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Gardening is one of those tasks that I usually dislike doing, but once I am finished and can see the results of my labor, I am pleased at what I have accomplished.
There are several large gardens at my home, and all of them have been completely redone by me over the last four summers. It has been challenging, frustrating, disheartening, a learning experience, but it has also been rewarding.
At the tender age of 22 my husband and I became homeowners. We took possession of the house one month before our wedding, and spent four weeks slowly moving furniture in, giving the bathroom a much needed makeover, and getting REALLY excited about officially moving in together on our wedding day (once the festivities were over, of course).
Since we purchased our home in the fall, the gardens were not particularly showy. I didn’t realize how badly they needed to be redone until the following spring, when poorly place shrubs began to fill in, and overcrowded plants popped up.
I was not working at this point, so my husband gave me free reign of the yard and told me to do whatever I wanted to the gardens (apart from him using a chainsaw on some over grown shrubs, I did everything else myself).
At first I just purchased some inexpensive annual plants that looked nice, and did my best to fill in the now bare gardens. But I was dismayed to see them wither and die before the season ended, despite my careful watering!
What was I doing wrong? Why weren’t my plants growing? I didn’t really have much gardening experience, so I didn’t know that my problems could have been easily avoided with a bit of research prior to planting.
That is why I am writing this post, so that I can share my mistakes with you, our readers, in hopes that they can be avoided in your own gardening journey!
In no particular order, here are some things you need to consider before planting anything:
- How much time can you devote to gardening daily or weekly?
- Are you planting in full shade, full sun, or partial sun/shade?
- What growing zone are you located in?
- Is the soil you are working with rocky or overly dry?
- What kind of soil do you have (sandy, clay-like, nutrient rich, nutrient poor, etc)?
- Will you do a garden border of some kind or just edge it with an en edging tool?
- Do you want to plant new things every year or have the same plants come back next season?
- Do you want a full garden or will you leave spaces between plants?
- Do you want to lay mulch or not?
Phew! As you can see, there are many things to consider before even planting a garden! I am going to address each point and briefly explain why they are important to think about, and what mistakes I made.
Can you commit to gardening (more accurately: weeding) on a daily basis, or does weekly suit you? Or do you really have no time to spare at all? If you have lots of time, you may be fine having plants that require care, such as roses.
But if time is a hot commodity for you, easy care plants such as evergreen shrubs, or something that grows via bulb or tuber may be better suited for you. Shrubs are often fine left to themselves, and are usually dense enough that they can block out weed growth.
Bulb or tuber plants, such as tulip or iris, fill in nicely and are also quite dense. We have a terrible weed that grows in almost all the gardens, and it is a climber! If left unattended, it can take over in a matter of days. The tendrils wrap around the plants and suck the nutrients from them. To combat this problem, I have planted hostas, daylilies, and irises which all grow quite dense and can block the weed from growing.
Amount or Lack of Sun
If you put a shade-loving plant in full sun, it will burn. And if you place a full sun plant in the shade, obviously it won’t get enough light to grow. It’s a basic plant biology concept, but one that I had not considered! Not because I am unintelligent, but because I simply did not research what types of plants were best suited for each garden area. Which brings me to my next point…
Some plants just won’t grow here in my part of Canada. No matter how much I want a peach tree, our climate doesn’t foster their growth, which we learned the hard way. Do you research, and find out what zone you live in, so that you can purchase plants best suited for your area. A quick internet search can give you results, or you can ask someone who works at a local garden center.
Soil Quality & Type
I am somewhat embarrassed to admit this to you…but I actually have a college diploma in environmental science, which included an extensive class on soils. And I did not factor in my soil type when selecting plants for my gardens! The soil at my mom’s house was quite sandy, but mine here is very rocky and dry. It is poor quality and everything that blooms here does so later than other gardens on the street.
Plants that have deep roots don’t do well because of the rocks, and those that require most soil end up drying out. Do you research and figure out what kind of soils you have, and what plants are best suited for it. I have a handy soil sample chart from college, but you can bring a baggie-full into a local garden center and ask for help identifying it.
Border or Edging
Because of our issue with weeds, we decided to do rock borders around the gardens. Our idea was that it would help stop weeds from growing from the lawn into the flower beds, but I didn’t realize that it would make cutting the grass in the yard more difficult for my husband.
The rocks were not square, they were irregularly shaped stones from our property, so my husband was not able to smoothly cut the grass just beyond the rock borders. He would have to get out the weed-whacker and try not to ruin his cable on the rocks!
Needless to say, he got tired of that quickly and eventually refused to even attempt it. So I decided to use old bricks instead, which works much better! They create a nice, even line that he can easily bump up against in the tractor.
If you don’t have a real problem with grass or weeds invading your garden, you may not have to do any kind of border. I still recommend using an edger tool to create a definitive garden space (here is a handy article on different types of edges).
Annuals or Perennials?
An annual plant is one that lives for just one growing season, then dies, while perennials grow back every spring. Some people prefer the lack of commitment an annual provides, because they can change their garden design each year. The drawback to annuals is that buying new plants every year can get pricey!
The perennial alternative is nice because you can start with just a few plants, but with patience and time, they will fill in a garden nicely. I like bulb or tuber plants because they be easily split apart and placed elsewhere. It is really a matter of preference, but if you find yourself lacking time to garden, I recommend getting some perennials.
Full or Spaced Apart?
Again, this is a personal preference with different factors to consider. If you like the look of definitive clumps of flowers, I suggest steering clear of plants that spread. But if you want a full garden, spreading plants will be your friend! Also, if weeds are a problem, it may be easier in the long run to create a full garden in hopes of choking out the weeds.
There are a few reasons people lay mulch: aesthetics, uniformity, weed control, moisture control (and likely more that I can’t think of). Some people just like the look of red mulch, for example, instead of dirt. Others may use mulch to keep weeds under control, which is what we do.
Mulch can also be used to help soil retain moisture on hot days, but it is also a hindrance at times because it tends to absorb surface water and prevent it from actually getting into the soil (speaking from experience!).
And there are different kind of mulch in terms of color, what it is made from, and texture. You do not need to lay mulch if you don’t want to, but it does have some benefits. We chose to do mulch in our veggie garden to help keeps the weeds down, and made sure to lay the soaker hose UNDER the mulch. The type we used was red cedar mulch, which is almost fluffy in texture and has a reddish-brown tinge. Because we have super weeds, they grew through it.
Last fall a friend of my husband’s had used a wood chipper on some trees he cut down and gave us the mulch. It was quite rough and had large chunks of branch and trunk, but it worked very well for weed control! It is not as uniform in color as black or red mulch, but I prefer the look of our rugged stuff!
Gardening can be confusing at times, especially if you are starting from scratch or don’t have much experience. But hopefully these points to consider will make it easier for you!