The Plan | The Light | The Soil | The Plants | The Planting |

You?ve bought a new house, but your view is the neighbour?s jungle gym and your grass is a chemical green. Do not despair. We gardeners are optimistic-always-and it?s possible to accomplish enough in your first season to give a great deal of pleasure and probably astound yourself and others with what loveliness you can create. The first requirement of building a garden is intelligent groundwork and a lot of good mulch. Though a garden takes two or three years to get properly established, the process is the fun and will be that much easier if you make the right decisions now. The key is to build good bones, and let the little things take care of themselves. Here?s a guide on how to get started, from the ground up.

The Plan

Divine what you want your garden to do for you. Play space for children is quite different from a dense perennial garden. Think of your main goals – meditating? entertaining? dog run? – and try to accommodate them. Books, magazines and friends? gardens are all good sources for refining your vision. If you have the money to invest, a landscape architect or garden designer can create a plan to be realized in yearly increments.

An articulate plan should have some basic hardscaping (raised beds, water feature, sitting area) as well as suggestions for plants. The actual planting you can do yourself, adding more each year.

But be patient: If a fountain is a must, don?t put it in immediately. Live with what you?ve got for a year, then save up for something terrific. Buy good pieces of furniture one at a time; don?t worry about everything matching. It?s like interior d?cor – mixing styles is chic.

The Light

Gardening is about light. Unless you have complete southern exposure, the time of day when the sun hits your garden should control what you plant: Early morning means you?ve got shade; late afternoon means partial shade but hot. A south slope can get dead dry, a north-facing slope will be shady. Bear in mind that this early in the season the trees have yet to fill in, so if you have a large maple in a small yard, you will have shade no matter what.

The Soil

If you?ve bought a house in a new development, chances are the topsoil was carted off for resale and you?ve got subsoil. Have a look at what?s under that carpet of grass. If it looks like clay, be prepared to add masses of compost to the surface or, failing that, manure. Looks revolting for a bit, but it will build up enough organic matter to give the grass a chance for survival.

Soil analysis is a good idea when starting fresh. Contact your local botanic garden or provincial agricultural department or you can have it done for $15 at Rona Home & Garden Centres, Botanix, Rona L?Entrepot and Rona Le Regional. You can also do it yourself with a soil test strip kit (about $30 at Lee Valley).

Once you?ve picked your bedding areas, take out chunks of grass and dig down at least eight inches. Backfill with a commercial triple mix (the bad soil can be rehabilitated in the form of a berm?pile it up and cover it with leaves and manure). Once you?ve got your plants in, you can continue to improve the soil by piling on compost, manure and topsoil regularly.

The Plants

Think in layers, from your upward gaze down to the ground, and buy something for every level: annuals, perennials and woodies (shrubs and trees). Go for biodiversity-plant as many different things as possible within your chosen colour scheme and light conditions. Keep in mind the birds, butterflies and other insects that will keep your garden healthy. If you are inundated with cats plants lots of rue (Ruta graveolens) and other aromatic plants-they hate them. One major tree perfectly placed will anchor the whole garden and make it feel older than it is. It can be used to block out the unsightly or give shade to a deck or patio. Choose the spot carefully, by placing something to approximate the size (piled furniture, person) and move it around until you get a good idea of the scale you need. A tree is a big investment – you can spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars – and it?s wise to have a nursery deliver and plant it. Most will then guarantee it over one winter, but try for an even longer contract.

My instinct for any new garden is to plant a couple of screening shrubs such as serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis). They make a lovely spring and autumn statement with berries to attract wildlife and are shapely in winter. Always think of what your garden will look like in winter: hollies, yews (which tolerate shade) and boxwood are good basics.

View shrubs as sculptural elements and place them to create a sense of depth and movement. Try something beyond the usual spirea (say a new hybrid with a cut leaf). An oakleaf hydrangea can be more interesting than one of the mophead varieties. I also like a lilac for spring scent, clethra for summer bloom and fothergilla for flaming autumn colour.

A small decorative tree near your major tree creates contrast and a focal point. A Japanese maple is stunning if you are in a temperate area; dwarf birches, cut leaf elder or sumach are handsome substitutes.

People tend to put vines in last, but I think of them as basics, just like walls. To make life easy, I?d go for a whole range of clematis, which are excellent value. For spring blooms, try C. montana, C. macropetala and C. alpina. For summer, the hybrids (‘Nelly Moser? is the most popular so avoid it) ; for fall, sweet autumn clematis is a must and grows at least 15 feet the first year.

Plant clematis two or three inches below the level of the soil and make sure there is plenty of organic matter. Clematis require tough love the first year: cut the plant back to about four inches above the ground as soon as you get it in the ground. Sounds miserable but down the road this pays off with a much stronger root system. Next year, cut the autumn and summer flowering forms in the spring and leave the rest alone except to shape. Then, bring on the perennials: Make a list according to your colour palette and keep it simple. Good border combinations are blue and white; all pinks and reds; lime green and burgundy. Just don?t make it spotty. Concentrate on foliage, which lasts longer than blooms and will ultimately give more satisfaction.

Put in at least two ornamental grasses for autumn and winter interest. The hot one right now is Deschampsia `Northern Lights.? Another that gives year-round value is Blue sea oats (Helictotrichon sempervirens). For a hit of gold, Hakonechloa macra ?Aureola?. Perennials won?t look like much for a few years, so fill in the gaps with annuals of the same colour. This will give you time to change your mind and develop some horticultural taste.

Here are some excellent annual fillers:

  • Rudbeckia `Cherokee Sunset?;
  • Zinnia `Profusion White?;
  • Marguerite daisies (Argeranthemum frutescens)
  • `White Lace? or a luscious cream called `Midas Gold?);
  • Artemisia `Oriental Limelight?;
  • Begonia rex `Denver Lace.?

An even quicker fix is to plant up containers with annuals and put them in obviously bald spots. Use any of the above with trailers such as bacopa (the traditional white or the new pink form).

The Planting

Every plant has a good side, so make sure its best face is forward. Always make a hole twice the size of the container and the same depth as the root system. The loosened soil will give the plant a chance to spread its roots. Pull apart any roots that look as if they?ll strangle each other. Top dress with a good compost or compost and manure mix and don?t bother with anything else except mulch.

The great secret of good gardening is simple. Mulch, mulch and mulch again. This is adding organic matter to the surface of the soil to protect plants from heat and cold. My favourite mulch is one-third manure, one-third compost and one-third cocoa fibre, but you can also use ground-up leaves or finely ground bark. The mixture will feed the soil as bacteria and other microscopic creatures break it down. Make a thick blanket (keeping it from touching the stems) and you won?t need to do any other fertilizing.

Most major plants need heavy duty watering the first season. That includes shrubs and trees: a slow dribble lasting for a few hours at least once a week is a must. Hand water perennials and annuals as they need it (they?ll sag and let you know) and do it deeply. We are on hard times with water so be careful. If you overwater your plants they?ll just get big and soggy and flop over or die if you let them go.

Most important of all is to enjoy. Find one little pocket that is perfect and zone in on it. You?ll expand and so will your garden.