How to Plan a Garden from Scratch

Martie Young
Adams County Master Gardener

Maybe you have just moved into a house for the first time, or into a new home that has absolutely no landscaping. Actually you are very fortunate because you can do what you want! Not quite true--if you just start buying and planting without a plan you will eventually be very sorry.

So--start with a plan--maybe draw your house footprint and what you want to see around it. Look out your windows and consider the view you have (or what you would like it to be). If there are existing trees/large shrubs, do you want to keep them? If your neighbors have a particularly attractive yard, do you want to plan your landscaping to include that view? If you have a view of a street or alley or someone's garage, would you like to hide it? In other words, look beyond your own yard. It will make a difference when your own landscaping begins to mature. Since it is now fall, this is a good time to plan a new garden. Begin thinking of what you want, paying attention to other yards or gardens, and paying attention to what you don’t want in your garden.

If you plant bulbs like tulips in your new garden now,
you will be enjoying their color in the coming spring.

Only after you make a plan should you move on to the next step. This would be to amend your soil if necessary. Most newly built houses don’t have good topsoil so you may have to buy some, along with soil amendments (maybe some compost). Also be sure to get a soil test (Penn State Extension offices all sell the kits for approximately $10). The directions will tell you to send your sample to Penn State. The test results will tell you what fertilizer to use for flowers or vegetables, or shrubs and trees. If you really have no landscaping you probably should plant shrubs and trees first since they take the longest to mature. At least mark the space where you want those major plantings and plant next spring. There are lots of dos and don'ts. A tree, or trees, should be far enough from your house that the tree has room to grow. Also consider the type of tree. Knowing that there will be some pitfalls, you may want to consider native plants in all the categories. Whatever you choose, consider its mature size and whether it is susceptible to wind damage.

Moving on to shrubs that you might like around your house, keep in mind that shrubs often get a lot larger than the tag says. Even 'dwarf' shrubs continue to grow beyond the boundaries you may have set. Be sure the shrub you choose will like its location. If the front of your house gets the afternoon sun, you may be limited. Morning sun is the best for most plants--not so hot, and the soil doesn't dry out as much. Whatever you buy, check the plant tags, ask the clerk and shop at a reliable garden store. And be sure you follow the directions for planting and watering.

After you get some of these permanent parts of your garden planned you can move on to perennials and/ or annuals. Again it’s important to place perennials in their permanent location. Annuals can be changed every year since the actual plant won’t come back the second year. Keep in mind that many annuals will reseed. This may suit you very well in terms of saving money, but if you don’t want the same annuals next year, be sure to pull out seedlings as they appear in spring. By now you can understand that this will be an ongoing project—not completed in just one season!

Another factor in this equation of what to plant is the entire category of bulbs. Lucky you—it’s fall—just the time to plant those spring-blooming bulbs. Tulips, daffodils, and crocus are the most popular and very easy to grow. Daffodils are perennial bulbs—they will return every year and usually multiply. Tulips can be perennial if you look for that label, or buy Darwin or Darwin hybrid tulips. Maybe you just want to experiment with different tulips but keep in mind that many tulip bulbs only bloom well the first year. After that they are likely to be much smaller and finally disappear altogether. There is also the concern of small animals eating your bulbs. Squirrels love tulips; daffodils are generally poisonous to all small animals so try planting tulips and daffodils together—this tactic will help protect the tulip bulbs. Here is another chance to change your mind in the spring. After the leaves of tulips and daffodils die back, you can dig them up and either replant immediately or mark them to plant again in the fall in a different place. Having bulbs come up in the early spring will satisfy your urge to see the results of all your careful planning.

If you wonder where to find information on the various plants you may want in your garden, use the internet. If you simply enter the search term ‘native plants for Pennsylvania’, you will get a wealth of information. Try to select a university site with the ending ‘edu’ to eliminate the many sites that have a lot of advertising along with the information you are looking for. Another place to find information on landscaping and planning a garden is your local Penn State Extension office—either Gettysburg or York will have pamphlets and brochures to help you with your search. Or just ask a Master Gardener! Here is a site that I have used frequently:

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