As a garden designer, I often meet with clients who have tried to beautify their yard with plants but end up frustrated. A little border along the fence sits with a few anemic perennials and a half-dead sapling on a patch of dry dirt. “We realized we need your help,” they say. They tried with good intentions to design a border and somehow it didn’t work out. But do-it-yourself garden design needn’t be difficult as long as you avoid the mistakes I’ve noticed are common among newbies.
- Not figuring out what kind of soil you have. In my yard, I have clay soil. I also have sandy soil. These areas of soil are not even fifty feet from each other. Can I mix sandy soil into clay soil to lighten it up? No. That makes cement. But soils aren’t too complex to work with. Before buying plants, pick a spot where you want to plant, and with a shovel (not a trowel), dig up one scoop. From that scoop, take a handful and squeeze. If the soil stays clumped together, you have clay, usually darkish brown. If it can’t be clumped, you have sand, usually tan or grayish. If the soil falls apart after a second, you probably have silt or loamy soil, which is fine. To amend clay or sandy soil, mix in a bag of organic compost for every few square feet and you’ll be good to go.
- Creating a border that’s too small. A one-foot-deep border is not enough to make an impact. You want your border to be at least three feet deep for one row of plants, six to eight for two rows. How wide is up to you.
- Planting the wrong plant in the wrong place. Roses like full sun, ferns do not. So as you buy plants, not only check the tag, but ask your nursery person for planting tips. Some plants, like hydrangeas, like sun but not hot afternoon sun. If you want detailed information, consult a website like the Missouri Botanical Garden or Oregon State University database.
- Buying too few plants for a space, or too many. Figuring out how many plants to plant in a border is tricky business. Often newbies buy a few in-bloom perennials and put them in the ground, then later aren’t sure why the border still looks meager. It’s because they haven’t bought enough for the space. Or contrarily, they overbought, put the plants in the ground six inches apart, and now the area is a tangled mess. I recommend using markers to space plants. The marker can be similar-sized rocks, pots, bamboo sticks, bricks, or irrigation flags (what I use). Anything that’s uniform in size will work. Then use this rule: at least two feet between shrubs, a foot between perennials. Plant tags will say less because growers would like you to buy more plants. But go for more space, not less. After you lay out your markers, count up the number of markers and head out to the nursery!
- Buying for flowers instead of foliage. There’s a reason I usually see roses, lilacs, and mums in newbies’ yards. Because when they’re in flower, they’re stunning! But we all know how gangly roses look. Lilacs only bloom for one month every year (except for a few cultivars), and mums, well, mums are amped up on fertilizer every fall so we can deny the idea that winter’s coming. Instead of being attracted to flowers (and believe me, the urge is difficult!), focus on foliage. Does the plant have textured leaves? Is the leaf color unusual? For instance, Geum has cool, spiky, evergreen foliage and boldly colored blooms.
- Not considering structure. In winter, plants die back. Perennials turn to mush. The garden looks forlorn and sad. I’ve met a lot of newbies who mourn this about their borders. This is because they haven’t used trees and shrubs.
Trees and shrubs provide architectural beauty as well as seeds and hiding/nesting places for birds. Small trees like Dogwoods, Paper Bark Maples, and Japanese Maples provide not only a backbone but interest with their fall color, blossoms, or peeling bark. Shrubs like Spiraea and Butterfly Bush bloom for long periods while adding differing forms to the garden. Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’ is named exactly for what it does: light up the landscape in winter with coral-colored stems. So beautiful.
- Planting beneath large trees. Large trees are large for a reason. They’re strong and mighty. Why? Because they’re good at grabbing all of the water, nutrients, and space they can. They have an extensive root system so the soil beneath becomes nutrient-drained. Yet people plant plants here. I explain to clients that the reason their half-yellow hostas are riddled with slug holes is because they don’t receive enough light and water. I recommend planting outside the tree’s drip line, or about a foot past the edge of the tree’s canopy. And because the root system reaches beyond the canopy, amend that area with compost. If you can’t get a shovel in the dirt because the roots are netted, I’d mulch with bark and do planting fun times elsewhere.
- Not watering after the first two weeks. After I install borders for clients, I emphasize watering, watering, watering. Oftentimes, clients water every few days, then drop off after a couple of weeks. Or think one day of light rain is enough for a plant. It’s not. If you plant in April, remember that by June, if the weather dries out, that plant, especially if it’s in full sun, will need supplemental water. It’s a baby. It needs love. This is especially true for trees and shrubs, which take longer to establish. So water, lots. Otherwise that lovely Redbud you planted will slowly turn into a scaffold of dry sticks and you’ll cry at losing a hundred dollars.
Still, gardening can be rewarding, even more so when you prepare a bit. Happy planting!