Designing Gardens

There are many important aspects of garden design. Actual need is at the top of the list, followed by determining what kind of garden fits best for your needs as well as your space.

Determining Need

One of the primary questions you should ask yourself before embarking on a garden is - why do you want a garden?

A garden that exists to provide someone with a large portion of home-grown foods will be very different from a garden which is designed to give local wildlife a place to eat and live.

Your gardening needs can be determined by thinking about:

  • Space
  • Resources
  • Your local environment

Determining Space

If you live in an apartment or condo with limited access to land, a container garden would be best for you.

If you live in a more suburban area with access to land, but limited resources on working the soil, then raised beds might be your best bet.

If you live in an area where you have substantial land access, as well as equipment access, then direct planting is probably for you!

Determining Environment

There are four factors that should be taken into account before you start picking out plants or designing your garden space.

  • Zone
  • Climate
  • Soil
  • Sun

Your zone is a rough climate guide, telling you when you can expect frost dates, and how different plants will fare where you live. The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is an excellent resource for this.

Determining your climate will give you an idea about what the atmosphere is like where you live - rainfall, humidity, etc. Sunset Magazine's climate zone webpage is a good secondary resource to the USDA Hardiness Map.

Your soil type is important, as this is where your plants will be getting a large portion of their nutrients - it's vital to know what kind of soil you have so you know what your plants will need. You can preform a very simple soil test just by picking up a handful of your own dirt and giving it a squeeze. More detailed information about your soil, such as available nutrients, can be gathered by getting yourself a soil testing kit from your local extension office.

Determining sun mostly relates to where your garden will actually be. It's not necessary to have a garden that gets full sunlight all day long - some plants prefer shady areas! However, based on your gardening needs and wants, you will be choosing different plants which will require different levels of sunlight. While there are lots of ways to determine sunlight, I've found that the simplest is usually just to try and check out the plot of land I'm looking at planting in at different times of the day. Early morning, early afternoon, and late afternoon. Getting an idea of if your land has full sun, partial sun, or full shade will help you pick out what kinds of plants will thrive in your garden.

Designing Your Garden

Gardens for Eating

If you have the land for it, direct sowing is a great opportunity for vegetable and herb gardens. Unfortunately, that isn't always the case. My own garden is in raised beds, and before that I was in container gardens! There is one gardening movement in particular that's been a great aid both to container gardens as well as raised beds - the Square Foot Garden. Undoubtedly, this is one of the best places for beginner gardeners to start - especially when they feel they are tight on space.

Knowing your above soil type and sun availability will be critical in growing just about any vegetable, as well as knowing when to get your seeds in the ground. Most areas look to start sowing (that is, putting seeds in the ground) at around 2 weeks after the last potential frost. This gives you a healthy window of keeping your wee little veggies from freezing to death.

Because you're looking to get something fruitful out of your garden, you'll also want to take feeding and watering more seriously. Consider installing soaker hoses if you have a raised bed system, or if you're willing to go a little more high tech, a mister or drip system. Both can be installed with a timer, ensuring that your garden gets as much water as it needs every day.

The other great thing about a garden built for eating is that it opens its doors to experimentation. Find a new variety of cabbage at the hardware store that looks particularly fun? A pack of seeds is usually only $2 or so (with organic seeds often being more), so there's little loss in picking up something new to try growing (and then eating!)

Gardens for Wildlife

Many local agricultural programs at state colleges now offer public information on planting for wildlife. Because these programs are state funded, they are often some of the best information that non-farmers can get their hands on. The Bureau of Land Management also works to create and distribute materials to people who are interested in helping their local wildlife by planting and maintaining sustainable plant life.

There are generally only a few things to keep in mind when venturing into “native planting.” The first is to only choose native species of plants. Foreign or invasive species are neither healthy for the native plants, nor for the native environment. They either compete with native resources or outrun them all together.

You should also keep in mind the needs of the wildlife you're thinking of when designing your native landscape. Most native landscapes work in two major parts - providing food and providing shelter. Choose plants that will offer seeds and berries in winter, as well as lush foliage in summer. A mixture of tall species and low to the ground plants will provide shelter both for ground animals as well as birds and bats.

Look into what animal species are most common in your area - better yet, which ones need the most help - and design your garden based off that information.

Gardens for Pleasure

Stolen a little bit from the English “garden,” or what we in America would more likely refer to just as our yard. A garden that is designed with pleasure and relaxation in mind isn't about getting a harvest or sustaining wildlife (although both those ideas certainly could be incorporated). It's about creating a beautiful space that is a reflection of your home and your personal aesthetics.

Direct planting works best for this kind of gardening, especially if you're looking at planting around the edges of your yard. Raised beds can certainly be constructed, but they may be more work than they are worth (financially and time-wise). If you have a nice patio or deck area, container plants are a great way to bring the garden closer to you.

When choosing plants, keep an eye on perennials. Because you're looking at creating a yard that is beneficial to those living at the house, and those living at the house live there year round, you should expect that the garden keeps itself in great shape all that time. Consider plant varieties that are known for their “volunteer” properties if you are interested in a more wild garden, as they'll do their part in accelerating the growth of your landscape.