When we are talking about how to plan, plant and care for a garden, we are not just talking about vegetable gardens. A garden can be any piece of land that we designate for planting. Gardens usually have some soil amendment and are often used for aesthetic appeal, recreation, or production. Our gardens can be planted with trees, shrubs, flowers, vines, or any number of various food crops.
“We may think we are nurturing our garden, but of course, it’s our garden that is really nurturing us.”Jenny Uglow
While a garden may have trees, it should not be confused with an orchard. A garden is likely to contain a wide variety of plants; (trees, flowers, shrubs, medicinal plants, vegetables, fruit plants, grasses, etc.), while an orchard will typically only have fruit or nut trees.
Humans have been arranging and cultivating plants in their gardens for a very long time. We have a long history of manipulating nature’s plants to serve our needs.
There are many different types of gardens:
- Public gardens
- Residential gardens
- Zoological gardens
- Botanical gardens
- Native/natural gardens
- Tea gardens
- Water gardens
- Formal gardens
Establishing a garden on your property is a long-term investment of your time and effort. If you are going to commit to establishing a garden, it’s best to start on the right foot.
Begin with a Plan
“An Hour of Planning Can Save You 10 Hours of Doing”.Dale Carnegie
Whether you are planning a tiny little corner garden next to your patio, or an extensive series of garden beds through-out your yard, you’ll want to plan ahead to be sure that you use the space you have in the best way possible. What exactly that sentence means is entirely up to you. It’s your space; make the best of it.
All gardens have plants, and the most critical factor in your garden’s success will be the health of your plants. No matter how well you care for them, plants will only thrive when they are planted in a location that is well suited to supply them with what they need.
Every plant has a specific range of temperatures, sunlight, and moisture that it is well suited for. Any plant that you are considering for your garden will need to be researched to be sure that it will grow well in your garden and have enough space to develop long term.
Some common plants to consider for temperate regions:
- Deciduous: oak, maple, poplar, locust, ash, birch, fruit trees, etc.
- Evergreen: pine, fir, spruce, juniper, cedar, boxwood, etc
- Shrubs: lilac, viburnum, spirea, honeysuckle, hydrangea, dogwood, chokecherry, alder, etc.
- Flowers: coneflower, iris, daylily, hosta, daisy, astilbe, yarrow, dianthus, columbine, etc.
- Ground Covers/Grasses: periwinkle, pachysandra, ivy, thyme, fescue, rye, etc.
Some common plants to consider for tropical/sub-tropical regions:
- Trees: date palm, eucalyptus, cypress, citrus, crepe myrtle, fringe tree, etc.
- Shrubs: gardenia, hibiscus, azalea, bottlebrush, plumbago, oleander, etc.
- Flowers: bird of paradise, amaryllis, bougainvillea, aloe, agave, etc.
Plants are a critical part of your plan but not the only factor. Most gardens have a purpose, and you’ve got to determine the purpose of yours. If it is purely aesthetic, it will be built differently than a vegetable garden, which will be constructed differently than a patio garden, etc.
Plan for aesthetics by planning out the layering of plant material to give the best, most pleasing view of all of your plants. Plan for diversity, pattern, texture, balance, and open space to create the interest and feel you desire.
Plan for function by arranging plant material to be easily maintained. A natural perennial garden will have much different maintenance needs than a vegetable or herb garden, so plan accordingly and leave yourself space to work. If you can’t access your garden to maintain it, chances are it will become a mess in short order.
Many folks will advise you to have your soil tested before starting a garden. If you are planting very finicky and particular plants, you may want to start with a soil test. However, soil tests are far from necessary. Remember, this has been happening since the first human transplanted a food source closer to their home. They certainly didn’t have soil tests back then.
I have been landscaping my entire life and have never had any soil tested. This sort of falls under the category of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
If plants are growing in the soil now, you know that it is likely fine to plant into. The only time that
I would test if I am planting some prized plant that requires precise ph levels. Other than that, I would amend and plant.
On the other hand, if your proposed garden location is a patch of ground that has been barren for years and doesn’t grow anything, you may want to test it because if it isn’t growing weeds, it is not likely that it will grow your plants. But, if you have ground this bad, you might want to scoop it out and replace it with some highly composted organic soil to make it easy on yourself.
The type of irrigation needed for your garden will vary widely, depending on its location. If it is in a well-balanced temperate zone and you plan to grow plants that are well suited for your zone, there will be very little need for irrigation. If you are trying to plant a vegetable garden in a very arid climate, you will definitely need irrigation.
My advice on irrigation is to manually use mobile sprinklers or soaker hoses and create a temporary system using garden hoses to establish your plants. Unless you are a commercial grower where you are line-planting hundreds or thousands of seedlings every year, your typical garden does not need hundreds or thousands of dollars of irrigation installed in it.
If you are growing vegetables, you will appreciate that the old hose and sprinkler or soaker system is easily adjusted and altered for future plant type or layout changes. You will also appreciate the economy of pulling out a sprinkler only when you need it, rather than paying to install a complicated system that you don’t need once your plants are established.
An exception to this might be an annual flower bed. Suppose you are creating a bed for annual flowers, and it is in the bright sunlight. In this case, it might be nice to have a well-disguised, permanent irrigation system with an automatic controller so that regardless of what you plant year after year, you can be sure that it is getting enough water on those hot summer days.
Types of Irrigation
You will either be looking at drip or broadcast irrigation for the most part.
Drip irrigation is just what it sounds like. It is a series of tubes or hoses spread throughout your garden attached to little lines that drip the water out onto specific areas of the soil. Or it can be soaker hoses that are pressurized and allow the water to soak through the hose evenly wherever it is run.
Drip irrigation has the advantage of being great for water conservation. The water is not thrown into the air where it can evaporate and be blown astray by the wind; it is instead applied directly to the soil. A downside would be that if the drip system isn’t laid out properly, you could have some areas that get plenty of water and other plants that get none, simply because the drip line wasn’t placed close enough to them.
Drip irrigation makes it easy to be very accurate with your irrigation. You can easily lay it out to allow different types of plants, while in close proximity to each other, to receive very different levels of irrigation. You can also run selective drip to only certain select plants that require more water while not providing any irrigation to the rest of the garden.
Drip is also advantageous because it doesn’t spray down the entire plant, damaging leaves on more delicate plants.
A disadvantage to drip irrigation is that it is typically much harder to install since you aren’t simply spraying water in from the outside. Also, drip always makes it harder to make changes in your garden since moving plants might require different drip layouts. Also, take it from a guy that knows it is really easy to damage drip irrigation with your shovel if you aren’t the most careful gardener.
A broadcast system is quite different than drip in that it just shoots water out over the entire bed. You can adjust how much water to put on the bed, and you can change the arc to allow for it to shoot further or less far and only rotate to a certain angle, but for the most part, everything in the bed will get watered.
If there are tall plants near the broadcast sprinkler, they are likely to get hit with a very hard direct shot of water which is likely to damage them. If there are little plants behind larger plants, they may not receive water because the bigger plant caught it all.
Broadcast is easy to set up; whether you are burying a professional system or using plastic mobile sprinklers and garden hoses, the setup is very similar. Run water to the sprinkler and position the sprinkler to cover everything you want to water. These systems are easy to install and easy to change as the garden changes.
On the other side of irrigation lies drainage. Depending on your garden’s location and the type of plants that you are growing, you may need to consider drainage. This isn’t an issue most of the time, but if you are changing the grades and pitches of the ground to create your garden, please take into consideration any drainage ways through your property.
The last thing that you want to do is carefully amend your soil and plant your plants, only to have half of it get washed away in a storm because you blocked the main runoff area on your property. We always want to work with mother nature and not against her. If at all possible, place your garden where it won’t be too wet or too dry and where it fits in well with the lay of the land. Fighting the lay of the land will frequently cause problems, and often it just looks unnatural.
On the same note, always pay attention to the grades around your home. Far too often, I have seen garden beds mounded up high against a house’s siding. This presents two problems. First, mounding soil around your foundation will encourage rainwater to run toward your foundation, which may result in a wet basement. Second, the soil and mulch up against the siding will undoubtedly lead to rot, which can get costly and allow rodents to easily enter the house.
Once you have determined your layout and the plants you’d like, you’ll want to prepare your garden soil. While most garden beds are planted at existing grades or into a lightly mounded area, if there needs to be contouring of the ground before planting, do that before any soil amendments or planting. You need to start with a good base that is adequately pitched and then move on from there.
Once the base is set, the best thing you can do for a future garden bed is to start amending the soil a year or two before planting. If you plan ahead and layer compost into your garden over time, the ground will be rich, soft, and ready for you to plant into.
But, if you haven’t planned ahead and amended your soil well in advance, it would be a good idea to add some well-aged compost to the top layer of soil before planting. I would caution you from using any chemical fertilizers, which increases our chemical load on the planet and puts your family in danger. There are perfectly effective organic alternatives to every chemical fertilizer, so please go organic.
The new plants require greater quantities of primary and secondary nutrients during initial growth periods. Giving your new plants plenty of organic nutrients to grow with will help them succeed and thrive. There are various organic soil enrichment methods.
Compost can be just about any well-aged organic materials. Some people compost using kitchen scraps, while others use a blend of tree-based materials and manure. You need to make sure that it is well aged, as fresh manure can burn plants.
The easiest way to use compost is to spread it evenly over the ground and let it decompose into the soil, giving up its nutrients for your plants. Continued thin layers are typically easier to apply than one big thick layer, although if you are starting a garden from scratch, don’t be afraid to lay it on thick. Check out our article that talks about the lasagna method.
Another way to apply compost is to place it into the hole as you plant. This method is often used by landscapers who are planting a handful of trees or shrubs as it is easier to amend just the soil for that plant rather than amend the entire area. I would caution you, though, that amending the whole garden is always preferable, as it betters the soil composition of a larger area and encourages root spread rather than encouraging roots to stay in that one fertilizer-rich area.
Biochar is the charcoal produced from the pyrolysis of plant or animal material. It is widely used for soil amelioration processes and the removal of carbon sequestration from the atmosphere. Biochar is created by burning wood so that it leaves the charcoal. This char is then used as a soil conditioner.
Your planting methods will vary depending on plant availability, budget, and plant type. If you are vegetable gardening, you will often be planting seeds. It works well to lay out rows of the same kinds of seeds to keep it simple for weeding, irrigation, and harvesting.
If you are planting a flower garden or larger planting bed, you will typically use already established plants. Most of these plants will come growing in the soil they were raised in, while some plants may arrive bare root.
If your plant arrives bare root, it is crucial that you dig a hole and create a sort of soil slurry with water, compost and soil to ensure that the roots get complete contact with soil and that there are not any air pockets that would lead to root death.
Post Germination Care
“It is easy to plant/sow the seed but difficult to care and grow.” The seedlings are sensitive when they emerge and should be protected from excessive irrigation (which may lead to fungal diseases), insects (attracted by the juicy and sweet seedlings), frost, etc.
Weeds are the unwanted plants that seem to always grow more easily and quickly than the plants that we want in our gardens. We humans are a strange bunch; any time we find a plant or an animal that grows really well in our area, we label it as invasive and try to get rid of it. We seem to want to grow only the very difficult plants to grow. For some reason, we see the more difficult plants as more desirable.
Weeds can take over your more delicate garden plants fairly quickly, so you will want to stay on top of them. Once again, I would strongly suggest that you stay away from chemical weed killers. They are expensive, dangerous to our environment, and a very short-lived solution.
I would always recommend compost and mulch to help keep soils moist, soft, and workable and help discourage weeds. Thicken up the organic material between plants and keep it thin right at the plants’ base. Pull weeds as they sprout, and you will never lose control of the bed.
Pests like aphids and whiteflies can be controlled using a blast of cold water or organic horticultural oil in the form of spray directly on the pests. These methods will not harm the plants and some other beneficial insects. I would never recommend chemical pesticides, as they are mostly non-selective and kill both helpful and harmful insects.
For the most part, I would plant according to zone, light, and water requirements and ignore most pest problems. Well planted, healthy plants will usually be able to endure a pest, at least until some birds or other predators come and take care of the situation in nature’s way.
Annual Maintenance Practices
Pinching and deadheading – Pinching of long, leggy, spindly shoots of perennial flowers is good for them. Deadheading (nipping off finished blooms to prevent the plant from going to seed) will encourage re-blooming throughout the season.
Pruning – Some fruit plants like Grapes, Guava, Ber, etc., and flowers like rose, and shrubs like Hydrangea, Honeysuckle, etc., do better with pruning every season when they are dormant. These plants produce fruit on the new growth, so pruning will encourage more production.
Feeding – Fertilization requirements for trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses will differ. It is good for the plants and the soil to use organic fertilizers like compost, rotten leaves, etc. You won’t go wrong with the application of a nice organic compost over all of your beds. If you have specific areas or plants showing yellowing, you may want to increase the compost or aged manure application. The recommended rate of well-aged farmyard manure (compost) is 20-30 pounds per 100 sq. ft. at the start of fall and not in the spring (active season of growth).
Establishing a garden is a time-honored tradition that improves your property in many different ways, which will, in turn, improve your life. Enrich your environment to enrich your life! The more that we compost and keep our yards green and chemical-free, the more our environment benefits. If everyone adopted this attitude, our earth would be out of trouble in no time. Okay, enough reading, go out there and plant something.
Spary, E. C. (2010). Utopia’s Garden: French natural history from Old Regime to Revolution. University of Chicago Press.
McClintock, N., Wooten, H., & Brown, A. H. (2012). Toward a food policy” first step” in Oakland, California: A food policy council’s efforts to promote urban agriculture zoning. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 2(4), 15-42.
Williams, A. M., & Shaw, G. (2009). Future play: tourism, recreation, and land use. Land Use Policy, 26, S326-S335.
Hurd, A. R., & Anderson, D. M. (2010). The park and recreation professional’s handbook. Human Kinetics.
Lawson, L. (2004). The planner in the garden: A historical view into the relationship between planning and community gardens. Journal of Planning History, 3(2), 151-176.
Egli, V., Oliver, M., & Tautolo, E. S. (2016). The development of a model of community garden benefits to wellbeing. Preventive medicine reports, 3, 348-352.
Söderback, I., Söderström, M., & Schälander, E. (2004). Horticultural therapy: the ‘healing garden and gardening in rehabilitation measures at Danderyd Hospital Rehabilitation Clinic, Sweden. Pediatric rehabilitation, 7(4), 245-260.
Reichard, S. H., & White, P. (2001). Horticulture as a pathway of invasive plant introductions in the United States: most invasive plants have been introduced for horticultural use by nurseries, botanical gardens, and individuals. BioScience, 51(2), 103-113.
Kwon, J. W., Park, E. Y., Hong, K. P., & Hwang, M. H. (2013). Suggestions on the types of the distribution of gardens for the overseas establishment of traditional Korean gardens-Oriented the garden which is applicable to the open space. Journal of the Korean Institute of Traditional Landscape Architecture, 31(3), 106-113.