Starting a Flower Garden

Flower gardens come in two basic types: you can make either an annual flower garden that you dig up and replant each year (or twice a year in mild-winter areas) or a perennial garden that stays somewhat the same from year to year. Perennial gardens can include shrubs and annuals as well as perennials, but including perennial plants in an annual garden makes it difficult to dig and replant.

Proper planning of either type begins in January with the arrival of mail-order catalogs. Use these to make lists of plants you wish to grow and to help you decide which to order by mail and which to buy locally.

If you are not already on the mailing list of several mail-order nurseries, buy the December issue of a gardening magazine and request catalogs from the advertisements in it.

Next, sketch the garden on paper to help you decide where to place everything on your wish list. It’s easy to order too many plants for your space, so it’s best to design the garden before ordering or buying plants. Sketching the flower areas will help you determine how many plants or packets of seeds to buy and whether your garden can supply the sun or shade they need.

The easiest way to plan a garden layout is with graph paper. Use it to sketch the property, allotting one square of grid for each square foot of garden space. Show where beds and borders will be located and mark whether they are in sun or shade. Then lay a piece of tracing paper over the graph paper and begin planning your garden. Be willing to try ideas and throw them away. You may discard many pieces of tracing paper before settling on a final plan.

Estimating Quantity

Most annuals are happy with 12-inch spacing, but perennials may need as much as 3 feet. This rule of thumb can help you determine how many plants you will need for a given area. Shade in the beds and borders you have sketched on graph paper with felt-tipped colored pens. Use different colors to represent different plant groups; for example, 12 yellow squares to show a planting of a dozen marigolds or 24 red squares to show a planting of two dozen wax begonias. Then draw up your plant list. To create a visually interesting bed or border, remember to include low edging plants and tall background plants.

Laying Out Beds and Borders

Beds and borders are the most common locations for annuals and perennials. A bed usually is an island of soil—either square, rectangular, oval, round, or kidney-shaped—surrounded by paving or lawn. The most pleasing way to plant beds is to group tall plants in the middle, then circle them with intermediate-height plants and an outer ring of low-growing plants.

A border normally is a strip of soil backed by a hedge, wall, fence, or path. The planting may be formal (neatly geometrical) or informal (with a wavy edge). Tall plants should be placed at the rear, intermediate-height plants in front of them, and low-growing plants as an edging. A line of shrubs such as forsythias or hydrangeas makes an excellent background for a border of shorter flowers.

To transfer your planting plan from a piece of graph paper to the garden, take a sharp stick or a bag of flour and outline the planting stations for each flower variety. For greater precision, mark out beds and borders with string stretched between wooden stakes, or use flexible garden hose for a curving edge.

Preparing the Soil for Planting

Begin by removing any sod or plants on the soil. Next, spread any amendments and fertilizers you would like to add to improve the soil. Finally, turn over the soil with a spade or rotary tiller to mix the amendments in and loosen the soil. Try to avoid walking on it after it has been turned. If you can’t reach part of it from the edge, lay down a board to kneel on to prevent compacting the soil.

Buying Plants

You can buy plants from nurseries or through the mail. If you order live plants in January, the mail-order nursery will ship them to you at the right time for planting in your area.

During the growing season, nurseries sell live transplants. Select stocky, strong-looking plants. It’s a good policy to “buy green” by selecting plants that haven’t yet begun to bloom. These young plants adapt better to their new environment than blooming plants, and will bloom in just a short time.

Perennials are often sold in containers in larger sizes than transplants. These plants may or may not be blooming when you buy them. Buying larger plants saves a year or so of waiting for them to reach blooming size. Perennials might take three years from seed to reach their full size.