Find out how to give your landscape your personal stamp while respecting what is there and not exceeding your budget.
You’ve moved to a new place, and you’re already imagining what you’re going to do to improve the outdoor space. Maybe it’s a new development, offering a blank canvas, or perhaps it’s already been landscaped. Here are ideas to help you bring your gardening aesthetic to the new space in a way that works with the site, its existing design and any established plantings, and won’t cost an arm and a leg.
You can work through some or all of these steps on your own, but you may want to work with a landscape professional, someone who can help you identify what you need for your ideas to come to life and can pull your ideas together into a coherent plan.
1. Observe. Put down that spade and rototiller. Before you do anything major, take the time to see what you’ve got to work with. Live with the place through at least a growing season if you can, giving yourself enough time to discover what’s already there. The daffodils in this photo, for instance, appeared as a surprise in an untended bed the spring after I moved to my current house in northern Wyoming, with a yard that had basically been abandoned for a decade or two.
Fortunately I am not someone who tidies or improves first and asks questions later. If I had turned the bed and planted before their leaves appeared, I might have spaded up the daffodils and missed their cheerful yellow blooms. I also would not have been able to incorporate them into the new garden design.
2. Identify and inventory. Take photos and make notes. Identify and label everything you can, either using plant tags and stakes or drawing a yard plan and noting what grows where.
If you can’t identify something using the abundant resources available online, go the old-fashioned route and talk to neighbors or take photos to a local nursery or garden club. That’s how I learned the variety of the heritage peony that grew in my former home. It had popped up as a bonus after I planted a rhubarb clump I dug up from a friend’s garden; the peony tuber had come with it.
I love peonies, especially the old, richly scented varieties, so I was delighted by the unexpected addition. My friend’s neighbor identified the peony as a circa-1907 ‘Frances Willard’ from her mother’s garden in Illinois, a long way from our Colorado neighborhood.
3. Understand your site. Whether experienced gardeners or novices, we all make this mistake: We plunge in before taking the time to really know our site, from the small details of the soil and microsite to the big picture of the bioregion. Later we’re sorry we didn’t do our homework, when we find the soggy spot where nothing grows or the hot spot we didn’t notice — or our prized shrubs we bought at great cost die because they weren’t suited to the climate.
If your new garden is in the same area as your old one, you may already know your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone and bioregion. If not, click the links to learn. The Plant Hardiness Zone map gives you a rough idea of climate as measured by lowest temperatures; the bioregion info supplies more detail about soils, substrate and natural ecosystems.
Observe the specifics of your site too: how water drains, where the sun falls through the seasons and the hot spots and frost pockets.
4. Understand your soil. Soil is where plants harvest their nutrients, drink water and engage in relationships with mycorrhizae and other microscopic life forms that help them thrive. Knowing what kind of soil you’re working with is at least as important as understanding your site, because it helps determine whether your plants will flourish, and what kind of hardscape and structures you can create. Plants respond to both soil texture and chemistry (pH and any particular concentrations of metals or metal salts).
Soil test kits for pH and other issues are usually available through county extensions. Texture is pretty easy to gauge: Take a pinch of your soil, wet it and then squeeze it out between your fingers. If your sample is grainy and falls apart, it’s mostly sand; if it begins to form a ribbon between your fingers, it’s got more silt and clay. The longer the ribbon you can form without its breaking, the higher the clay content.
5. Know your style and objectives. How do you envision your garden or landscape looking? Is it formal with clipped hedges and disciplined borders or more of a cottage garden with a riot blooms? Do you imagine a naturalistic prairie, meadow or forested shade garden?
Putting your own stamp on a landscape means knowing the style or styles you prefer. If you’re not sure, look at garden photos online, in print or in person. Make notes about what you love about them: Is it the arrangement of the plants? The colors and shapes? The relationships between plants and built environment? Those are all part of what makes up style. Finding your own preferences is key to picking your garden style.
What’s your objective? Is it simply to make a more beautiful landscape? Do you want to grow your own food? Do you want make a safe and healthy place for your family to spend time outdoors or to provide habitat for pollinators and songbirds? Most of us have multiple objectives; writing them out reminds us of what’s important in shaping a garden and landscape that reflect who we are.
6. Pick your plant palette. Once you know your style and objectives, make a list or collect images of plants that fit your aims. (Be sure they’re ones that will thrive on your site, in your ecoregion or climate zone). If you’re working with an existing garden or landscape, an inventory is useful, as noted above. Once you know what’s there, you can decide what existing elements you love or like and are willing to work with, and what you simply must add.
With a new landscape, you have complete freedom. That’s great but also can be overwhelming. That’s when a plant palette is especially useful. Whether you’re adding your special touch to an existing landscape or starting with a new site, it can be helpful to limit yourself at first: Pick two or three dozen of your absolute must-have plants, including trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers. Repeating elements of a more limited plant palette will give you a more cohesive overall design.
In choosing your palette, remember to think in terms of color, form and pattern throughout the year. The photo here is of the native prairie garden at Denver Botanic Gardens in fall. Notice how the colors and textures of the native grasses and shrubs lend interest beyond prime flowering season.
Remember you can always add more plants later.
7. Remove obstacles. Before you start planting, remove any large obstacles or unwanted garden elements. Do you have trees that need to come down or be pruned? (The mature spruce in the photo here, for instance, had to go because it endangered the house.) A fence, garden structure or path that needs to come out or is in the way of your plans? Are you taking out lawn to replace it with other types of landscaping?
Anything that requires disrupting the garden or yard should be removed before you start planting to avoid disturbing your new plants and landscaping, or worse, having to spend money and time replanting.
Don’t forget to reuse or recycle materials from anything you remove: The branches of that large spruce tree in the photo here, for instance, were chipped and piled on-site to provide free mulch to shade and improve the soil of the much-neglected yard. Bricks from a dated and decaying planter were reused to edge paths and garden beds.
8. Put in hardscape. Just as with removing obstacles and unwanted elements, putting in your hardscape — the nongrowing elements of your landscape, including paths, boulders, patios, decks and other garden structures — should be done before you do any large-scale planting.
In this photo, of a brand-new yard in a development on Colorado’s Front Range, the lot had drainage issues that had to be dealt with by creating a dry streambed and a shallow runoff retention area before mounds could be built and mulched, boulders placed, paths and patios laid. Only after all the site work had been done was it time to plant.
9. Build your plant collection. Planning and doing your homework is critical too, to help save money and to ensure the garden you envision is what comes to life.
As soon as you know your plant palette, start collecting your plants. Look for postseason sales to pick up specimen plants at bargain prices. If you can’t plant them right away, devote an area of the yard, somewhere convenient for watering and tending, to being your personal nursery. Stash your finds there until it’s time to plant.
Grow your own too: Collect seeds, cuttings and root divisions of your preferred plants, and start new plants inside or in your outdoor nursery area, depending on the conditions they need. (Always ask permission before collecting.) Meadow-style plantings can often be done most inexpensively from seed, and then as the meadow grows, you can plug in plants to fill gaps or add color.
In any planting, remember the basic design rules: Plant in groups of three to five to give more impact, except for large specimen plants. With bulbs especially, grouping in dense clumps is often more effective than planting individual bulbs one to a hole. Go for punch and mass.
10. Be open to surprises. Gardens are part of nature, so things don’t always happen according to plan. That’s OK. Surprises add to a garden; what appears can sometimes be just exactly what the space needed, like the columbine in this photo sprouting in a garden bed at my new house that appeared to have been shaded out. Once the sickly tree above the bed was removed, columbines and other perennials popped up, inspiring me to create an old-fashioned cottage garden in a formerly neglected and boring part of my yard.
There are many ways to make a garden your own. The most important is to know what you like and follow your instincts, no matter what the current fashion may be or what others prefer. It is, after all, your garden. Have fun making it your own.