1. Know your space
Every great garden benefits from a solid understanding of its location. Understanding climate, soil, sunlight, water source, and space to grow means you can design a garden that adapts naturally to its environment. That means healthier plants with less maintenance. The USDA hardiness zone map can be very useful, but it is only a guideline. Take note of the plants that are growing naturally in a location. Chances are similar plants will do very well in that same spot.
2. Know your plants
Don't be afraid to experiment with new plants. Think of you garden as a collection where all of your pieces interact with each other and their environment. While it may seem daunting, try and learn some of the botanical names of your favorite plants and learn about the families to which they belong. Some families, like Rosaceae (rose) or Solanaceae (nightshades), contain many well known garden plants. Others may not be as well known in the garden but contain fantastic and beautiful plants. By becoming familiar with a few plant families you begin to notice similarities and differences between plants. This will help you identify them and will open you up to a world of new plants to try in your garden.
3. Understand a plant's life cycle
Plants, like all living things, grow and develop through different life stages. Annuals will finish their life cycle in one season and spread seeds to propagate future generations. Perennials will go dormant at the end of the season but will come back even stronger next season. Because most garden centers sell plants when they are in peak bloom, many gardeners may not be familiar with what a particular plant looks like either in its earlier stages or later on its life. Understanding how a plant grows and what to expect from it helps when deciding where a plant should grow. Knowing when a plant will bloom or how tall it will get is also invaluable when designing a garden.
There are as many different styles of garden as there are gardeners, but like all art garden design follows certain cultural and historical trends. English cottage gardening is very popular, and for good reason, but there are a range of other formal or informal garden styles to draw from. Generally a good design benefits from ordering plants in a way that the tallest don’t block out the lowest. Knowing when a plant blooms is also important so that bloom times can be staggered. Think of your garden as a fireworks display; you don’t want everything to go off all at once. Also keep in mind the use of the garden. Is it meant to be walked through, or is it a space where people will be invited to sit for periods of time? Gardens can also serve valuable architectural roles, such as with border gardens. In this case, repetition may be key so that the garden offers a sense of consistency when viewed from afar against a building.
5. The Four Seasons
Gardening isn’t just a warm season thing. A great garden has interest all year round, even in the winter. Tall grasses and dormant shrubs provide striking beauty against a winter backdrop of snow. In early spring, some of the first color in the garden comes from bulbs planted in the fall. In the summer, growing annuals in containers is easy to maintain and ensures the annuals won’t have to compete with the more established perennials. Patches of annuals that come up every year from the seeds of last season, however, can be left to grow on their own without much worry- just be careful not to pull them out as weeds early on. Finally, with fall comes the harvest and decay. Embrace the beauty of the dying flower stalks and shriveling fruits. Not only do these sights give us a lovely reminder of the cycle of life, they also provide valuable food for the animals that make your garden their home.
One of the most basic gardening tasks is weeding. At its most fundamental, it is a selection process where the plants you like get to stay and those you don’t get pulled. Depending on the formality and style of the garden, heavy weeding might be necessary. But for a less formal garden, weeding might not be as important as many think. Over time perennials will take up their own space leaving no space for weeds to establish. Planting ground cover in key locations will suppress weeds and actually eliminate the need for heavy mulching. By learning about certain “weeds” that routinely come up in your garden, you might actually even learn to like them
7. Cultivating the soil
Plants need loose and healthy soil to grow. While many are familiar with the need to till soil for growing vegetables at the start of the season, this vital task is often overlooked in our ornamental gardens. By using a three-prong cultivator to gently work the soil around the base of perennials and shrubs plants are given the space they need to expand their root systems. This is also a great time to work a slow release fertilizer into the soil. This simple task is one of the most important keys to a full and healthy garden.
Gardening is a slow art, and one that takes years of interaction to fully realize itself. Splashes of annuals here and there can help satiate the gardener’s need for completed form, but the real meat of the garden- the perennials, shrubs, and trees- require patience and continued care. By not trying to rush things, the gardener can ultimately save money and learn more about their garden. Buying small plants and caring for them as they establish themselves in your garden not only means you avoid spending huge amounts of money on more mature plants, it also gives you the opportunity to watch and learn from the plant as it grows. Create a good space for your new plant where it is free to grow and is easy for you to care for. As it grows and expands season to season, don’t be afraid to dig up part of it and place it somewhere else. Experiment with different locations and have fun noticing how a plant grows differently under different conditions. The end goal is to have plants that are totally naturalized in your garden. While this may take several years to accomplish, in the end you’ll have a garden that is easier to maintain while being healthy, full, and interesting all year round.