Now that the holidays are over, we’ve noticed a trend in the questions we’re being asked at the greenhouse: all of a sudden, people are thinking about their gardens. So, we thought now was as good a time as any to share some tips and tricks on designing a garden. Whether you’re starting from scratch, or looking to freshen up some garden beds, there are sure to be some helpful tips for you here.
Please note, I will be referring to all growing spaces as ‘gardens’, but this advice will also apply to those of you with balconies, or a shelf in front of a sunny window!
Tip #1: Invest in a Gardening Notebook
This might seem like an odd place to start, but stick with me here. How many times have you been thinking about the garden on a February morning, and couldn’t remember when you planted something, or the specific variety of annual flower you really enjoyed in your window boxes? A physical notebook, one with a hardcover that you can hold easily in one hand, is invaluable. Make note of when you started your seedlings, which plants worked and which ones didn’t; failures, successes, things you want to change and observations you’ve made. Choose a notebook you can easily carry around the garden with you. I started doing this several years ago, and being able to look back at previous gardening seasons has been hugely beneficial.
Tip #2: Be Patient
The excitement of a new gardening season is infectious, and it’s extremely easy to get carried away. But before you start spending money on plants, it’s important to take the time to understand the space you have. This is especially true for any of you that may have moved over the winter months. It’s crucial to study your garden, and understand it, before you start planting. This will save you lots of money and heartache in the long run. And, hey, in the meantime you can plant seasonal pots to tide you over until you can really start designing your space. So, where to begin?
Test your soil. Understanding your soil is the crucial first step in a successful garden. Pick up a soil testing kit to figure out the PH levels of your soil. Get your hands into the soil! Take a fistful and give it a good squeeze; if the soil falls apart immediately when you open your hand, you likely have soil with a high content of sand. If it maintains the shape you squeezed it into, you have clay. If it somewhat retains the shape, and has a lovely smell like a forest in the autumn, then you have a loamy soil, which is the most ideal for a large number of plants.
Pay attention to the light. This is another instance where your notebook will come in handy. Make note of which parts of your garden are in direct sun throughout the day, and for approximately how long. For a space to be considered “full sun”, it needs to be in direct sunshine for at least six hours. Understanding where the brightest and darkest places of your garden are will help you with your design, and when choosing your plants.
Consider your garden’s climate. Here in Ottawa, we are in zones 4B – 5A, but that’s not really what I mean. Think about the conditions in your garden that might attribute to a specific microclimate. If you garden on a windy, exposed site, you’ll need to choose plants with deep, sturdy roots and open, loose growing structures. If your garden is a sheltered sun-trap, you may want to consider growing drought-tolerant plants so you’re not reaching for the hose constantly.
Think about what you want to get from your garden. Do you want your space to be as productive as possible, packed with produce and flowers to supply the house? Do you want a wildlife-friendly garden? A place for the family, or a tranquil escape? You should also consider how much free time you have to tend the garden, and what time of day you’re usually out in the garden. For example, if you spend most of your time out there in the evening, then seating areas should be placed somewhere the setting sun still hits. Planting schemes should be white or pastel, ideally, as lighter colours remain visible for longer in the evening. You can also consider utilizing fragrant plants and grasses that move in the wind, making the garden feel alive and sensory even in the dark.
Measure. This is another one for your handy notebook. It’s important to understand how much practical, useable space you have. Measure pathways and patios, lawns and garden beds. If you’re looking to expand or create new garden beds, remember that functional pathways should be wider and straighter than pathways leading to, for example, a bench under a tree.
Tip #3: Figure Out What You Like
Nowadays, there’s more choice than even, both in plant varieties and actual design styles. Pick up some gardening magazines and books, and check out the gardens in your neighbourhood. There’s something to learn from every garden, even those considerably larger than our own. What do you like about a design? What don’t you like? How could you emulate it within your own space? Do you want to go ultra-modern, or create a space that’s as naturalistic as possible? Decide on a general mood, style, function and colour scheme before you start buying plants. This will allow for a more cohesive, professional look in the long-run.
Tip #4: Right Plant, Right Place
This gardening ethos, championed by revolutionary English gardener Beth Chatto, is as simple as it sounds. Rather than trying to force plants to grow in conditions that simply don’t suit them, it’s crucial to choose species that will thrive in your garden. This goes back to understanding your garden and your soil – if your soil is sandy and dry, consider a gravel garden or a prairie-style scheme, with plants suited to heat and drought. And don’t despair! From my experience, most plants will grow very happily in a pot, as long as they have winter protection. So even if you had your heart set on growing something that won’t like your soil conditions, there are still options available. You will save yourself a lot of effort and disappointment by considering your conditions carefully before you buy.
Tip #5: Don’t be Afraid of Trees
As our gardens become smaller and smaller, proper use of vertical space becomes more important. Trees are as diverse a species as any – there is at least one out there that will work in your space. Even in the smallest garden, there are options. Fruit trees can be a wonderful option for small sunny gardens, as they are grown on a dwarfing root stock that will limit their ultimate size. Trees are also crucial wildlife habitats, and anyone interested in make their garden a wildlife haven should be looking for species with spring flowers and autumn fruit. And, again, there are many trees that will grow happily for many years in large pots.
Tip #6: Seasons of Interest
This is a phrase that folks in the plant world use to describe how a specific plant or garden design might change throughout the seasons. For example, an evergreen has a single season of interest, as it remains static throughout the year. A mountain ash, on the other hand, has four seasons of interest; spring flowers, delicate summer foliage, autumn colour and fruit, and an attractive open framework to appreciate in the winter. When considering the plants to choose for any garden, but especially a small one, you should think about what looks good at different times of year.
When planning a new garden, I always think about the winter first. It’s when we crave colour and interest the most, so it seems the logical place to start. Native dogwoods, when cut hard in the spring, will have vibrant red-to-orange stems that will shine out from the snow. Burning bush maintains delicate, jewel-like red berries through the winter months. Birch and cherry trees have interesting bark and sweeping, open branches that will sway in the winter wind, making the garden feel alive. This is when an expert really comes in handy – it’s hard to plan a garden so that something is always looking good. But with good advice and even better planning, you can have something blooming from the last frost to the first snow.
I hope this has gotten you thinking about your garden and your plans for the coming season. And remember, gardening is a constant learning experience. Even those of us who’ve been gardening for a lifetime make mistakes. The important thing is that we learn, and try, and garden for ourselves. If your garden suits you, and your tastes, then it is a beautiful garden. Keep that in mind!