My hubby, Jim and I have successfully created both small and large gardens. In today’s post, I share what we have learned from our gardens, as well as helpful resources like gardening books and our local garden extension office. Understanding your site and selecting the right plants will help you create a beautiful garden, whether you are hiring a landscaper or doing the job yourself.
Understanding your Site
Understanding your site is the first step to creating a beautiful garden that is easy to maintain. You will need to consider the contour of the land, conditions of the existing soil, light exposure, and moisture conditions. You will also need to consider the existing vegetation, buildings, winds, salt exposure, and microclimates.
What is your site like, flat or sloping? If your site is flat, you will want to place plants and trees along pathways that creates a bit of mystery for what lies around the corner or just behind that plant grouping. Many folks undervalue a sloped site, which naturally draws you up over the hill or down a slope to see what awaits. Keep in mind that many slopes can be stabilized with deep rooted plants and will not even require costly retaining walls.
You can learn more about gardening on slopes with this post:
Understanding your soil conditions is the next step to building a beautiful garden. You will need to know if your soil is wet or dry. Is it clay or sand? If you have a spot that is extremely wet or extremely dry, instead of changing the site conditions, choose plants that are suited for that type of environment. I’ll share some resources to help you select the right plants later but remember your local native and non-native plant nurseries offer great advice for your area.
To truly understand the light conditions in your garden, you will need to observe the sun patterns for your site. This involves tracking sunlight in different areas in your garden throughout the entire day. Please note that three hours of afternoon sun is much stronger than three hours of morning sun. Finally, you will want to track the sun patterns during the entire growing season for your area.
Some spots in your garden may be sheltered from high winds, while others get blasted. Choosing a hardy plant for high wind areas will certainly help ensure its success. Our home in South Florida is close enough to the ocean that we have chosen salt-tolerant plants that will thrive in spite of the occasional salty breeze. Buildings, slopes, existing trees and plants can create microclimates that can be vastly different than other parts of your garden. Please keep in mind that there are native and perennial plants suited for just about any location, you simply need to make the correct choices.
To see more of our South Florida garden, check out my post below:
My favorite type of garden includes layers of native and perennial plants, as well as small trees. Choose plants that bloom in the season when you’ll be in the garden, i.e., our South Florida garden includes many winter flowering plants because that’s when the weather is the nicest. If you live up north, consider cold-hardy evergreens and plants that have interest in the winter with unusual colors or seedheads for wildlife. Most of the gardens we’ve created look beautiful, but also attract butterflies and birds and provide a enticing fragrance.
When choosing your plants, look for long blooming flowering shrubs. I love flowers that self-seed, which can spread and pop up in other areas of your garden. Combine flowering shrubs and plants with interesting foliage. Look for trees and shrubs that only need trimming once a year. Buy lower maintenance perennials that have most of the following traits:
- Life span of five years or longer
- Appropriate to your US Dept. of Agriculture’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map (10a South Florida and 4b NW Montana)
- Heat, humidity, and moisture tolerance
- Doesn’t require frequent division (>4 years)
- Doesn’t require staking
- Insect and disease resistance or tolerance
- Doesn’t require numerous prunings to maintain acceptable foliage, habit or size
- Doesn’t require heavy fertilizing
- Not invasive
Find your exact zone by entering your zip code in the site below:
Having considered the site and the types of plants you want to incorporate in your garden, you now need to plan the arrangement and spacing of the plants. Knowing the ultimate width of any perennials you want to use is crucial to planning. One recommendation is to plant perennials in drifts (long-shaped planting of perennials) using odd numbers for a eye-pleasing look. Keeping the ultimate size in mind, I tend to space plants rather close to reduce weeds and produce a lush, full style within a short period of time. I like to use at least three layers in my garden. To achieve this look, plant low growing plants at the front (space 8-12″ apart), mid-level size plants behind (space 15-24″ apart) and taller plants in the back (2-3′ apart). If you have the room, design border gardens that follow walkways and install island garden beds to create interest and block views to other parts of your yard.
Preparing your Garden
A perennial growing in healthy, nutritious soil will require less fertilizer and will be less stressed, thereby improving its ability to fend off attacks from disease and pests. As much as 80 percent of all plant problems are related to poor soil. You will avoid most problems by incorporating the proper amounts of organic matter and other soil amendments, such as compost, lime, or synthetic conditioners to your soil. This step will also help your perennials double or even triple in size the first growing season.
A few basic steps should be followed to ensure successful bed preparation:
- Testing the soil: Test to determine soil type, pH level, organic matter content and available phosphate and potash. You can purchase soil testing kits or send a sample to your county extension agency. In the book and resources section below, I list two resources, one for Palm Beach County, FL and one for Flathead County, Montana. When you send your sample, make sure you mention you’ll be growing perennial and ornamental plants to receive the correct recommendations.
- Soil pH: Most perennials can withstand varying pH levels, if you provide sufficient moisture in the summer and good drainage in winter. Your soil test will give you pH recommendations for your site. Lime can be used to increase soil pH and sulfur to decrease pH; the type and quantity needed to increase or decrease soil pH will be determined by your soil type.
- Removing Weeds: If you don’t want to use Roundup, you can cover the bed area with several layers of moistened newspaper, black plastic or cardboard and mulch. Many folks recommend waiting six months for all the weeds to die with this method. If you use Roundup, follow the directions and wait 14 days, then spray any additional weeds, wait another 14 days and finally once weed free till your soil.
- Well-draining soil: Soil texture (the relative proportions of sand, silt, clay, and loam) can be an indication of what kind of soil drainage you have. Sandy soils are sometimes too well drained, requiring constant watering. On the other hand, if puddles tend to stick around for more than a half day, you have a drainage problem and possibly clay soil. Add organic matter to beds at the rate of a third by volume, or 4 inches per 12 inches of soil to improve moisture and nutrient retention. There is gardening math you’ll have to do, which you can find online or in The Well-tended Perennial Garden book mentioned below.
- Organic matter: Adding organic matter improves the physical, chemical, and biological properties of your soil. Research has shown that it can increase plant growth by 20-100 percent while maintaining higher-than-average survival rates. If you have a small bed to amend, your local plant nursery or big box store will have organic matter available in bags. If you have a large area, you will want to visit a supplier that can deliver to your site.
- Bed Preparation Tips: Planting densely, mulching, and providing enough water and nutrients will help your plants fill in quickly. Rent a rototiller to help you break up your existing soil and add organic matter. If you can work the soil easily in your hands, it is ready to plant.
Maintaining your Garden
If you are successful, you will need to prune or possibly divide your plants in the future. What, how, and when to prune perennials varies from region to region, from year to year, and with the age of the plant. The condition of the plant, whether it is healthy or stressed, and the fertility of the soil will affect pruning requirements, as will weather conditions. Watch your plants closely: they usually tell you by their appearance what kind of pruning is in order. It’s important to prune plants after they have bloomed, so they have sufficient time to grow and produce new flowers. Why do we prune and divide plants?
- Extend bloom period or promote repeat blooms
- Encourage lush new growth
- Regenerate or extend the life of plants
- Stagger plant heights or bloom times
- Reduce plant height
- Keep plants in their own space
- Increase flower size or numbers
- Prevention or control pests
- Enhance the overall appearance
- Remove unsightly or insignificant flowers
- Clean up the garden
- Division doubles your plants
A stress-free plant is less likely to succumb to disease and pest, which is why you’ll want to ensure you have prepared your soil and are watering properly. If your plants start to develop issues, reach out to your local nursery or extension office for advice. You could also do an internet search or invest in a book like the Well-tended Perennial Garden that I’ve listed below.
Gardening Books and Resources
Here is a list of our favorite gardening books and resources:
- The Well-tended Perennial Garden/The Essential Guide to Planting + Pruning Techniques by Tracy DiSabato-Aust
- Best Garden Plants for Montana by Dr. Bob Gough, Cheryl Moore-Gough, and Laura Peters
- Wildflowers of Montana by Donald Anthony Schiemann
- Planting the Natural Garden by Piet Oudolf and Henk Gerritsen
- Dream Plants for the Natural Garden by Piet Oudolf and Henk Gerritsen
- Easy Gardens for South Florida by Pamela Crawford
- Best Garden Color for Florida by Pamela Crawford
- For South Florida Gardens, visit the Mounts Botantical Garden located in West Palm Beach. Website: https://www.mounts.org/
- For NW Montana Gardens, visit the Flathead website: https://flathead.msuextension.org/AgNatureCommDev.html
- Local native and other plant nurseries are an excellent source of information and plants choices
I am happy to share our experience, as well as these resources with you. In addition to this garden blog, I also share helpful interior design tips and our adventure travel experiences in this blog. I hope you’ll explore these additional topics and be sure to subscribe below to ensure you never miss a post!
Although we are not landscape experts, we have designed, installed and maintained three South Florida gardens over the past twenty years. If you have a question or would like to share your garden, please drop it in the comment section below: