Step 5: Building Your Garden

How to Design & Grow Your own Garden

Building your garden really starts long before the first shovel of soil is ever turned—it begins in your imagination.  For years, you have taken bits of inspiration from gardening magazines, home gardening shows, friends and neighbors.  Now it’s time to turn your dreams into reality!

Step One: Assess Your Surroundings

In order to develop a realistic plan for your garden, you will need to assess your existing site and see what you have to work with.  This is the time to test your soil, make a record of your sun exposure, and assess your watering capabilities.  Decide which existing plants in your landscape you would like to keep, even if that means moving them to a new location.  Don’t be afraid to remove old, overgrown plant material to make room for new plantings.   

Observe what kinds of plants seem to grow well in your neighborhood; they hold a clue to your soil type and hardiness zone.  For example, in my neighborhood Rhododendrons grow exceptionally well because the soil is a naturally acidic sandy loam.  On the other side of my state where the soil is a naturally alkaline clay, Rhododendrons struggle just to survive.  Do yourself a favor and grow what thrives naturally in your existing site.  It will mean a lot less work for you in the long run and will save you money on soil amendments, water, and replacement plants.

Step Two: Prioritize Your Dreams

You’ve been dreaming of all the things you’d like to do in your yard; now it’s time for action!  Now it’s time to realistically look at your budget, time table, and level of commitment to ongoing maintenance to decide which items on your wish list can actually be achieved.  You may choose to hire a professional to do the planning and heavy labor for you or you may want to do the entire project yourself.  Now is the time to decide.

Always start with a plan in mind!  If you don't feel comfortable designing your own garden, hire a landscape designer to do it for you.  Your local garden center should be happy to give you some recommendations.

Step Three: Develop a Plan

We highly recommend hiring a landscape architect to plan where new hardscape elements such as retaining walls and the new patio will go, and hiring a landscape designer to devise a plan for the plant material.  Some talented designers might be able to develop a complete plan for the hardscape and plant material for you.  Your local garden center should be able to recommend a reputable designer.  Some larger garden centers have landscape designers on staff.  

Once your design is finished, a landscape contractor will be able to use it as a blueprint to build your new garden, much like a builder would use an architect’s blueprint to build a house.  If you would like to design your own garden, you could hire a consultant to verify the feasibility of your plan before you implement it.  Also, be sure to review Step Four: Garden Design Elements before you begin drawing your design.

Step 4: Make it Happen!

Where to Begin

Now that your design is finished, it’s time to build.  Take a good look at your design and decide which things you can realistically do yourself and which things would be better left to professionals.  Tasks such as large tree removal and installation and hardscaping are worth paying a professional to handle.  Start with the big things first: building the deck or patio, installing the retaining walls, putting in the water feature.  These things are called the “bones” of the garden because they give it structure and organization.   The remaining garden elements will be built around these structures.

Defining the Edge

When it’s time to sculpt the edges of your new garden bed, measure the space according to your design and mark it off by laying your garden hose or sticking marking flags in the ground along the edge.  Once you’ve defined the edge, step back and visualize what it will look like when it’s finished.  Are the lines straight?  Are the curves too shallow?  Will a lawnmower be able to navigate the edges?  Adjust the garden hose or marking flags to your liking.  It’s a lot easier to make those changes at this stage rather than later.  Once you are sure the edges are exactly how you want them, use a flat shovel with a straight edge to make vertical cuts into the soil all around the edge, giving it definition.  You may choose to install your edging at this point or wait until you’ve completed the next step, preparing the soil.

Soil Preparation

You will need to clear the soil of existing weeds in your new garden bed, either by chemical weedkillers or by hand, before you can plant anything new there.  Whichever method you choose is up to you, but the end result must be that the garden is free of weeds, especially those that are heavy seeders and aggressive spreaders, before you install your garden design.

Next, you’ll need to adjust the condition of your soil.  This is one of the most important steps of building a garden and it should not be skipped.  Take a look at the results of the soil test you did in Step One: Assess Your Surroundings.  It will give you recommendations as to what nutrients your soil is lacking and which are plentiful.  This is the time to make those adjustments.  Your local garden center should be able to help you choose the appropriate amendments for your particular soil. 

Most soils require amending before you begin planting. Bring the results of your soil test to your local garden center so they can help you choose which amendments are appropriate for your particular soil.

Most soils will need at least minor improvements before they are planted.  The ideal soil for many perennials is organic loam, but very few gardeners are blessed with this type of soil naturally.  Improve your soil with amendments such as peat moss, well-rotted manure, compost, and soil conditioner.  Nutrients such as aluminum sulfate (increases acidity), lime (increases alkalinity), gypsum (for breaking up clay), and potash (Potassium) can also be used to improve the soil. 

Following the package instructions, mix all of the amendments together in a wheelbarrow along with at least 1/3 of a wheelbarrow full of your existing garden soil.  Spread the mixture on top of your garden bed and then turn it under with a shovel.  The deeper you can work the amendments into the soil the better since the roots of most perennials grow down 6-12 inches.  More ambitious gardeners can employ the method of double digging to improve their soil.

It’s a good idea to know ahead of time what kinds of plant material will go into the bed you are preparing so you can make the proper soil adjustments.  If you will be planting mostly prairie type perennials, they will require different soil amendments than if you were planting bog perennials, for instance.  Be sure to read up on the growing tips in our Perennial Encyclopedia for the plants you will be using before you begin.

Choosing Healthy Plants

If you have hired a landscape contractor to install your design, they will choose the plant material for you.  However, if you will be buying the plants yourself, here are some tips on buying healthy perennials:

  • Shop at a reputable garden center that has staff to help you choose the best plants.  Take a look around the shop before you put anything in your cart.  Do the plants generally look like they are in good condition or are there dead plants on the benches?  Are there obvious pest and disease issues like powdery mildew and pesky insects?  If so, you might want to look elsewhere.  Remember, you’ll get what you pay for!
  • Shopping from the list of plants on your garden design, put the essential items in your cart first.  This includes any plants that will be used as focal points or to define the structure of the garden.  Work your way down the list from there, keeping in mind that some of the plants in your design may be available at a later date (for example, mums will be available in the fall).
  • When choosing perennials, look for those that appear vigorous and healthy.  The foliage should be full and colorful with new growth appearing, new flower buds should be developing, and the root system should be well-developed.  If possible, gently knock the plant out of its pot to take a look at the roots.  The plant should be rooted to the bottom of the pot but not be rootbound.  Check the foliage for obvious signs of pest or disease problems such as eaten leaves, wilting, or discoloration.  Do not choose the plant that is in full bloom since it will be finished soon, but rather one that is full of buds waiting to open.  
  • When buying clump-forming perennials such as daylilies or hostas, look for those that have multiple shoots emerging from the crown.  These may be able to be divided sooner and spread to other parts of your garden.

Planting Perennials

In the Midwest, the ideal seasons to plant perennials are spring and fall.  However, experienced gardeners tend to plant perennials all during the growing season with some success.  A few exceptions are ornamental grasses, ferns, and evergreen perennials that must be planted in spring.  In colder zones with shorter growing seasons, only spring planting is recommended for perennials in order to give the plants enough time to get established before winter.  It’s ok to experiment with planting times in your own garden, but it’s also a good idea to keep a journal of what worked and what didn’t so you can increase your chances of success the next time.

Now that your garden design is complete and most of the plant material has been purchased, it’s time to plant!  This is the fun part, where your design comes to life.  You may want to start planting with your focal point or with the plants in the back of the border so you don’t accidently step on the smaller ones in front.  Before you dig the first hole, it’s a good idea to stage your plants by setting them where they should be planted according to your design.  Make slight adjustments, if necessary, now while the plants are still in their pots.  Be sure to leave space for plants you haven’t bought yet but will be added later (such as your fall mums).    

Once everything is set in place, you can begin the actual planting process.  Dig the hole for the plant two times wider than the pot but just as deep.  For example, if your pot is 6 inches wide by 8 inches deep, your hole should be 12 inches wide by 8 inches deep.  Plants send the majority of their roots out horizontally in the soil, so your wide hole will provide nice loose soil in which the roots will grow. 

Make sure the crown of the plant (the place where the leaves and roots meet) is at the same level as it was growing in the pot.  If you bury the crown deeper, it may rot or the plant may not flower.  However, if you have heavy clay soil, it is acceptable to plant the crown slightly higher than the soil level to prevent crown rot.  A few perennials such as peonies and irises require a specific planting depth.  Please review the growing tips in our Perennial Encyclopedia for such plants.

If the plant is rootbound when you take it out of the pot, gently tease apart as many of the roots as you can before setting the plant in the hole.  Cutting off the roots on the bottom of the pot is acceptable if they cannot be teased apart.  If you do not unwind the roots at all, they will likely continue to grow in a circular pattern around the rootball and eventually strangle the plant.  Spread the roots out horizontally in the hole before you refill it with soil.  Tamp the soil around the roots firmly to eliminate air pockets and water the plant thoroughly.

Finishing Touches

Once all of your plants are in the ground, it is important to apply mulch around the roots.  Mulch performs a variety of functions in addition to looking beautiful: it helps the soil retain moisture, inhibits weeds, regulates the soil temperature, and adds nutrients to the soil as it breaks down.  We recommend using an organic mulch that breaks down over time such as finely shredded bark or hardwood or shredded leaves.  Apply about a three inch thick layer of mulch atop your new garden bed, taking care to keep the mulch a few inches away from the crowns of the plants to prevent rot.

Finally, decorate the garden with your favorite garden ornaments, placing them in and around the plants so they appear integrated in the space.  Step back and enjoy your creation.  Time for some cold lemonade!

Step 1: Perennials 101
Step 2: Getting Started
Step 3: Find Your Style
Step 4: Garden Design Elements
Step 6: Caring For Your Garden