Winter can last for what seems like forever in Cache Valley. During that cold, dark, and sometimes very dreary period of the year, I love to focus on the upcoming spring and what beauty and wonder nature will have to offer when it awakes. I know there will be days of difficult work to prepare the garden or plant new flowers or plants, but just the anticipation of those days makes winter go by that much quicker. Over the years we have helped a lot of gardeners and home owners design and build their own gardens and through that process have discovered a few basic guidelines that never lose their value. They may seem simplistic, but if you live by these rules, you’ll save a lot of headaches later.
Never plant a $100 tree in a $1 hole. This goes for any type of plant – vegetable, flower, tree or shrub. How can we expect our plants to live and thrive when we don’t prepare and improve the place where they will grow? Often I see trees and shrubs planted in holes that are barely the size of the pot in which they were purchased. The ultimate planting environment for those plants is 2-3 times the size of the pot. The soil removed from the hole should be cleaned of rocks (just the big ones, little rocks are good for drainage) and debris and amended with 25-30% of a well composted soil enhancement – not manure. Most importantly, the new plant and it’s new home needs supplemental microbes, microorganisms and mycorrhizae added to the soil and root zone to build up its natural ability to gather and utilize water and nutrient. Basically, those roots need some love and attention to start working again after being manhandled and amputated during the planting process.
When planting new gardens, always start with the largest plants first, then mid-sized, then small. For example, plant trees first, then shrubs, then perennials, then ground covers. This holds true for practical reasons as well as in keeping with design principles. Visually it is easier to compose the garden when you see the proportion of the largest elements after they are added to the “blank canvas.” From a practical perspective, while some gardeners would quickly understand that planting a large tree will allow space and room to work without damaging smaller plants in the process, many gardeners cannot resist the temptation to plant some smaller, easier, more colorful additions first. Resist that urge.
Masses of plants, especially smaller plants like flowers and perennials, look amazing compared to a few plants placed sparingly. Look at the beautiful tulip fields in Holland. Masses of tulips catch and hold the eye with amazing colors, yet many gardeners will plant one bulb every few feet and expect to see Holland-like results. From a design perspective, think of a majestic building, like the Pantheon of Greece, if it had different color marble for every column – it would look very different than it did originally. Using a mass of the same plant in a garden design gives a very distinct and specific look that will make your design stand out too.
Be flexible, don’t bite off more than you can handle, and have fun. A lot of times we get so involved and determined about our design or our choice of plants or a certain color that we forget that we are doing this for our own enjoyment. We sweat the small stuff too much and miss out on the journey of creating it in the first place. As my wife and I built our home and started to create our landscape, part of the fun was figuring it out together, realizing that we had made mistakes, fixing those mistakes, and then realizing we wanted something completely different as our family grew and our circumstances changed. We would sit down every winter and make a list of needs, wants, and wishes and start on the needs first. Then we would see how far we could get into the wants & wishes before the energy and money ran out. At the end of the year we would assess our progress and it was surprising how many needs and wants we could get done. Then we would make new plans and start our list over again, and start the process all over for the next year. That way we never felt bad over what we didn’t do, but got excited about what we could accomplish together. We were always very happy just to get the needs done, and if we managed to do some wants too, that was icing on the cake. Just remember that yards and landscapes evolve over time, just as our families and ourselves evolve over time. It’s an ongoing process – and whether you like it or not – your landscaping job will never be finished until you become part of the landscaping yourself. Get it? If not, come find me and I’ll explain it….
So, while you wither away inside from the lack of sun and the blistering cold and snow outside, ponder on these few rules of landscaping as you plan out that new patio with raised bed planters, or the scented garden you’ve always wanted. When the time comes to be outside again, you’ll have a blueprint for what you’d like to accomplish outside this coming summer. Equipped with the knowledge to be successful in the garden, you can be creative and let those designs come to life. I can’t wait to see what you create.