Winter, with its enforced idleness, can be a frustrating season for gardeners, but it does provide us with time to think. And thought–careful planning–is essential when you are getting ready to begin any new garden. “Starting from scratch” may translate into something as ambitious as a makeover of your entire yard, or it may be much more modest, accenting the entrance to your house with a bracket of flowers, perhaps, or planting a knot of culinary herbs outside the kitchen door. Whatever it is you are contemplating, remember this: Planning a new garden should begin with an analysis of what you already have.
ASSESSING YOUR SITE
It’s much easier to work with nature instead of against it–let the character of the site shape both the design of the garden and the choice of what you plant there. Features to consider include the following:
Topography: Is your yard sloping or flat? Does it sit on the top of a hill, or at the bottom–or maybe on the side? Hilltop sites are especially prone to wind and drought; hillside gardens are typically well-drained, but the soil is likely to be thin; sites at the foot of a hill may be damp and, because cold air runs downhill, are especially prone to frost.
Exposure: If your yard slopes, what direction does it face? A north-facing site is cooler in summer, colder in winter, and significantly less sunny. East-facing slopes receive mainly morning sun, west-facing ones mainly afternoon sun. Unshaded south-facing sites are the sunniest and, in summertime, the hottest–a good place for succulents, such as echeverias and sedums, and silver-leaved, heat- and drought-tolerant plants including artemisias and lavenders.
Soil quality: Take a sample of your soil to the local Cooperative Extension Service to have it tested, not only for pH and nutrient content but also for soil type (loam, clay, etc.) and organic content. This information will help you select plants naturally suited to your site and apply just the fertilizers and soil conditioners your garden needs.
Sun versus shade: Note where the sunny and shady areas are within your yard, and how this pattern changes over the course of a day and as the seasons change. All sunlight is not equal–the midday sun is significantly stronger than that of early morning or late afternoon, and more to the taste of plants advertised as “sun-loving.”
Drainage: Are there areas of your yard where the moisture pools and then lingers during and after a rainstorm? They translate to sure death to plants that require a “well-drained soil.” In an arid western landscape, however, they may be the best spot to plant thirsty shade trees.
New Construction: Often the soil surrounding newly constructed homes is full of roots, left behind when the lot was cleared. Chances are the bulldozer also compacted the soil. For both reasons, plan to dig deep and mix lots of compost or other organic matter into any area you intend to plant.
Make a note, as well, of man-made amenities as you start to plan new gardens. Features, such as vegetable and cutting gardens, that need frequent irrigation should be located near a faucet. Similarly, the chore of carting mulch to the hybrid teas becomes much easier if you set the rose garden alongside a broad, hard-surfaced path.
THE planning PROCESS
I’m the type of gardener who prefers, if possible, to do it myself. But I know my limitations, and when it comes to design, I need a critic–an objective second eye to evaluate my plans and stop my mistakes before they become reality. Fortunately, I have that pitiless eye on hand all the time, right in my closet: The camera doesn’t lie.
THE CAMERA AS CRITIC
Trying to create a visual record of my own garden has taught me how unflattering a photograph can be. Since it’s easier to just ignore the imperfections in my landscape, my eye tends to edit them out; I honestly do not see them. The camera, by contrast, captures every little flaw on film. At the same time, it also creates a virtual version of the landscape that is ideal for experimentation.
When planning a new garden, try placing yourself at all the major points of view–the back door and from steps, the living room window, the deck–using a camera to take pictures (preferably slides) of everything you see. Project the resulting slides onto a screen that you fashion by taping a large sheet of paper to the wall. First, look at each slide to identify all of the strengths and weaknesses you find in the scene. Make note of these on a pad. Then, with bright-colored, broad-tipped markers, sketch in the changes you might like to make.
By this method, trying out new beds and borders, laying in a terrace, and inserting or removing trees and shrubs all become effortless. Replace the paper from time to time and keep trying new drafts until you achieve a composition for each perspective that satisfies you. You’ll find these sketches invaluable as references when you start drafting a plan for garden planting and construction.