By Andrew Bunting, PHS Vice President of Horticulture
In many parts of the country, the winters are severe enough that it prevents most gardening activities except for garden cleanup and pruning, which makes the winter season a great time to also start planning changes to the garden you want to make in the spring. These changes to the garden could be projects such as a new planting bed, renovating a garden, or even a large garden or landscape project that provides a new look to the front of your house or an entirely new garden space.
When planning for this new garden space or garden renovation, first you must take stock of what type of conditions you have in the garden since these will undoubtedly impact what types of plants you will add to the garden. Assess the light conditions. Does the garden space have full sun or full shade? Perhaps there is afternoon sun and morning shade or vice versa; maybe there is some shade, but it is more filtered and allows some light in during the day.
Another important consideration is soil type. Do you have heavy soil that tends to not be well draining? Or, perhaps you live in a part of the country like parts of New Jersey or North Carolina where the soil is sandy and more free draining? Some soils can have a gravel composition which also makes them free draining. Other soils are very high in organic matter like some of the soils of the Midwest, or conversely, some soils may be void of many nutrients. Taking several soil tests can be an amazing tool, and these tests are usually available for a small fee through your local cooperative extension office. A typical soil test will provide valuable information about your soil, including the soil pH, which is a measurement of the soil's acidity or alkalinity. Soil tests will also list amounts of several macronutrients including nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, as well as several micronutrients and will tell you the percentage of organic matter in the soil.
All this information will either help you decide how to amend your soil and/or help in the specific selection of plants that are best adapted to these conditions.
Some gardens will also have microclimates. These might be created by the garden being up against a façade of a building or being in a courtyard that might provide extra protection, especially in the winter, therefore allowing for plantings that might normally be a bit tender during the winter.
When designing a new garden or a renovated garden space, it is useful to use some tools that will help visualize the space and the plants and physical features such as water features, benches, garden ornaments, etc. that you want to use. You can start a folder whereby you simply cut out ideas from catalogs and magazines. Another resource is Pinterest, which is an image-sharing and social media platform. Pinterest is a great tool to find ideas on everything from plants to garden chairs, and more, and organize them in whatever categories you select. For example, you might want both chartreuse leafed plants and orange flowering plants. On Pinterest, you can find endless images of these types of plants. From your Pinterest “board” you may want to narrow this into a list of desired plants you will want to acquire for your garden, which can be organized on an Excel sheet using searchable columns with the plant name, the number required, price, source, notes, etc.
Creating a plan will help you further visualize your renovated space in the garden. This can be done by measuring the existing spaces and then sketching them out to scale on a piece of paper. For example, on your drawing 1” might equal 10’. The scale that you pick is whatever will help you best visualize your garden. On the paper, draw the dimensions of the proposed garden space in relation to a building, such as a garage or a house. Put in the dimensions of the house nearest the garden, including doors and windows. Draw circles for the various plants you want to add to the garden and number each plant. On the side of the paper keep a list, for example, 1=Acer griseum, paperbark maple, 2=Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ and so on.
How you design your garden and combine your plants will be entirely up to you, but you may want to consider flower color, the color of the leaves, the size of each plant, the texture of the plant, and other ornamental elements. For example, does the plant have bold foliage, like many of the hostas, or does it have fine foliage, like many of the ornamental grasses? Creating beautiful combinations of texture and interesting color combinations will result in a successful garden design.
Implementing the garden design might be best accomplished through a work plan. This plan might happen all in one year, but depending on the size of the project, it might need to happen over several years. For example, in year 1 you might want to prepare the garden for planting by removing plants you don’t want, amending the soil, fixing any drainage issues, etc. In year 2, perhaps this is the year where you remove or build new permanent garden features like a wall, walkway, patio, or pond, and in year 3 is when you do the planting. All these steps can be condensed into a one-year project but can also be protracted depending on the size of the project and the amount of time and resources you can commit.
However you approach an overhaul of your garden, following the general steps of assessing, designing, sketching, and implementing through a work plan will help ensure the process is as streamlined and efficient as possible and will result in a beautiful new space that accurately reflects your initial vision and goals.