Before you go out to buy plants for your new garden or border, there are a few questions you could ask of your plot, and yourself, that will make the process easier.
Keep this in mind throughout the process. Large plants are expensive, small plants take time to grow. Do you have friends who could give plants to you? Have you got a birthday coming up? Remember also that plants are not the most expensive part of a garden. Hard landscaping materials and labour will be the biggest initial outlay.
What do you want from your plot?
Do you want a tranquil space? A plant collection? Fruit and vegetables? Somewhere for the children to play? Somewhere for the dog to run about? An outdoor room for entertaining in the evenings? A haven for wildlife? Chances are it will be some combination of these. If members of your household have special requirements be sure to consider them from the outset.
How much time do you want to spend working in your garden?
For many people the buzz words are ‘low maintenance’. While all gardens require some work, certain types of plant require less effort than others. Plant things in pots and they will need watering. Plant a lawn and you will have to cut it. Shrubs are usually less work than perennials, but, unless you employ a gardener, you will have to do at least some pruning. Remember, though, the physical and psychological value of interacting with nature.
Spend time getting to know your plot through the seasons. In a garden that is new to you try to resist making major changes until you know what you have: that dull shrub border might have been under-planted with thousands of spring bulbs.
When buying plants you will need to consider their spread at maturity as well as their height, so how big an area are you planting? You could use a tape measure, a line, or pace it out (remember to measure how long your pace is!). It can be very helpful to draw a sketch map and add the dimensions to this. It doesn’t have to be to scale. It can be useful to divide a large garden up into sections that can be dealt with individually. This can help spread the cost, and the decision-making, over a longer period.
Where is north?
The direction a border faces can have considerable impact on what will thrive there. A north-facing border, for example, may be shady for much of the day.
Is your plot surrounded by fences, hedges, walls or buildings? If any boundaries need attention, it may be easier to make them good before you plant in front of them. Take care to consult with your neighbours and as to their wishes and responsibilities.
Sun and shade
Some plants need as much sun as possible, many are happy in partial shade while a few do best out of direct sunlight. Watch your plot over a few days and make a note of which areas receive sunlight and when. Full shade can be defined as an area under trees where the view of the sky is substantially obscured.
Are any parts of your plot subject to cold winds? Does the frost take a long time to melt? Are you very close to the sea? Some plants will suffer from wind, salt or frost damage and may need to be placed in the most sheltered parts of your garden.
Is it sand or heavy clay or something in between? Have the builders spread a thin layer of topsoil over what is basically brick rubble? Have established shrubs been recently removed? Sometimes your soil will need improving before you plant. This will usually involve the addition of organic matter such as compost made from green waste or well-rotted manure. Mediterranean herbs, however, would probably enjoy the rubble!
This is a measurement of the acidity of your soil, and can be ascertained with the help of an inexpensive testing kit. Alternatively, look at what your neighbours are growing. If they have a clump of healthy rhododendrons, then the soil in their garden, and probably yours, is acidic with a low ph reading. Some plants need acidic soil to thrive. These include camellias, azaleas, blue hydrangeas, heathers and the rhododendrons already mentioned. It is very hard to permanently change the ph of soil and it makes better sense to work with what you have. If you don’t have acid soil, you can grow these plants in containers.
Are there wet or dry places in your plot? It can be dry under trees and close to brick walls. Shady corners can be damp. There are plenty of plants to choose from whether you have wet or dry conditions.
The old adage that a weed is just a flower in the wrong place has some truth to it but will come as little comfort to those whose plot is riddled with bindweed. Identify your weeds and take advice as to how to deal with them before you begin new planting.
Slugs and snails
If your plot is home to large numbers of these, then certain plants will have to be avoided or protected. Hostas can be grown in pots ringed with copper tape.
Rabbits and deer
The presence of wild herbivores in your plot can be a game-changer. While these animals have their favourite foods there is very little they will leave untouched in a spell of harsh winter weather. Individual trees can be protected by tree-guards until they are mature enough to withstand browsing. Think about establishing a fenced area close to the house for growing vulnerable plants.
Privacy, noise and eyesores
Quite often what we grow inside our plot will be influenced by what lies outside it. Do you want to screen your kitchen window from the neighbours? Are you fed up with seeing that derelict shed? Is the road you live on busy with constant traffic? Plants can help in all these situations but consider carefully and keep in mind the long-term. Many a leylandii hedge was planted in haste in the 1970s only to become an unmanageable monster40 years on.
Are there things in your plot you want to keep? Do they need pruning, thinning, moving, splitting? Planting a garden can be expensive and it makes sense to maximize what you have already.
What do you like?
Do you have favourite plants? Often these are the ones that evoke memories of cherished people or places. It makes sense to include them if you can but beware of trying to shoe-horn a plant into a garden situation hostile to its requirements. Lavender may remind you of your honeymoon in Italy, but it will not survive in your woodland garden.
What don’t you like?
Hate yellow? Loathe hydrangeas? It is often easier to pinpoint what we don’t want rather than what we do. Considering dislikes can sometimes bring us closer to making positive decisions.
It could be formal, cottage, contemporary, wildlife-friendly, or you may not care. It might echo your house or stand in contrast to it. Gardens, like their owners, are living, evolving entities and it can be difficult to maintain rigid design principles over time. Try to allow for some flexibility while maintaining a kind of over-all vision that will give the plot cohesion. Be particularly wary of strict, colour-themed planting unless you are prepared to police it ruthlessly: the seedlings of your white foxgloves might very well turn out to be pink!
Consider the bigger picture
It may be your sanctuary, but a garden cannot exist in total isolation. Spend some time walking around your neighbourhood to see what plants are growing in both the cultivated and the wilder environment. Those crab-apple trees along the street will mean you don’t have to plant two apple varieties in your own garden to ensure pollination. Wild plants have evolved to populate every kind of habitat and many of them have cultivated equivalents. Glean ideas from your fellow gardeners but remember that nature always finds the most effective solutions.