Designing my first garden: where to start?

adanieloMarch 10, 2008

I can't think of anywhere else I could go for better advice! I spent most of the last year over at the home forums, as we bought our house last year and it needed some TLC. This year, it's all about the yard! Here are the house stats:

-small, 1950 Cape Cod in a Boston suburb

-Light blue exterior with dark blue shutters

-House sits about 25 feet from the street with a multi-colored slate walkway that winds up from the driveway.

That is where the good part ends. The front of the house faces NW. The south and east sides are heavily shaded from trees, so I'm looking primarily to design the front and west sides of the house. I would prefer a perennial garden, something akin to the "3 season" garden where something is always blooming or has nice foliage.

The current plantings are a mish-mash of meatball-shaped evergreen bushes (the kind you see everywhere), one nice rhododenden, a very sad and leggy burning bush, and then some other random unidentifiable stuff. It's all planted in a straight line in front of the house.

Unless someone is feeling particularly creative, I am not necessarily looking for plant-by-plant suggestions (though that would be wonderful), but more of a place to start, a good book, a good website. Is there something obvious I am overlooking? I'd like to take the plantings up to the slate path. I love, in no particular order or knowledge of what to plant where: hydrangea, peonies, herbs, hostas, sunflowers, dahlias, freesia, echinacia, daisies, black eyed-susan, lilies (I have small yellow daylilies in large clumps as well, these are pretty), anything with nice foliage--flowering or not.

I know this is sort of an overarching post, so if there are threads that would be good feel free to point out! I do have a fairly basic knowledge of gardening and a "green thumb", I guess, so I am not starting from nothing at all. Mostly I just need help with what to put where!

Thanks so much.

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When designing a garden, you always have to start with what you have that you cannot change. Orientation to the sun is one of them. North means little sun, or none if you are in the shade of the house. West means no morning sun and strong afternoon sun, unless there is shade from trees, buildings etc.

The plant list you wish for does not offer many possibilities with these conditions, I'm sorry to say.

I suggest you start over. Make a list of all your unchangeable conditions, like sun/shade from the house. Make a list of what you can change--cut down trees on the east or south? What is the soil like? Drainage. Rocks or ledge. And so on.

Then and only then can you start your plant list. What will grow in the conditions you can offer? You can change a lot, but not everything, and that is where the ingenuity comes in.

    Bookmark   March 10, 2008 at 7:37PM
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Tracy DiSabato-Aust's books would be a good start, and I'd probably go to the library and a large bookstore or two to browse to find others. I'd also drive around come spring and find yards that appeal to you that have similar conditions to yours. Once you've figured out what you like, also think about how you will be using your yard as a whole before you start designing and looking for plants. Do you just want it to look nice? Do you use the front or back lawn for touch football? Do you want a place to put a compost pile/hot tub/swimming pool/whatever somewhere on the property? You like the front walkway - do you need any other hardscaping, like additional walkways, patio, driveway changes, etc.? What traffic patterns around the yard do you need to take into account? Are there any sights you want to block, at least partially? You may find a checklist or two for designing on the landscape design forum somewhere, though they may have disappeared by now.

Enjoy the process and take the time to figure out what you can keep of what's there - there's nothing like having some established plants in a garden.

    Bookmark   March 10, 2008 at 9:23PM
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terrene(5b MA)

Congrats on your new house! How exciting! I basically agree with the other posters in the sense that you must evaluate the yard carefully for sun exposure, soil conditions, and existing plantings before going whole-hog with the garden beds. It can take a whole season before you know how much sun an area of the yard gets.

Think a lot about what you want for the "bones" of your yard. This includes more permanent plantings such as trees and shrubs, and possibly hardscaping (stone or retaining walls, fencing, patios, etc.).

I would consider removing or reducing the meatball shrubbery - most of which are foundations plants or shrub rows that might otherwise be nice plants but are then butchered by homeowners or landscapers into meatballs or gumdrops and end up something remotely resembling landscaping. Why I wonder? Maybe because they are planted too close to the house or sidewalks or driveway and they need to be kept under control? Or maybe because people don't know what else to do with them other than attack them with hedge clippers every year? Believe or not, my next door neighbor was out there shearing his meatball shrubs with a CHAINSAW one spring!!

I would also remove the Burning bush - Euonymous alata is on the Massachusetts prohibited plant list because they're a non-native invasive species that has been widely planted but has invaded wild areas and IMO is kind of ugly. They are rugged and have nice fall color, but there are so many other native or non-invasive shrubs that are more attractive.

After you've thinned out any trees or shrubs you don't want, then you can replace them with some nicer plants.

I think very carefully about the "bones" of my yard, but don't get too worked up where the perennials and annuals go. Chances are they're going to be divided or moved the next year or 2 anyway! So have some fun and make some garden beds and plant the perennials you want as you go along (providing conditions are reasonably good). Most of them are easy to move and change!

Oh and check here for a Boston area plant swap. A great place to get some plants for your garden free. Even if you have nothing to swap, it's okay.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2008 at 9:34AM
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sedum37(Z5 MA)

A lot of good sound advice in the three posts so far!

Might I suggest going to a garden tour for inspiration? In the May and June time frame around here there are lots of garden tours so a way to see ideas. Also you could go to the New England Flower show to get ideas on right now through this Sunday March 16th.

Definitely go to your library and see what gardening books they have. Hold off buying any gardening books until you find one that you will come back to again and again. Many of the garden books people buy them and they read them once and they sit on a shelf gathering dust. My local library is part of the Merrimack valley consortium of something like 25 libraries so I can request just about any gardening book title. You could get a hold of some of the Victory Garden Books (just ignore the sections on applications of pesticides) as these books list plants and shrubs that do well in New England.

One suggestion is determine how many deer you have in your area. People on this forum are plagued by damage that large numbers of deer inflict on their gardens. If you have deer in the area you have to be selective what plants you plant as well (another thing to throw in!).

Finally for the first year while you are figuring out and planning may I suggest getting some decorative containers and planting these? That way you can have instant gratification this year and feel like you are doing some gardeing, etc. without installing something permanent. For success with containers be sure to use special potting soilless mixes and not garden soil. Using a light airy mix of soil will improve your success with container gardening.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2008 at 10:18AM
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Number one help? A camera! Take lots of sun studies cuz you MIGHT think you'll remember but you won't...especially in those funny areas where the sun comes and goes. Several times a day for months...the entire season.

Two....try and think more of landscaping vs creating a garden...which isn't there in winter. I'm adamant about 4 seasons of interest. Nothing depresses me more than an area (particularly the house front/walk) that is barren with a bunch of dead leaves and brown sticks for 5 months lol. Evergreens are invaluable for not only softening a house but also giving a tremendous backdrop to perennials.

Also as mentioned? Think about how you will use the yard and what you want/need first. We moved into a pretty barren landscape 4 yrs ago but quickly decided we wanted a shady, quiet spot in the back of the house and got to it! It was loverly....

Here are some shots of "where" we began and shows just how quickly things can change. We do all our own work...he's the builder, I'm the plant person lol.

PS...I woulda appreciated a few "meatballs" lol! Sometimes these are great shrubs than can be relocated and left to go natural....don't immediately think about trashing everything.

Here is a link that might be useful: Starting from scratch

    Bookmark   March 11, 2008 at 3:57PM
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How wonderful your pictures are!
Spring can't come soon enough! I need to see more color! Think I'll go looking for more pictures....

    Bookmark   March 11, 2008 at 4:58PM
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Lots of great advice already.

A great book is The Welcoming Garden, by Gordon Hayward. He's actually got lots of good ones, this one is the most useful, though they all have something to offer and I still re-read them.

Go to the flower show this week, too, there will be a lot of inspiration for you there.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2008 at 10:06PM
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Thanks so much to all for taking the time to respond. I should clarify a few points. One, I am definitely removing the meatball bushes and the burning bush. They are just awful and were ill-cared for, poorly trimmed into odd shapes, and placed without thought. Second, I am only focusing on a small area in the very front of the house that faces the street. This year, anyway! The backyard is entirely shade, we'll be building a deck, and is largely used by my 2 year old son to play in. Maybe next year I will plant, but now it's just grass, which is ok by me.

Is it really true that the plants I like will not work?? This is distressing. I live on a fairly long street, which is populated with houses much like mine with just those sorts of plants in their front yards. I will have to think this through and perhaps revise my list! Really, as long as it looks nice I am not wedded to specific plants. In any case, I plan to start small and go from there.

One more thing: I also inherited a blush-colored climbing rose that was not pruned or cared for at all and threatens to take over the house! But it really is pretty. It is the only plant right now on the west side of the house and gets fried all day but it must be hardy because it bloomed all summer long. I just have to get it under control.

Thanks again!!

    Bookmark   March 11, 2008 at 10:33PM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA

adainelo....If your neighbors have some of these same plants in their yard, then it would be a good idea to investigate a little further. Are they in the same boat you are in? On the same side of the street, facing Northwest? Do they have the same amount of sun/shade? Fewer trees to the south of them, shading the front garden area?

If you have somewhere on your property that is full sun, then some of the plants you listed will work. If you have a rose on the western side of the house that bloomed all summer, then it sounds like you have sun on your property, maybe just not in the front?

Getting 'exact' details of how much sun you have, where is very important. When I was first starting to plan my garden, I spent a week, mapping the sun exposure on the property. Going out and checking where the sun was every hour, then I knew, this area has 6 hours of sun, this area only has 4hrs in late afternoon. Here is where the morning sun will be and it stays there for 3hrs. Etc. Then I made a little map hand drawn of where those amounts of sun are. Really some of your decisions about what to grow where are determined by this. For instance, I wanted to grow veggies and roses and they need a lot of sun, so where I had the most sun is where I planned to put those. Hydrangeas need less sun and like an Eastern exposure, facing the morning sun with shade in the afternoon. So that is where they went. etc.

I just got a 'sunlight calculator' from a catalog company for Christmas that I am hoping will further refine my knowledge of how much sun I have available. I haven't tried it yet, but I will let you know how it works.

Do you possibly have any photos?


    Bookmark   March 12, 2008 at 7:31AM
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mayalena(6 - MetroWest Boston)

Hi Adanielo! Welcome to a happy addiction!

I will say one thing first: after I fixed our house, I thought I would fix our garden. I didn't realize that the two are quite different, in that fixing a house actually comes to an end, but the garden is never done.... I am still fixing it, 5 years later. Once I realized that I couldn't ever get it off my "to do" list, I started to enjoy it more.

So...I too started with mapping my sun. I literally drew about 12 small, identical plans of my yard, then noted the time and filled in the shade about every hour. That way, I could understand how much light I have where. Also -- the sun is much lower in the sky now than it will be in the summer, so you might want to hold off for a few months.

As to what will grow in your yard, I think many of the plants you mentioned will grow, especially away from the house toward the street. I, too, started with Tracy deSabato-whatever's book on perennials, and her second book on designing with perennials. I also like Sydney Eddison's "The Self Taught Gardener". It's really basic and easy, and includes several of the plants you like in her list of good choices for beginners.

Two more thoughts: I'd give your meatballs a couple of seasons to re-assume their natural habits, if possible. Mature shrubs are *expensive* and hard to establish, so don't chuck them 'til you are really sure -- except the Burning Bush, which should go ASAP, as Terrene noted. I got rid of lots of meatball laurels, that I wish now I still had -- just in the backyard, instead of at the foundation. I kept some yews that have developed a much more natural form over time and I am quite happy with them.

Lastly: trees on the south side are a *great* way to help lower your cooling bill in the summer. I wish I had more shade on my south side. Our house boils and blisters in full sun (our driveway and the neighbors' driveway are on the south, so no planting possible).

Last, last thought: Conceptually, I think starting your planning with Winter structure/berries/an evergreen or 2, is really, really smart. I keep trying to do that!

Good luck, and come back often to share your process and thinking with us.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2008 at 8:46AM
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Adainleo...what "are" your meatball bushes lol??

Glad you enjoyed the pix Grow now....thanks for the nice comment!

    Bookmark   March 12, 2008 at 10:58AM
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jant(z6MA)'s a bunch of wonderful inspiration photos....before/during/after which is, I think, too often ignored. She shows both the young and mature gardens as well many times. She's in a colder zone than ours so everything would be hardy here.

Here is a link that might be useful: Rachel's Gardens

    Bookmark   March 12, 2008 at 11:30AM
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Oh...don't bother clicking on the photos of the "types of gardens". Scroll down to almost the bottom of the page and click on photos there.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2008 at 11:33AM
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claireplymouth z6b coastal MA

Don't try to control that rose too much! You could even encourage it to climb...

A Rose-covered Cottage


    Bookmark   March 12, 2008 at 12:11PM
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Okay, here is a pic. Taken on a dark, damp, gray day, from the sidewalk due North. You can see here the meatballs. To the left of the lefthand meatball is a rhododendron. The tiny Christmas tree looking items are just that. The right hand corner of the house in this pic is due West. So there is a lot of sun on that corner and the entire west side of the house--but it is afternoon sun. The yard extends down that side and is very visible from the street--there lies my climbing rose, and also an azalea on the southwest corner. The north east corner (left hand side of the pic) is a little flower bed created by previous owners and is filled with a) the burning bush--bare in this pic--and the rest is Stella de Oro lilies. They are pretty and bloom like crazy all summer long. The sad mailbox is surrounded with purple irises and daffodils in spring--also pretty, if not exactly something I would do.

What I want to do is plant up to the slate path on the north east corner, put something else in with the daylilies, and revive the other corner with something more substantial. Sorry the pic is tiny, it's all I have at the moment. I love the suggestion of recording the sun over time--I should have done this last summer!

    Bookmark   March 12, 2008 at 10:17PM
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mayalena(6 - MetroWest Boston)

What a wonderful, charming home!

I love your idea of planting up to the slate path on the left front of the house. How deep will that bed be? While you are researching plants, maybe you want to just dig out that grass and add lots of compost -- well-rotted manure or leaves (our town has free compost that is screened and quite nice -- though very precise people worry it might contain unsavory bits too -- but the town assures me it's just composted leaves from fall pickup). You might want to keep the grass you dig out and start your own compost pile too. See the Composting forum on this site for lots of good info and support.

Though it is painful, amending soil will assure you of happier plants later.

Your little "Christmas Trees" probably would like a whole lot more sun than they've been getting. Maybe move them toward the west, as a pair, several feet apart? And add some other shrubs or needled evergreens? And a flowering tree?

Your rhodies should be fine with less sun, tho they will bloom less. Maybe you want to move both to one side and group them? And maybe add one? Some people (I am one) plant in odd numbers -- 3, 5 -- just to make plantings look slightly more natural.

Umm. And your yews -- they definitely should move -- do you have space in the backyard? They could contribute to a nice barrier screen between your house and the neighbors'. Or something. I hate to get rid of them, only because new plants are *so* expensive! Maybe just move them to the outer corners of the house. They are evergreen, and will provide winter structure and color. Over a couple of years, they will look much less meatbally.

I can imagine some beautiful, billowly hydrangeas in the burning bush bed, and hostas, dicentra, astilbe, cimicifuga, Japanese anemones in that bed that runs out to the path. But you do need more structure in there. The rhodies might do that for you? Or 2 rhodies and an azalea? Or a Kousa dogwood, depending on your light?

Well -- it's always fun to fantasize about other people's gardens.... Thanks for the pic. It really makes it easier.

Have fun!

    Bookmark   March 13, 2008 at 6:45AM
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terrene(5b MA)

Adanielo, even though the front of the house faces north-west, you might get a fair amount of sun in front near the sidewalk where the yard is not shaded by the house. Some of the perennials you want to plant might prefer full sun but can tolerate a little shade, such as Peonies, Echinacea, and Rudbeckia. Most herbs and veggies want full sun and annual Sunflowers LOVE full sun - the more the better. They will not do well with any shade. You could put the shade-tolerant plants like Hostas near the front of the house.

The first borders I created were in the front yard, working around the shade of 2 large Maples. Basically, this was where the sun was! I also have a border that runs all along the street planted with grasses, Echinacea, Daylilies, Gaillardia, bulbs and other drougt-tolerant plants. One nice thing is that people walking or driving get to enjoy the flowers too.

Also, consider understory shrubs and trees if you have areas of the yard that are partly shaded by trees. This year I am planning a large shrub border along the south side of the yard where I had a large Norway Maple removed last November. I liked the tree but Norways are a highly invasive non-native tree that has dense shade and thirsty allelopathic roots and it's near impossible to grow anything under them. The border is still lightly shaded by the remaining canopy trees, but there are lots of understory shrubs and trees that will do well under such conditions. I'm going to plant native and ornamental shrubbery and small trees - Dogwood, Witch hazel, Viburnum, Black Cherry, etc. and mix in evergreens like Rhodies and Arborvitae too.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2008 at 10:41AM
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tom8olvr(Z5 MA)

How big is your yard? Cute yard and house! I started with a 1.5 acre yard and quickly became overwhelmed. I couldn't keep up with all the maintenance UNTIL I learned to take it one step at a time. I was killing myself being the 'weekend gardner' and ended up with a yard full of weeds I couldn't keep up with... I don't know if this is a good suggestion but it worked for me... In my mind, I broke up the yard into areas - and each season focused on an area. Then it didn't seem so overwhelming - focusing on a new shade garden - or a sunny spot for 3-5 (I'm also a odd number planter) Wigelias... I moved again and am in a much smaller yard now .33 acres and have used this technique again - with excellent results. I've started with NOTHING and decided to add perennials as I get to know the yard. I love hydrangea - bought one last year and put it in a place where I knew it would be okay... but I always keep in mind that I can move things if things don't go well... But mostly have focused on annuals until I can get to know the yard better. I have a perennial nursery - where I move things til I can find a perfect place for them...

Just a suggestion... :) Good luck!

    Bookmark   March 19, 2008 at 9:18AM
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