Anytime of year is a good time to begin preparing a garden to make your yard more attractive. During the winter months and early spring are especially good times for the planning stages. As winter snows descend upon the landscape, you can be indoors drafting away plans and doing research for your new garden.
What most of us fail to do, however, is to plan a garden on paper. This is why many mistakes are made in garden planning. Taking the time to sketch out plans and do research on possible plant varieties is beneficial for a successful garden. Of course, most of us will just dig up dirt and plant something here and there, but over time, you'll find that wrong choices were made for one reason or another. Grab a pad of graph paper and a pencil for a few steps that are simple on how to plan a successful garden.
Measure the New Garden Plot
Take a look at the area where you want your new garden to be. Measuring the boundaries of your new garden will help you in deciding what to plant. You can mark the boundaries with rocks or string, and you can make curves or triangular points depending on what is attractive to you. By marking the boundaries with rocks or string, you'll get a better visual of your garden and can increase or decrease the area. It's whatever is attractive to you and what you can handle in terms of time.
Draw a sketch of the boundaries on graph paper using a pencil. Use each little graph box as either 6 inches or 1 foot for measurement. This is important and will also help you in planning the types of plants for the garden.
The Triple “S” Factor: Sun, Shade, and Soil
Next, you'll need to determine what I call the Triple S Factor: Sun, shade, and soil. Sun and shade go hand-in-hand and you'll need to know if the new garden will have full sun all day long, morning sun and afternoon shade or vice-versa, full shade, mainly shade, or mostly sun. You need to know this to determine what types of plants will grow successfully in the new garden. Planting a shade loving plant in a full-sun area is not recommended. It'll wither and die which will cost you time and money. To determine the Triple S factor, just look out your window at different times of the day and see if there's shade or sun.
The Triple S factor also includes the soil. Most areas have clay soil but it could also be sandy, rocky, or loam. Knowing what kind of soil you have will determine what plants will grow there. Take a shovel and dig a few holes and see what it looks like. You can also buy kits to send samples of your soil to a company which will analyze the soil for you.
Does the area have a small incline so that water will run off or does it get saturated after a rain storm and tends to puddle? This will also determine what types of plant you'll need to purchase. For instance, if you want a xeriscape garden, then a small incline is perfect but an area that puddles up after a good rain will only drown xeriscape plants.
Till the Soil
Before you begin planting and after you've determined your soil type, now's the time to till the soil. Digging into the ground about 4-6 inches is recommended. While you're doing this, get rid of good-sized rocks and weeds. After you've tilled the whole area, add whatever soil amendments that you need to. For instance, if you have clay soil there are amendments at Home Depot, Ace, and Lowes that you can purchase and rake into the loosened soil. These clay busters will break down the clay by adding compost and nutrients. You can also add compost at this time to enrich the soil and feed the plants once they're planted. I tend to mix my compost by purchasing plant based composts such as mushroom or coconut shells, and animal manure types of compost. Mixing composts gives the soil a wider variety of nutrients. Next, rake the amendments and composts into the soil and it's best to let these added amendments work the soil for a few weeks before planting.
Prepare the Plant List
While the soil is amending, you can now do research on the plants that you'd like to have in your new garden. There's a lot to consider when looking for plants. I would suggest that you browse your local garden nurseries, see what's available and take notes.
The first thing you'll need to know is what Plant Zone you're in. Your local garden nursery can help you with that and they will have the best selection of plants for your Zone, however, you still have to read the labels and make sure that a particular plant will work. You'll need to check how much sun and water each plant needs. If you want drought-tolerant plants, then choose like plants that need little water. Keep the water requirements and sun/shade requirements in mind at all times for a successful garden.
Your garden sketch on graph paper will come in handy at this point. As you make notes and plot the plants that you like on paper, you can see how much room you have to plant. You must plot according to the mature size of the plant, however, not the actual size of the one you're purchasing. Take a look at how tall and how wide a plant will be at maturity. You'll need to plant the taller ones in the back and the smaller ones up front and along the border. The width of the plant at maturity is very important and you'll need to space your plants accordingly when planting otherwise there'll be overcrowding and plants will die or have to be transplanted elsewhere.
Purchasing Plants & Planting
Once you're plotted your garden on the graph paper and know exactly what plants you need to buy, it's time to purchase them. Look for healthy plants and always check for bugs before adding them to your cart. When planting, keep in mind the plant size at maturity. If a plant grows 18 inches wide at maturity, then measure the 18 inches and place the plant in the middle at 9 inches. Do this for all your plantings to give them the adequate space they'll need while growing.
Plantings should be done on a sunny day of at least 50ºF and preferably not too windy. Water each plant after planting them into the ground and use a general fertilizer such as Miracle Gro.
After you've planted for the day, mulch the garden. Most people use cedar bark mulch which keeps some bugs away. The mulch will keep the soil intact, keep weeds from growing, and help keep moisture in the soil for the new plants. Mulch the garden about 2-3 inches deep.