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Designing Your Garden

The aim of this brochure is to help you select a site, size, and shape for a flower garden and then to fill it with a harmonious combination of plants. We present this process as a series of steps--seven in all--that takes you from the mere notion that you want a flower garden to a finished plan. If you already have a garden but are not satisfied with it, we suggest that you review the first four steps, then study Steps 5 through 7.

When we say "flower garden" or "border" in this brochure, we mean an ornamental planting, one with well-defined edges and often (but not always) a backdrop of some sort--a house, a hedge, a wall, or a fence. You may be familiar with annual beds and perennial borders, but most gardeners (ourselves included) get greatest satisfaction from what are known as "mixed borders," gardens that contain the gamut of plants--annuals, perennials, bulbs, shrubs, and small trees--for variety and a long season of interest.

We want to emphasize at the outset that there is no single "right" way to make a garden. Most experienced gardeners follow guidelines similar to those we offer here, but others ignore them--sometimes to glorious effect. Your taste and desires are what matter, not what your neighbor is planting or what a gardening magazine says you should want. This brochure is meant to help you make choices, not to paralyze you with the fear that you're not doing things just so. Have fun, and if fun happens to coincide with "rules" of design, fine. If not, that's fine, too.

1. Think about what you want.

The first step in designing a garden is to decide exactly what sort of garden you want. You're unlikely to realize your dream if you're not sure what your dream is. Do you want to decorate a small square by the front steps with a few annuals, or do you long instead for a sweeping border bursting with perennials? When do you want your garden to look its best? Will a brief but spectacular spring or summer show suffice, or do you want a garden that looks attractive from early spring until hard frost? How much time, energy, and money are you prepared to devote to the task of planting and caring for a garden? Do you want a garden that you can dig and plant in an afternoon and that requires little effort to maintain, or do you prefer a more ambitious project, a garden that will usurp at least a weekend at planting time and require regular attention throughout the growing season?

2. Choose a location for your garden.

If you don't already have a place in mind for your new garden (and even if you do), you should walk your property and peer out your windows. Ask yourself the following questions as you look around you:

Where does a garden "belong" in the landscape? A flower garden is not a self-contained unit. It's a part of the landscape, just as a shade tree is, or a flowering Crabapple or a bluestone patio, and as such it needs to be placed where it will fit in with its surroundings. A border plopped into the lawn or stuck into a corner looks like an afterthought at best, a distraction at worst. A good design is wasted on a bad location.

* Where will a garden provide the most pleasure? If you plant a garden in order to enjoy it, then you should probably put it where you spend time outdoors or where you pass often--near the back terrace, along the driveway, at the foot of the front steps, or by the swimming pool. You'll appreciate your garden even more if you can see it from inside the house. Rinsing dishes and tapping away at the computer seem less like drudgery when you can pause to gaze out the window at bright flowers swaying in the breeze.

Where is the nearest spigot? A garden also needs to be within reach of a hose. Even in climates where rainfall is abundant, dry spells are inevitable. If you can't supply water when your plants require it, you risk the unpleasant prospect of watching them gasp in summer's heat.

What sort of background will the border have? Think about the superb garden photos you see in books and magazines. In almost every case, there is something standing behind the exuberant floral display--a fence, a stone or brick wall, a dark green hedge, or a mass of shrubs or trees. These backgrounds prevent your eye from wandering all over the landscape, allowing you to focus instead on the colorful plants in front of you.

If the location you choose for your border lacks a good background, consider building a simple fence or planting a hedge. A hedge needn't be a row of tightly sheared Yew or Privet. An informal assembly of shrubs such as Viburnum, Syringa (Lilac), Clethra, Roses, and Hydrangea offers a combination of bright flowers, fruit, and striking fall color, as well as a rich green backdrop for the summer spectacle that unfolds at their feet.

If you want to use a border to break up a large expanse of lawn, you may wish to dispense with a traditional background and plant an island bed instead. An island bed stands alone, surrounded by a sea of turf. To be effective, it must generally be large--but in scale with the overall landscape--and it must contain tall plants (4ft or more) either at the back or through the middle of the garden. These tall plants act as a background for their shorter neighbors and give the bed the sort of presence that a small circle of compact plants lacks.

What sorts of plants do you want to grow? Plants have basic needs that must be met if they are to thrive. The most important of these are sun and soil. The majority of flowering plants require full sun to reach their full potential (see drawings). Many will tolerate partial shade with little reduction in bloom, but the number of plants that thrive in full shade is relatively small (though quite a lot larger than most people believe). The point is that if you dream of Iris and Peonies, Daylilies and Roses, Asters and Mums, you'll need to put your border where it will receive ample sunshine. If you put your border in shade, you must be prepared to explore Hostas, Astilbes, Heucheras, Hellebores, Ferns, and other denizens of shady nooks.

Soil type is the other factor that determines which plants you can grow. Most plants grow best in a soil that retains moisture reasonably well while allowing the excess to drain away. On the extremes are sandy soils that dry out rapidly after rainfall or irrigation and heavy clay soils that stay soggy long after the rain has stopped. If you site your border on a hot sandy bank or in a low, poorly drained area, you may have to abandon your list of favorites and do some research to discover plants adapted to your soil type. It is possible to amend soil, to change it to suit the needs of plants (see our "Caring for Your Plants" brochure and the cultural instructions booklet under Gardening Help on our Web site), but radical transformation is labor-intensive and expensive. You'll do better to grow plants that like your conditions.