Tuesday, May 30, 2017

How to Plan a Garden

Paula commented on my recent gardening post that she doesn’t know where to begin planning a garden. While I’m no expert, I’ve planted a few and can offer suggestions about things to think about.


Creating a garden takes an investment of time and money, but I expect you'll find the reward is well worth it. Gardening can improve your health (gardening gets you outdoors and active), put you in better spirits (digging in dirt is proven to relieve depression), and give you a sense of accomplishment and pride from creating a thing of beauty. 

Before you begin buying plants and digging, though, decide about how much time and money you want to put in. If you're new to gardening, you may want to start with a small piece of ground at first and expand on it as you learn and experience some success.

Money. Perennial plants are more expensive to buy, but provide a needed foundation for your garden. They get bigger from year to year and over time give you more bang for your buck. Annual plants are good fillers and provide color, but you must replace them every year.

Time. “Easy care” gardens are a bit of a myth. Some gardens are easier to care for than others, but you will always have to water, weed, trim, and prune if you want to keep yours looking nice. Bear in mind, too, that although grass requires care, it typically takes less time than a garden to keep up. You might want to keep most of your yard in grass. Incidentally, you can save some work by letting your lawn go completely dormant in the summer.

Sun and shade

Next consider the garden space itself. How much sun and shade does it get? How does this change with the seasons? Some plants need full sun most of the day, some can only live in a shady spot, and others thrive in part sun, part shade. You’ll need to pick out the right plants for your location. The garden center plant tag will tell you how much sun or shade the plant requires.
A shaded garden needs shade-loving plants.

Roses need full sun.

Soil type

What type of soil do you have? Unless the area was previously used for a garden, the soil is probably less than perfect. Is it full of clay, and difficult to dig up, or is it sandy so it dries out too quickly? You will probably need to amend the soil with the right ingredients to correct these conditions. For clay soil, use sand, peat, and compost to help keep the soil from compacting around the plant roots and suffocating them. For sandy soil, use lots and lots of compost to help retain moisture and provide nutrients. When you add soil amendments, dig them into at least the top six inches. Your goal should be to end up with soil that you can easily scoop up in your hand. When you squeeze it, it should hold a shape that easily falls apart.

Another aspect of soil is acidity and alkalinity. Generally, soils in rainy climates like we have here in the Pacific Northwest are acidic. Acid loving plants like rhododendrons, camellias, heathers and heaths, and azaleas love this soil. Other plants do not. To make the soil more alkaline, you can add lime. Pick up a PH gauge at your local garden store and use it to analyze your soil and figure out how much lime you need to add, if any. As your garden center pro what type of soil your chosen plants need. Also, be sure to plant acid loving plants apart from your alkaline loving plants so they can all thrive in the right soil type.


Most plants need an inch of water a week, either from rain or watering. Xeriscaping is a good idea, but even in a xeriscape, you need to water plants for the first two years to get them established. Watering a garden by hand minimizes the amount of water you use, but is very time-consuming. Other options are putting in an underground watering system, usually on a timer or designing your garden space to make it easy to cover with a sprinkler or other types of above-ground watering gadgets. Some people collect water in rain barrels or cisterns to use for their landscape watering needs.

Garden design

It’s a good idea to draw a scale picture of your garden and plant placement so you can make sure it’s going to work. One garden design approach that I like calls for papas, mamas, and babies. Papas are full-size trees like oak, maple, fir, elm, etc. Mamas are smaller trees like cherry and Japanese maple and extra-large shrubs. Babies are smaller shrubs. The principal says for every papa have three mamas and for every mama have nine babies. Then fill in with the smallest shrubs and plants. In a small yard like ours, a cherry tree serves as the papa, and we scale down from there. Generally, you place the tallest plants in the back of the garden and add progressively shorter plants moving towards the front.

An interesting garden design combines plants with different leaf shapes and foliage colors for contrast. If you plan to use flowering plants, consider colors and timing of the blooms. Do you want an impressive flower bed that looks spectacular during one season, or do you want your garden to be interesting and colorful for three, or even four seasons? Visit your garden center at different times of the year and see what plants are featured. Note which ones you like the best and will fit with your overall design. Also, be sure to include plants that keep their foliage year-round to avoid having a barren garden in the winter.
This garden has lots of contrasting foliage colors and shapes.
Roses bloom all summer and fall.

Rhododendrons showy blooms last for only a few weeks in the spring.

Even though their bloom time is limited, rhododendrons keep their leaves all year round and keep your garden from looking barren in the winter.

Plant selection

In addition to foliage shape and color, pay attention to plant size. If the tag on a shrub says it will grow 5 feet high and wide in 10 years, realize that it will grow to at least 10 feet in 20 years. This consideration is particularly important with trees because they’re hard to move. If you plant a small tree right next to your house, and it grows too large for its allotted space, you’re probably going to need to cut it down. While you can prune trees and shrubs to make them smaller, they have a way of quickly growing back to their natural size. With trees, also consider the root system. Does the tree have a tap root that grows downwards, or does it have roots that spread and can eventually crack patios, sidewalks, and even your foundation if placed too close?


Every rule of gardening can be broken successfully if done with care. You can place acid lovers and alkaline lovers in the same part of your garden if you treat the soil around each one according to its preference. You can put tall plants in front of short plant to a dramatic effect. Spikey flowering plants work very well in front of shorter bushier plants, for example.

And just like living room furniture, you can move plants around. If one gets too big for its location, it may be possible to dig it up and move it or simply remove it and replace it with something else. If you get tired of part of your design, go ahead and change it. Rip out old plants and put in new ones. It’s your garden, after all. Enjoy it!
Peonies bloom for a few weeks in spring, but their foliage remains attractive through the summer. In winter, it dies down to the ground.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Planting a New Pacific Northwest Shade Garden

My Plants for Pacific Northwest shade gardens post of several years ago has been so popular that I decided to write about the new shade garden we started in 2011.

Here's a view from our kitchen window last year when the Foxglove and blue Campanula were blooming. The tree with the white leaves is a Japanese Maple called Floating Cloud. Creating interest in the front row with colorful foliage is a Chocolate Huechera and a chartreuse Feverfew. 
In 2010, we moved into a 1945 cottage in Seattle. The previous homeowners weren't gardeners, so there wasn't much in the way of plant life in our small city yard. The view out our kitchen window was particularly dismal, and we made it a top priority to change it. One problem was an ugly concrete retaining wall between our yard and the backyard neighbor's. To cover it up, we decided to use plants along the wall that would grow up tall and wide. Because the area is shaded by a large European Bird Cherry, we used shade-tolerant rhododendrons and camellias. Once they got big, they would create a lovely green screen year-round.

Here's what the back corner of the garden looked like in 2013, two years after we started planting things. You can see why we wanted to cover up the concrete wall, not to mention the metal stripping at the bottom of the neighbor's garage, which you can see above the wall. In front of the wall we planted four camellias that will eventually grow 10 feet or taller and three rhododendronsk that will also grow quite tall and bushy. In this photo, you can see the King George Loderi species rhododendron to the right of the tree. Full grown, it will be quite large.
Here's what that part of the garden looks like this afternoon. King George has grown up to almost cover the neighbor's garage window.

Here's a photo taken after we planted a Bleeding Heart between King George and the tree, Rhododendron Nancy Evans is in the front of the photo, and a tree fern is to her left. We filled in with some Irish moss for groundcover. Blue bells to the left came with the yard. I'm still trying to control them. :|

Rhododendron Anna Kruschke with her magenta blooms covers quite a bit of concrete, and very prettily.

Rhododendron Honey Butter, my personal favorite.
We've used Rhododendron Nancy Evans in several places. In this photo, she's in full bloom. The earlier photo shows the color of her buds, which have a lot of orange. Rhododendron Mrs. Furnival is in the upper left corner of the photo.
Behind the glider is a Chinese tree rhododendron. It will grow very tall. You may see why we've nicknamed her Audrey III. It looks like she's about to eat the glider. To the left of the tree rhodie is a Vine Maple tree. In front of the glider is a Chocolate Heuchera (aka Coral Bells) that provides foliage contrast. In the bottom left isOxalis ground cover. Ferns fill in between larger plants throughout the garden.
King George Loderi buds. The flowers in full bloom are huge.
Rhododendron Mrs. Furnival
We tucked Evergreen huckleberries here and there, and get to enjoy fresh berries in our pancakes in the summer.
We put in lots of Hostas of different colors and sizes to cover ground and create interest. Here's a blue-leafed one along with an Oregon Grape.
False Solomon's Seal
There are several types of self-seeding plants throughout the landscape. They come up randomly and fill in garden space with foliage and color. If I don't like where a plant has come up, I simply pull it out. In this photo are Forget-me-nots and Columbine in blue and white. We also have a lot of Foxglove with their dramatic tall flower spikes.
You might also like:
How to Plan a Garden
Plants for Pacific Northwest Shade Gardens