Starting a garden can seem daunting, especially if your thumbs aren’t particularly green. It’s not always intuitive to plant certain flowers and vegetables and know what they need to flourish, especially for first-time planters. Is this the right climate for this particular type of flower? Do I need a certain type of soil or fertilizer for this tomato to grow? Is this the right season for berries? These questions can feel overwhelming if all you’re trying to do is find a new hobby.
But, having a garden, whether flower-filled or with a variety of vegetables, can be very rewarding. The work it takes to plan and maintain a garden can be gratifying, especially the first time you eat a salad that you started preparing with a Miracle-Gro light in your basement. Whether you’re just looking to cut down on your visits to the florist by starting an at-home flower bed, or going all in on a vegetable garden with a raised bed, this guide will walk you through some key considerations and tips for making your garden a weed-free success.
Before we start, however, let’s do a quick assessment of some things to consider before embarking on this wonderful, plant filled adventure. The first: what to plant. Are you going flowers, veggies, herbs, or a mix of all of the above? If you’re going with a vegetable garden, keep in mind who will be the receiving end of these vegetables. If it’s just you, make sure to start small; no need to plan 10 tomato plants, as there’s no way you could eat all those tomatoes and trying to maintain so many plants at once will just prove frustrating. If you’re going with a flower garden, start to think about how often different plants blossom; if you want flowers over a longer season, think about planting a mix of annuals and perennials so you’re not putting all the work in for a one-week reward.
Next, figure out how much space you really need. When you know what you want to fill your garden with, you can plan for the right amount of space. Chances are the plants you gravitate towards don’t need a lot of space. If you’re in an urban area with little yard space, consider using containers on a deck or balcony. Space limitations are only limitations if you can’t tend to the entire area; so perhaps for your first garden, start small. Already a pro? Keep in mind that some herbs, like mint, tend to take over a garden plot, so be aware that less is still more.
Lastly, consider climate before getting super excited about a certain plant. Those living in New England (or regular England, for that matter) are going to have a much harder time growing hibiscus than our planter friends in the warmer, sunnier regions of the world. Do some reading to see what plants blossom when (including vegetables) to make sure that all your hard work isn’t for naught. Luckily, all these questions and more will be addressed in the following guide. Read on for some creative plant and garden ideas for your home!
Creating a Garden
Good news is, once you’ve created your garden, you’ll never have to do it again. Depending on where you live, and whether or not you have a yard, creating a garden is no easy feat. Consider things like sunlight, proximity to a water source (hose or otherwise), level of traffic (don’t plant too close to the road, for example) as well as things like space issues. If you live in an apartment, creating your garden is as simple as buying a container, filling it with soil, planting some seeds, and leaving it in the right place. If you live in a house with a yard, your process may be a bit more complicated.
If you’re feeling like you want a serious garden, backyard-style with a gate and everything, keep in mind the work it will take to bring in topsoil or create a bed deep enough for plants to take root and flourish. If you live in a rocky state (like most of New England), you may want to consider a raised bed – an option we’ll go into more detail about later in this guide. Another option is to hire a contractor to come in and dig the space for you, prepping the soil and garden beds so you can start the growing process without a backache.
There are many types of gardens to consider as well. Depending on your goals for the space, your garden can be as botanical or vegetable filled as you like or full of rocks in an elegant rock garden. Let’s start with the basics: here are some forms and designs your garden could take. Once you select a type of garden, we’ll walk you through some steps for setting up the space and getting the right materials and tools in place to make your job easy.
If you’re pretty sure you don’t have a green thumb, or any green fingers for that matter, or if you live in a place where growing tropical flowers seems like an unlikely feat, perhaps a rock garden is right for you. No, this isn’t just a garden full of rocks; a rock garden mimics a mountainside, with attractive, rough-hewn rocks coupled with alpine foliage and flowers and other natural decor. The advantage to a rock garden is that they are very low maintenance and may even save you time; some people add a rock garden to the parts of their yard they don’t want to mow.
To create a rock garden, start with some design considerations. Figure out where in your yard will be best for the garden, which will help you determine the size of your garden plot. Next, consider color. Do you want stones that are all the same shade? Red sandstone can be an attractive choice, but if you want something native to your area, consider going for a hike and looking around for rocks that stand out from the landscape.
Next, lay out your plot. Pro-tip: create a raised rock garden by laying newspapers on a patch of grass and shoveling dirt on top. This will save you from having to dig down a few levels and make it easy for you to control the shape of your garden. Why are you filling a rock garden with soil? Because, as we mentioned, rock gardens do have plants in them. And these plants happen to need soil with good drainage, as a general rule. As you continue to layer on rocks and soil, make sure the plants you’ve selected for this project can manage soil with a lot of water (so, not cacti). Rock gardens look best with a limited variety of plants, so when you go to pick up some flowers and things to include in your garden, don’t be tempted by the wide variety of colors you see.
Lastly, choose plants with similar texture, not just color scheme. There’s nothing weirder looking than a garden with poinsettias next to cacti, for example. Mosses, daffodils, and sponges all work well together. You’ll also want to add in some foliage for the months when flowers aren’t in bloom. When you’re ready to start planting, use the rule of 3’s: plant three of the same plant at the same time. This helps you space things out well, especially in a smaller plot. Look for more on flower bed design in later sections!
Rose gardens are among the most attractive and beautiful of flower gardens. They smell lovely and are a great long-term investment as far as gardens go. Experts recommend starting to prep your garden for roses during the fall. Prep involves digging up the soil at least 18-inches down and leaving chunks of dirt for a few days, allowing them to break up naturally as much as they will. After about a week, you can move ahead with the next prep phase.
Consequently, you’re going to need to prep the soil. Depending on your soil type – which you can find out by getting a soil tester kit at any gardening or home improvement store – you may need to manage levels of lime or sulfur before adding about two-inches of peat moss/compost to the garden plot. Mix in these ingredients with your soil that you dug out of the 18-inch hole. Fill in your holes – and the entire garden area – with the peat mixture to make sure the entire space drains evenly. Once you’ve integrated the soil, water the area well and let it sit again for about a week. Stir the soil around and smooth it out, then water it again. It should be covered with some landscape fabric for the winter.
Spring is go time. When the snow melts and the temperatures rise, start by carefully removing the landscape fabric and breaking up the soil again. Some rose bushes tend to come with bare roots, and are shipped and sold without being planted in soil. If that’s the case, dig a hole that’s slightly wider and deeper than the size of the roots and side the plant in. (For rose bushes that come in a pot, cut away the pot and slide the plant out, treating it like a bare root bush). Give it a little water, and away you go!
No sunlight? Great. Then a shade garden is probably your best option. If your yard lacks sunlight due to trees, a tall fence, or just the angle of the sun to the rest of your house, great news: shade gardens with flowers, vines, and ground covers can still be a beautiful option that’s also relatively low maintenance. Here are some steps you can take to get a shade garden set up for your home.
First, how shady is shady? Depending on the time of day, the amount of sunlight different areas will receive will vary. You want to make sure that the amount of light the garden receives- or doesn’t receive- stays relatively consistent. This can also have an impact on the amount of moisture and dew your garden receives; if your plants need more water, then make sure they aren’t getting too much sunlight in the morning hours causing the dew to dry faster.
As with rose gardens, you’ll want to make sure there’s a lot of organic matter, such as compost, in the space where you’re starting your shade garden. If you’re digging space for roots, make sure that you aren’t hitting tree roots, which can be a casualty of shade gardens if you aren’t careful. Grass can be a part of your garden if it’s growing naturally, but be aware that if grass is already fading in the shade, it’s probably not worth the battle to save it. Instead, find some shade-loving groundcovers, like thyme or bishop’s weed. Moss is also a good option if you’re looking for something low maintenance, but it does need some water.
One option for constructing your garden is to use shrubs to anchor your beds, bringing out some structure and height as well as reinforcing the shade element of the space. Some options? Azalea bushes, camellias, and hydrangea. These plants will also bring a pop of color to a space that may otherwise be mostly brown and green. For other flower ideas, try bleeding heart, Japanese primrose, trillium, and violets, as well as toad lilies and yellow wax bells. Shade gardens are great because they mostly care for themselves, so once you have your plants in place, you can rest assured that you won’t have to put a lot of time and effort into cultivating the space. Beware, however, that some groundcovers have the potential to take over a much larger space than you may have intended.
Don’t panic. Water gardens aren’t as hard to install as they used to be, nor are they as budget intensive. Yes, even if you’re living in a city, you too can have a water garden. You don’t need to dig your own pond; many water gardens in containers are easy to build, and now there’s something called a “half-barrel” water garden that’s very popular. If you’re up for a little DIY project that can lead to a garden full of serenity, then a water garden is for you.
For this creative container idea, start with a real wine barrel cut in half or a plastic container that’s around the same size as a wine barrel. Some stores even sell decorative water garden containers with a drainage hole for easy maintenance. Bring whatever container you’ve selected to the place where you want the garden to exist (for simplicity sake; these can get heavy). For this small ecosystem to work, you’ll be stacking different types of water plants to make sure they all work together well and can exist in the same space without plant-conflict.
There are four basic types of water plants that need to coexist for this project to work well. They are rooted floating plants, submerged (oxygenating) plants, floating plants, and marginal plants. These all feed off each other’s energy in the following ways. Rooted floating plants, such as a water lily, have roots that touch the bottom of the container and floating leaves on the surface that provide shade and reduce the growth of algae. Oxygenating plants are very similar, but their leaves stay underwater. These plants are crucial for the water garden to work; they absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen underwater. Floating plants, like the water hyacinth, are not rooted to anything and do not need soil; they simple extract nutrients from the water. Lastly, marginal plants grow around the edge of a pond or water garden and do best in slow moving water.
All of this is to say that if you want your water garden to be set up for success, you’ll want to include a bunch of different types of plants. Fill the bottom of the container with rocks, and then layer the plants based on their type; floating plants come last, after you’ve filled the container with water. Et, voila! Now all you need to do is make sure the water stays full, keep away algae, and enjoy your garden!
If your hobby is cooking, rather than gardening, an herb garden can combine both interests in one neat package. Herb gardens are also very easy to grow in a window planter or sunny space in your house, meaning they can also add a pop of color to your decor. Be aware though that some herbs can take over a garden if you don’t pay attention and tend to your plants carefully!
The elements you need for your herb garden to be successful are: soil that drains well, lots of sunlight, and a little compost or fertilizer. While ideally your herb garden would be in the ground, experts say you can use pots or window planters, as long as you don’t overcrowd the container. When designing your herb garden, look for a space with a south-facing windowsill or container, since herbs are usually native to the Mediterranean and need a lot of sunlight each day to flourish.
The depth and breadth of the space you need depends on the types of herbs you’re trying to grow. As a general rule, you’ll need approximately 1 – 4 feet in diameter for each plant, but this will vary. For example, rosemary, sage, mint, oregano, and others need 3-4 feet in diameter, while basil, thyme, and tarragon need 2 feed. Cilantro, chives, dill, and parsley need the least room – around one foot in diameter per plant. If this seems like a lot of room needed, keep in mind that if you’re using a pot, you’ll want something at least 8 inches in diameter. When in doubt, go bigger!
Once you have your container or your garden space mapped out, it’s time to make sure the soil is right for your plants. If you’re using a container, use a potting mix formulated for containers – some bags say “garden soil,” but you want the soil that is a little more moisture-friendly. Here’s a handy calculator to give you a sense of how much soil you need based on your container shape and depth.
Next, figure out whether you need seeds or plants. If you’re a beginner, start with small plants, because it’s easier and more satisfying to keep them alive rather than trying to start from zero and make magic happen. You can find small herb plants at garden centers or have them shipped to you in the mail if there’s no garden center nearby. However, seeds are less expensive and will give you a wider range of options if you want to have specialty herbs. Usually if you want to start with seeds, you’ll have to begin to grow your plant under a special light until there’s enough sunlight to maintain your seedling outside.
Generally speaking, the hardest part of maintaining an herb garden is knowing how much to water your herbs. One trick to keep your herb garden moist is to add a layer of mulch to the top of the soil, which helps keep moisture in and lets you water less frequently. You should still check your garden every day and stick your finger a few layers under the surface to see if your soil is damp (not wet, and not dry). If your container doesn’t have a hole to drain water, consider watering less frequently. You don’t want to drown your basil!
Container gardens are popular for those with not a lot of room to grow and/or are just willing to dip their toe in the world of plants. As we covered in the previous section, containers gardens are perfect for things like herbs, and lettuces and greens also do well in containers (plus, they tend to take over your garden, so isolating them in their own growing space will save you a headache). The best part about growing veggies in a container is the feeling of instant satisfaction of slicing off a few mint or basil leaves and adding them directly to the pot, or cutting a fresh head of lettuce for your dinner salad. Container gardening is very easy, and here are our top tips for making sure your plants have room to flourish.
The tricky thing about potted plants and container gardening is that it can be easy to overcrowd the container with lots of greens. Plants need room to grow, and though it may be tempting to stuff as many flower plants as possible in one pot, make sure to give them room to breathe! Keep it to one or two plants per pot, and make sure to fertilize the plants regularly, since they won’t be getting the same nutrients as outside. Wondering what size container you need for your garden? Here’s a handy guide for knowing how much space to give your vegetables, flowers, or herbs. A good standard rule to remember is that the smaller and more tightly packed the container, the more water the plant will need. There’s an old gardening adage that you should provide one inch of water per week, but in truth many plants will probably need more water than that.
If you’re worried about what type of container to buy, don’t be. What is more important than the type of container hosting your garden is the soil you put in it. Your potting mix and soil should be light and fluffy. Why? Having something on the lighter side means your plants’ roots get enough air, moisture, nutrition, and are still anchored. If the mix you use in your container is too dense, there’s a good chance your plant roots will suffocate or get stunted and die. Try a mix like Pro-Mix that can be found at a nursery or gardening store.
You can also add a fertilizer to your container garden to make sure your plants are receiving enough moisture and so you don’t have to worry about watering them every single day. When filling your pot with soil, leave some room at the top for fertilizer and for your plant to grow. Depending on what it is you’re growing, most vegetable roots penetrate 10 – 12 inches into the soil, so don’t bother filling and more than a foot or two of soil; it will just make your pot heavy and won’t add any value to the plant. Lastly, you’ll have healthier potted plants if you change the soil out each year. Pro-tip: use the old soil from the bottom third of your pot mixed with new soil on top.
What’s a bulb garden? A flower bulb is an underground stem encapsulated in leaves that contain stored food or a shoot inside. It’s basically a giant seed. Flowers that grow from bulbs include daffodils, tulips, dahlias, irises, and some lillies. Though they require some maintenance, you’ll have a beautiful spring garden that lasts; gardeners can divide their bulbs at the end of the blooming cycle and reuse them the year after.
To create a bulb garden, you’ll don’t need to put in that much effort. Bulb gardens are like any other garden. You need some sunlight, and water, and decent soil, and you’re all set. To plant a bulb garden, just dig a hole six to eight inches deep, put the bulb in it, and cover it up. Bulbs will stay dormant during the winter and then emerge in the spring (or sometimes the summer, depending on the flower).
Where bulb gardens get tricky is in selecting what bulbs you want to use to ensure that you have flowers for more than one week a year. Many flowers bloom in the spring, and then for the rest of the year your bulb garden runs the risk of just looking like a vacant patch of dirt. Select your bulbs carefully ahead of time. Here’s a handy list of the rough stages of the season when you can expect to see select bulb flowers. Generally speaking, you’ll see crocuses first, then hyacinths, daffodils, and tulips.
Curious where one might find a flower bulb? You can order some by mail, and others are more common at a garden store. The advantage to going to a local gardening store is that you’re more likely to find varieties that are suited for your particular climate. But, if you want to be fancy, try an online store that has different variations to daffodils, tulips, or irises. If your bulbs arrive before they’re ready to be planted, keep them in their packaging and store them in a cool, dark place away from moisture. Do not freeze your bulbs and do not put them in an air-tight container.
Lastly, if you want to reuse your bulbs year in and year out, here’s how you prep your bulbs for the next season. First, dig around the bulb and carefully lift it from the ground. The time to do this is when the tulip has faded, but isn’t completely dead (because no one likes a dead flower garden). Next, brush off the soil and remove any remaining flower and leaves with scissors and pruning shears. Separate any bulbets– growth offshoots– with your hands and place all the bulbets and bulbs in a dry, cool, dark area. Then you can plan them again next year and enjoy your garden all over again!
Annual and Perennial Gardens
A perennial is a plant that lives for two or more years. As you probably already guessed, an annual is a plant that lives for one year only. One thing you may not have guessed is that when you plant a perennial plant from a seed, it will take two years for you to see the bloom; so, for example, if you planted a perennial in 2013, this coming spring (2016) will be the first time you see the plant bloom. The good news is that you’ll continue to see it flower each year after the second year, provided you care for your plants accordingly. Annuals need to be planted each year for you to see a bloom. For this reason, we suggest planting your perennials first and then designing your annuals around these plants.
Luckily, the same rules apply for both annuals and perennials when designing a flower bed. If you’re starting from scratch, you’ll want to plan your beds based on height, color, and texture of the plants you’re hoping will thrive. As always, keep in mind your soil richness and sunlight.
First, start by marking out the parameters of your bed outside using a hose, rope, or spray paint. This will help you visualize just how much space you’re going to be managing each year, and give you some direction when it comes to adding dirt and fertilizers. For annuals, your bed can be as small or large as you wish, since these are among the most flexible of gardens and can change as your tastes change each year. Don’t forget to leave some space for yourself to access the plants, whether that means creating a moon shape or leaving a row down the middle so you can weed with ease.
If you’re building a raised garden bed, there are a few extra steps to consider. Why do you need a raised bed? Well, if you want annuals and perennials but have bad soil, you can create a raised bed and fill it with quality soil. Another advantage to a raised flower bed is that it provides better drainage and protection from pests than other regular gardens. Raised gardens work just as well, if not better, for vegetables as annuals and perennials. Here’s a good guide for building a raised garden; keep in mind that this is a big more labor intensive than your average container or herb garden!
Put some thought into how to design your annual and perennial garden as far as how the look will go. Some experts suggest sketching out what you want your garden to look like before going to the nursery to choose your plants. If your garden plot is part in the shade, that’s ok; impatiens, begonias, and fuchsia are all shade-loving plants, and pair well with their sunnier friends like dahlias, geraniums, zinnias and more. When you get to the nursery, look for plants with a general sense of your budget in mind. The most expensive, premium plants are going to be up front. Take a look around before getting excited about the budget-busters. The healthiest plants are generally in the area where the newest shipments are delivered right off the carts, so while you’re walking around, keep an eye on the operations of the nursery.
Other things to look for when selecting a healthy plant? Look for leaves with a vibrant green color (no yellow) and make sure the seedling has no leaves that are already dropping off. Also check the soil’s moisture level to see how well it’s been cared for before it gets to your home. Buying a sad plant will always have you at a disadvantage. Lastly, if you’re already an expert at selecting a plant, check for buds rather than blossoms; this means you’ll be able to enjoy your plant for longer, especially if you’re already adept at keeping it alive.
Once you have your plants in the cart and ready for planting, here are some simple flower bed design ideas. Generally, you should plant taller annuals in the center of your bed and stagger the height of other plants outwards (so the shortest flowers are around the outside of your garden bed. Another good tactic is to keep your annuals grouped together in three to five plants of the same type (something to note for perennials as well). Your garden will look more organized and less random than if you scatter plants along by themselves.
Garden Design and Plant Ideas
Once you’ve created your garden, no matter what type it is, how do you make sure that it looks good? Designing and maintaining a garden is not unlike remodeling or redecorating. You need to have a certain aesthetic in mind, informed by your space, sunlight, and soil limitations. Spend some time thinking about how much you want to maintain your plant or garden project; annuals are more labor intensive than container herb gardens, for example. But you’re ready to plant some flowers, here are some tips for making your garden interesting and successful.
Keep in mind how your garden relates to other plants or points of interest. For example, if your yard is full of green bushes, adding pops of color to your garden will make it stand out, rather than sticking with more green or just white flowers.
Don’t forget about the species in your habitat. Have toddlers or dogs? It would be a shame if you spent time building a raised bed and planting annuals just to have them ripped out by the roots or chewed up. If your house is full of those who terrorize nature, then make sure to protect your seedlings with a raised container or some kind of kid-proof fence.
Think about your color palette. Experts recommend using several colors in the same spectrum to make your garden look cohesive and not overwhelming. Check how your annuals work together at the nursery before putting them in the ground, and don’t forget about those dormant bulbs or perennials!
Color is great, but so is texture. Mix and match your textures the way you would your colors to create a garden design that’s unique and full of personality. In addition, playing around with plants of different heights will make your garden look more interesting.
Mix your flowers and vegetables. Limited for space? You can have flowers and vegetables in one garden, and in fact, mixing the two might prove more beneficial for your vegetables – because flowers tend to attract bees and other pollinators, your vegetables will also reap the benefits of being in season at the same time. Here’s a good guide on how to mix your plants.