How to Design a Garden Primer

The basics of garden design are quite simple. Gardens are meant to be peaceful areas in which to regroup with nature. Culinary gardens, such as the vegetable garden and the kitchen herb garden, provide a sense of achievement and confidence to the gardener as well as a source of sustenance. Flower gardening is a great way to relieve stress and to bring peace and harmony to the soul. Therefore, when you decide to design a garden for your backyard, the design can be anything your heart and soul desire.

Bending the Rules of Basic Design

The design and layout of most gardens falls into several basic categories.

  • Straight lines with conforming rows. This design is perfect for the vegetable garden but not as appealing for a flowerbed.
  • Wandering borders. Perfect for a flowerbed. Flowers of different heights, colors and temperaments can be blended together nicely.
  • Groupings. Sets of three or more like plants are used to provide accent color. This is a great way to incorporate bulbs.
  • Container gardening. Containers of various sizes can be grouped together on patios, porches and stairs, spread haphazardly throughout a terrace garden or strategically placed at the edge of the neighboring forest.
  • Permanent borders. Permanent borders are those areas such as rock gardens or fenced-in spaces. Herbs produce hundreds of seeds and tend to get out of hand quickly unless controlled in fenced-in areas, and low, trailing plants are exceptionally beautiful when placed in rock gardens and encouraged to tumble over rocks, creating new and ever-changing dimensions and textures.

Space and height considerations of individual plants
Learn everything you can about the plants you plan to put into your garden. Know how tall each will get at maturity, how fast they grow, how long they bloom and which plants work well with each other. Put taller plants toward the back or center of the garden, but make sure the design allows for different heights interspersed throughout the garden.

Equally important in any garden design are the growing essentials. How much sun does the area receive? Do you have access to water for hot days? Is the landscape hilly, flat or low?

One loosely followed rule to remember is that no matter how distinct a garden design is, it can always be changed to meet your standards and your needs. Mix all of the above designs to create the design or shape that fits your backyard. Because a garden is alive, it is constantly changing. Plants will grow and fill in empty spaces and soften straight, stark lines,. Most of the time, plants will stay within fenced perimeters. They will also add every color of the rainbow to an area that might otherwise be quite drab.

Pay Attention to Your Plants

The only time plants will not thrive is when conditions are not suited to them. For instance, shade plants will not thrive in the sun, and plants that require optimum sunlight will not thrive in shaded areas. Watch for signs of distress. If irises were planted in an area that was originally sunny but is now partially shaded due to maturing trees, notice how the irises that are closer to the edge of the sunlight seem to bloom more profusely, have larger blossoms and in general seem to be hardier. That is your first clue that this plant is becoming distressed and requires more sunlight.

Transplant iris rhizomes-the bulbous root area-in early summer after the bloom has withered and leaves are becoming brown. Cut the leaves to about one fourth of their original size and lift entire shovelfuls of the rhizomes from the ground at once. Since the rhizomes are slightly above ground, this is an easy process. Irises tend to overcrowd in about three or four years and will require additional thinning at that time.

Likewise, plants that bow their heads uncomfortably in the sunlight are telling you they are too hot. A straw hat may help you when you're in the sun, but what flowers usually require are cool roots. Plants such as hostas will do okay in partial sun, but they will thrive, doubling and tripling in size, when placed in the shade. That is another sign of contentment. Plants that are flourishing will grow taller or wider and continue to propagate. If your plants are stagnant, do some research and find out what your plants are trying to tell you.

Vegetable Gardens

Because vegetables are planted in rows, it's best to plant this garden in straight lines in an area where they get full or nearly full sunlight. A square or rectangular layout seems to work best. When planting a vegetable garden, take into account the need for space between plants. Plants that are crowded will not produce as efficiently nor be as healthy. And because it's hard to maneuver between crowded plants, vegetables will be wasted and plants may be damaged as you harvest your crops.

A conventional sandbox-about 6' x 8'-is large enough to hold a small crop of sweet peas, carrots, lettuce and a row or two of green onions. Plant the garden from left to right, tallest to shortest, so that the shortest plants or slowest-growing plants do not get overshadowed. A sandbox garden with this much in it will be slightly crowded, however, since you don't have to walk in between the rows to harvest, it is easy to maintain and plants do well. Make sure the garden gets full sunlight or at least six to eight hours of sunlight.

During the hottest days, vegetables will require watering. A soaker hose laid up and down the rows and then covered with mulch is your best bet. Rows should be about 24 inches wide to provide ample space to walk and harvest. Make sure tomatoes are planted several feet apart, and that cages are placed over them immediately. The heavy fruit tends to make tomatoes tip over and sprawl into the next plant, making it difficult to harvest.

Wandering Borders and Groupings

Wandering borders are the perfect choice for flowerbeds. Whether they are shaded, partially shaded or in full sun, a wandering border will give your flowerbed a more peaceful feel. As your eyes follow the border, you, too, will be encouraged to wander from one beautiful blossom to the next. With no reason for sudden stops or jolts, peace comes easily to the garden.

A garden border can have a lot to do with how your emotions play out. Are you content? Are you stressed? Are borders wandering and pleasing to the eye or straight and strict? Change your garden to suit your needs.

Groupings of three to five bulbs can be a wonderful addition to a backyard shade garden where splashes of colors in yellow or red will enhance the slighter blossoms of the shade plants.

Container Gardens

Container gardening is fast becoming the elite way to garden for those who live in apartments and condominiums or in cities where space is limited. Just about anything can be grown in a container, but keep in mind the dimensions of the plant when it matures, especially if you plan on taking the plant indoors when winter arrives.

Even vegetables such as cucumbers and gourds can be grown in pots. They will require some additional space for the vines, but porch railings and lattice covered patio walls seem to work well. The same is true of flowers such as Morning Glory. As long as the plant is watered every day-sometimes twice when it's hot-and given some protection from the sun during the hottest portion of the day, most plants will do nicely in pots. A shot of fertilizer for flowers and organic mulch for vegetables works wonders for container plants. Because pots are small areas and roots tend to heat up fast, it's best to use white pots that do not attract as much heat. Also, once the plant has begun to climb, insert a piece of corrugated cardboard between the pot and the railing on the sunny side, so that the least amount of heat reaches the roots.

Specialized Gardens

Butterfly gardens are designed with flowers that butterflies and their offspring require. Butterflies also need a protected area that has water and warmth. Make sure your butterfly garden is planted in an area that is relatively free of wind, has some type of water that recedes slowly from a shallow lip-birdbaths, ponds or a saucer of water with a sponge in it-and plenty of rocks or pebble-strewn pathways. The rocks retain heat and offer a perfect spot for butterflies to bask in the sun. Plants many butterflies require include milkweed, cottonwood, willow, a variety of grasses and some herbs. Some species also enjoy butterfly bush, hibiscus and geranium.

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