Evaluate Your Garden

Our Garden Gang's
Evaluate Your Garden

As you look at your garden from the windows, where does the sun rise?  What areas get sun versus shade at what times of the day?  Where do you need to add shade?  Except for shade of buildings and trees, south and west are your sunniest exposures with east and then north receiving the least direct sunlight daily.  Remember that the large majority of Carebeas_semi_sun_perennials.jpg (190x129 -- 5296 bytes) flowering trees, shrubs and perennials prefer full sun conditions (six or more hours of direct sun, not dappled shade thrown by nearby trees). 

Also look at your home from across the street and while standing in neighbors' yards.  Where are the boring winter bald-spots?  What do you recall from spring, summer and fall as problem areas?  Are plantings intended to provide a focal point for color, or just add green to the existing garden?  What about hiding air-conditioning units, electric meters, well caps and other unsightly exterior features?  Do you need plants for windbreaks or noise barriers?  What about ground covers?  Remember to leave room for plant growth and height.  Strive for some balance, but not necessarily symmetry.  One large shrub can balance a smaller cluster of plants.  (Photo courtesy of Carebea - that is her mostly-sunny perennial bed.)

Really LOOK at the architecture and uses of your home.  Is it formal or casual?  Do you entertain outdoors on the patio, deck, or, if you have or plan a pool, will it be at poolside?  What about spaces for children or pets, and future improvements like swimming pools and room additions?  Think about walkway materials, color, texture and four-season interest.  

What is your soil like?  Is it light and sandy or heavy and clay-like?  Will you have to add soil amendments?  If so you must plan on acquiring those before beginning spring work in the garden.  What is its pH?  Tests for pH levels are available at Juanas_rockery.jpg (190x125 -- 5438 bytes) most reputable garden centers.  Get one (and possibly a hammer and  chisel if you're frozen in now) and sample the soil according to the instructions.  Most flowering and landscaping plants prefer the soil pH to be approximately 6.5 to 6.8.  Heathers, azaleas/rhododendrons and their relatives prefer more organic and acidic soil.  

Garden soils may need amendments for a particular plant, or all over the surface area, depending on the nature of your soil and what you want to grow.  If you have heavy clay or very loose sand, it will take a number of years of gradually adding amendments to improve the soil, unless you have unlimited funds.  This may also apply if you have lots of stones or nefarious weeds and grasses.  (Photo Courtesy of Juana - that is her front garden rockery.)

Do not despair, but settle in for the long haul.  Start composting, get inexpensive or free compost from your local city waste department, ask your neighbors for their leaves, recycle those newspapers as compost-helper.  The more you can get, the sooner your soil quality will improve, and then only annual "maintenance" doses of amendments will be required.  Assign a "Pick up the Stones" day in spring, midsummer and fall where the whole family picks up or digs up every stone they can find.  (Use them to pave a garden path or weigh down the hollow base of a birdbath - or even to build a retaining wall or raised bed if you've got big ones.)  Have a "Dig Those Weeds" day with severe spring and fall digging - pulling out every shred of root you can - garden sieves are excellent for this purpose.

lasagna3.gif (100x78 -- 7806 bytes)For particularly bad perennial weed or problem-grass patches, cover  with thick black plastic sheeting, weigh down the edges and seams, and stew them to death for six weeks or more during the hottest part of summer!  Also, the Lasagna Gardening (use your browser BACK button to return to this page) approach is a real help for seriously weedy, poor or rocky soils.  This involves layering newspaper and cardboard on your garden, and adding soil and amendments on top of that.  You basically grow on top of your existing soil!  It smothers out the weeds and defeats the stones.  Check out the link for some good information. We are not selling the book, so buy it only if YOU want to.

Are there any places you must not dig?  Find out where your gas, cable and phone lines are buried. Get the agreement of your neighbors for your plans for common right-of-way areas.  If possible, find out where the sewer and water lines are, and avoid using plants you cannot easily transplant above them.

screencalc.gif (260x101 -- 3178 bytes) Are the views from your home pleasant or do they look out to the back of an ugly shed or billboard that you desperately need to screen?  Use the guide at right putting in your distances and heights to help identify the requirements for dealing with those eyesores.  Click on the screen height calculator for the mathematics to determine how high a screening shrub or trees needs to be to block the eyesore.

With these questions in mind, determine the positive and negative attributes of your property.  These are critical factors in achieving a workable and distinctive garden design.


All of our lives are different.  A landscape with a large, high-maintenance perennial garden is not a good choice for families with young children or those who travel! Landscapes should complement, not burden their owners.  Taking an inventory of what you need and expect from your ideal landscape design will make the garden work for you, not against you!

Thinking Long Term

Owning the same property for three years is not "long term" in gardening circles.  The important thing is to plan and design your landscape to best fit your needs as far as you can foresee into the future.  The longer you plan to stay, the further you must plan ahead.  When that swing set comes down, what will you grow there?  That lovely little maple looks great now, but will it cast a perpetual cloud of darkness over your home in 7 years?

High-Maintenance Plants

EEEEK don't plant me there! (120x112 -- 3888 bytes)
Most of us have favorite plants.  Regardless of how much you like a particular plant, be sure that excessive maintenance requirements do not keep you from enjoying it.  Many ornamentals have the most fragrant and colorful flowers imaginable but fall flat on their face given a long list of finicky cultural requirements or unreasonably high susceptibility to insects or disease.

Some plants are notorious for being affected by diseases, fungi and pests.  This doesn't mean they should all be avoided and are bad choices for the garden.  Older varieties should often be avoided, but the newer ones and yes, some of the ancient "heritage" ones are admirable in their resistance to diseases while also boasting superb flowers, fruit and form.  Not all species or cultivars within the same family of plants are created equal. So check through garden guides and catalogues for the sturdiest varieties, and seek these out.

Plants with Special Needs

Although some plants are generally free of damaging insect or disease problems, they still may not be the best choices for homeowners who demand an extremely low-maintenance landscape.  Don't try to grow rhododendrons, azaleas and a host of other ericaceous plants in clay or alkaline soil, or a clematis in a spot where it's roots will not be shaded.  Don't try to grow roses in sand or shade, or spring bulbs in wet conditions.  Learn the needs of the plants you are considering and plant them in the proper conditions, or resign yourself to another choice.  You can learn to love other plants, honest!

Making it all Work

Most homeowners have no trouble developing a long list of possible uses for every square inch of their yard.  Planning your landscape may take some persistence and patience, but the rewards are well worth the effort. Enjoy!

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