sterilized

7. Water

When you’re ready to start planting:

1. Write the type of plant, variety and starting date on Popsicle stick and set it in pot before you plant it.

2. Dampen the seed starting mix in the mixing tub.

3. Fill containers to within ¼-inch of the rim with dampened mix. Press down firmly.

4. Use a pencil or chopstick to poke holes in the seed starting mix in the pots. Place a seed in each hole.

5. Top each container with a thin layer of perlite, sand or chicken grit to prevent "damping off," a fungus disease that kills seedlings.

6. Rinse the plastic tub and fill with a few inches of water. Gently place the containers in the water to wick it up to the soil surface.

7. Remove pots and allow them to drain.

8. Place pots in a sheltered location with bright, indirect light and good air circulation.

flowers in tree boxes

Choose your garden spaces carefully but don't forget to be creative, liking planting flowers in tree boxes along the street. (Photo by Robert Mang)

12-month gardening calendar

You’ve planned, planted and are ready to view the results of your hard work. Though the seasons change and flowers might not be in bloom, it doesn’t mean the work stops. Here’s a gardening guideline to help you get through the year.

January, February and March: Winter months are great for pruning evergreens and summer-flowering shrubs. Wait to prune spring bloomers until just after they've flowered. Cut down ornamental grasses and any perennials that were left in the garden last fall. If you haven't gotten around to amending existing beds (see October), do it before the end of March. Spread organic fertilizers.

April and May: Pull weeds and spread 2 inches of bark mulch to prevent more. Prune spring-flowering plants after they bloom. Plant shrubs, perennials and trees at any time, and annuals and vegetables after the last frost date. June: Pull weeds and take out unwanted, self-sown seedlings. Deadhead plants by clipping off spent flowers.

July: Pull weeds, replace any dead annuals, and if you irrigate, water deeply, but less often. In all but the hottest weather, the landscape only needs an inch a week.

August: Late in August is the best time to start a new lawn from seed. Deadhead and pull weeds.

September: Divide perennials or transplant. Plant perennials, shrubs and trees. Clean out, thin, divide or otherwise renew plants in overgrown perennial beds. Pull weeds. Have soil tested and add lime if needed.

October and November: Amend soil in existing beds by applying an inch of compost or composted manure on the surface of the soil. Cut any perennials that have turned brown to just above the ground. Pull weeds.

December: Prune evergreens and yes, pull any weeds you see.

Garden maintenance

Too much water is a contributing factor to every lawn disease and recurrent splashing of foliage causes leaf-spot fungi on shrubs and perennials. But automatic sprinkler systems aren't the only culprits. Hand watering can be detrimental to plants as well.

Although newly planted annuals or perennials can be watered by hand, established plants have deeper root systems and require us to stand there a long time before they get a good, deep soaking. For all but small, new plants, spraying the soil with a handheld hose is an inadequate way to water.

Tip: Most lawns need about an inch of water a week. A rain gauge is a good way to measure that amount, but any container will do. An empty tuna can can make a good gauge. When there's an inch of water in the can, you have watered enough.


Choose the right size tool, one that's sharp and sanitized to prevent disease.

Gardening scissors take 4 to 6 inches off plants and small vines.

Pruning shears cut ¼- to ¾-inch branches.

Loppers prune three-fourths to 1 ½-inch branches from woody plants, vines and shrubs.

A handsaw removes tree limbs of 1 to 3 inches. Electric trimmers should be used for formal landscapes only, primarily hedging.

Pruning can be categorized by how much you cut. Periodic pruning is required to remove diseased or storm-damaged branches. Also, deadheading spent flowers is important to extend blooming time.

Controlling garden weeds

Weeds are largely opportunistic plants that move in and take over bare soil. Keeping the ground covered with mulch or spreading plants is a gardener's best defense against weeds.

Gravel and wood chips are perfectly adequate materials, and should blanket the ground to both smother and shade out any unwanted wildlings. Compost is even better. Decomposed organic material feeds the garden and your plants as industrious earthworms tunnel and mixes it into the soil.

Nevertheless, when weeds do show up - and they will - eliminate them as quickly as possible before they have a chance to spread, taking particular care to remove all seed heads.

Plant nurseries

The first thing you need to consider at any plant nursery you visit is whether the plants are healthy or not. To a beginner, this may be a little difficult to ascertain-- especially if you are a complete and utter novice.

Different plants have many different indicators as to whether or not they're healthy, and it takes a little experience to determine the difference between a plant that is droopy and one that is salvageable. Despite these specifics, there are a few general indicators that you can look at which will give you a good idea of whether the plants are healthy.

Look for brown spots. If a plant is dehydrated, it will be a little droopy but it will not have brown spots. Spots like this can be an indication of anything from fungus to disease, and they indicate an unhealthy plant. Look for leaves that look like actual leaves. This means you need to check the leaves for things like curls or tiny black spots. Even a slight curling or waddling of the leaves can indicate fungal or bacterial infections.

Ask the store owners about things like pesticide and herbicide usage. Some people don't care about using pesticides on things they eat or put in their garden. If you do, then it's important to ask about things like that ahead of time.

When it comes to ordering anything special from a nursery, there are a few things you need to consider. First, it's important to realize that you may not always be able to get the things that you want at the time you want them.

This is especially true with certain types of flower bulbs and garden plants. For example, when you order potato slips to grow potatoes with, they are often available on a seasonal basis. Many larger nurseries won't even ship some things to places like Alaska and Hawaii, so make sure you search accordingly.

Also, live plants ship with different rules than seeds and things of that nature. If you order a large package of seeds but aren't home to receive the package, the delivery person will be able to return another day with the package.

However, when it comes to live plants, these rules change. Most carriers will leave your package on your doorstep whether you are home or not, and whether you want them to or not. This is dictated mostly by the policy of your delivery service.

Once you have the plants you want, you need to know how to transplant them safely into your landscape or garden. The difficulty of this varies depending on the size of your plant at the time of transplantation, but the rules are more or less the same.

With small plants, dig a hole as deep as the pot your plant is currently in and a little wider.

It's important to make the hole wide so that you don't realize the hole is too small when you're in the middle of transplanting. With your index and middle finger resting on top of the soil in the pot, turn the plant upside down and it will fall out on its own. Place the plant in the hole and smooth dirt in on the sides.

The process is the same with a larger plant and pot, but you should use your entire hand instead of your index and middle fingers.

By following the steps laid out here, you will not only be able to identify good nurseries, but good plants as well. The better your plants, the easier they are to transplant-- leading to a great landscape every time.

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