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A Garden From Scratch: How to Plant for Success (A Case Study)

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A Garden From Scratch: How to Plant for Success (A Case Study)

May 2, 2024

So you’re finally ready to plant up an area of your garden. How do you ensure you’re giving your plants the best possible start? In part 5 of my series on making A Garden from Scratch (scroll to the bottom for the other installments), I look at one border in my own garden and explain how I prepared it and put it together.

1. Get the timing right.

Above: What I started with. This was a tired lavender walk that needed a lot of plants replaced and was interspersed with climbing roses. I wanted a more substantial border as this was also a key view through the garden, so I removed everything except for the established ‘Blush Noisette’ rose on the right-hand side of the border.

Autumn and spring are perfect times to get a border planted, giving plants a chance to settle and send out roots when soil is likely to be warm and moist. Because I am nearly always running behind, the new border here would eventually go into the ground in early May. It’s not ideal timing as they need a lot more attention and irrigation if there is prolonged hot weather, but in reality it’s feasible to plant perennials at any time the ground is not frozen—just be prepared to keep an eye on them in summer.

Make sure you have all your plants gathered, ready for planting. If you are buying plants and want to keep costs down, know that 9-cm plants will be the most economical, while 1-liter or 2-liter plants will provide more instant impact. That said, those small plants will have caught up with the larger plants within one season and definitely within two seasons. If you’ve got time, growing some of the plants from seeds or cuttings will be the most economical of all. You can also divide plants from elsewhere in the garden, too, creating more plants for free. (See Your First Garden: How to Start a Garden for Practically Free for other ideas.)

2. Enrich the soil.

Above: Preparing the planting area.

I widened the existing border as much as I could while still leaving a path through the middle. At this point it can feel like there’s a lot of space, but once plants mature and grow over the edges this central path will narrow considerably. As this area has poor very free-draining soil, I dug in well-rotted manure through the whole border to prepare it for planting; whatever your soil type, the most beneficial thing you can do at the outset is to add as much compost as you can to enrich the soil.

3. Lay out the plants.

Above: Laying out the plants.

Place all of your plants along the border where you think you’ll want to plant them. Then spend some time considering how the plants will look as they grow. Think about how wide they will spread and allow enough space for plants to grow (check the plant label for approximate dimensions). Group perennials together in threes or loose triangles which will create more impact with blocks and color. What you are trying to create is a naturalistic feeling rather than regimented order. (See A Garden from Scratch: How to Choose Plants and Put Them Together for my tips on plant composition.)

Repeat some plants through the length of the border to help create rhythm. In this border, Alchemilla mollis, Geranium ‘Rozanne’ and Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foester’ are repeated down the length of the bed. And leave space for self seeders—over time, if you prefer a more naturalistic look and you’re happy to encourage self-seeders, your border will fill out with these volunteer plants. This border has several self-seeders, especially Salvia turkestanica, Digitalis parviflora and D. ferruginea gigantea, and occasionally Baptisia australis and Alchemilla mollis, creating free plants and a more abundant and lush border.

4. Get digging.

Above: Finally, ready to plant.

Once you’re happy with the layout, you can start planting. Dig holes that are twice the size of your pot and plant so that the eventual surface level is the same as it would have been in its pot. If the roots of any plants are dense and “potbound,” rough up the surface of the roots or tease some of the root out—this will encourage roots to grow out into the soil rather than staying contained, which will help it establish more effectively. As you backfill the hole with soil, ensure there are no air pockets around the roots and when it’s filled, tamp it down with a fist to ensure it’s all firmly in place. Water the whole area well. In newly planted areas, and because my garden has exceptionally sandy soil, I also then add an additional mulch layer (usually bark chip) on top to protect the soil and retain moisture.

5. Watch it grow, then edit.

Above: Color also helps to create a cohesive feeling through the border. The dominant flower color in this border is blue, beginning with spring bulbs and alliums in all shades of blue and purple.

When you’re planning a border, there are many elements to think about—how plants work together, their shapes, texture, flowers and so on. You also have to account for time and how the border will evolve through the whole growing season. As you watch the border through its first and second season, you will notice if there are any gaps you can fill in this succession. Or you may want to edit and move some plants around—although some plants are fussy about being moved (especially plants with tap roots), most perennials can easily be dug up and replanted, ideally while they are dormant.

Above: In this image taken slightly later in the season, it’s easy to see how the repetition of some plants through the border helps to draw the eye through the planting.

6. Enjoy your border.

Above: The same border five years on.

Even when all your plants are fully grown, you’re not done. And that’s a good thing. In my garden, the original plants in that border are mature and the copper beech hedge that provides a backdrop along the length of the border has now grown to the height I will keep it at. It still continues to evolve each season as self-seeders come and go, and I continue to edit and add new things.

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