MAY 2002

by Marjorie Harris

So you’ve bought a new house, your view is the neighbour’s kids running wild and the grass looks an unreal green. Don’t despair, here’s a guide on how to start a garden, provide a little privacy, and get some satisfaction out of it this year.


  • Divine what it is you want your garden to be. Playroom for children is quite different from a dense perennial garden. Think of your three main needs and try to accommodate them.
  • Check out the landscape. Gardening is about light and how much you’ve got should determine what you plant: late afternoon (partial shade but hot); only early morning (you’ve got shade); or complete southern exposure. The slope and the drainage will also be affected by how much light they get. A south slope can get dead dry, a north facing slope will be shady.
  • Figure out where your water source is and make sure you have a hose that will reach the whole garden.


  • The Composter. Buy or make a wooden one from a kit and plunk it in just about anywhere convenient. I’ve had them in sun and shade and they do well in either if you think of brown/green layering (green-grass, chopped up lettuce leaves; and brown-the stuff from the rest of the garden). Never add leftovers or anything with even a hint of protein (scraping plates into the compost is an invitation to every rat in the neighbourhood to come in and snack). Turn it every week. Spread it around in week 14, it won’t be entirely finished but it will serve the garden well.
  • The Tools: You can go to some of the dishier garden stores and buy expensive ones or you can make do with cheap, the garden won’t notice. With cheap, you’ll be replacing them every year. I happen to believe in great tools, mine are finishing their second decade, but it depends on your budget. As you acquire experience you’ll want more stuff but gardening doesn’t really have to be a black hole for money, it can be relatively inexpensive.

Make sure you have the following:

  • A good pair of secateurs, large enough to handle most of your pruning and deadheading problems. Plus a pair of by-pass clippers for larger items
  • Two trowels: deeply dished for most planting, narrow dish for bulbs and transplanting.
  • Two shovels: a transplant spade with a long dish used in transplanting and general purpose digging of holes; a garden or border spade with a flat dish for edging and all other chores.
  • A pair of garden gloves until you build up strength and calluses. See below
  • A telescoping lawn rake (that way you’ll need only one).
  • A long rubber hose. Do not go cheap here. Mine is now forty years old and will outlast me.

SOIL BASICSIf you’ve bought a house in a new development, chances are the topsoil was carted off and you’ve been left with subsoil. The sod won’t last out the season. Have a look at what’s under that carpet of grass. If it’s dry looks like clay, it probably is subsoil and you’ve got trouble. Be prepared to add masses of compost to the surface or, failing that, manure. Looks revolting for a bit, but don’t worry it works in building up organic matter to give the grass a chance for survival. Take out chunks of grass and start making beds by piling on compost, manure, and top soil (you don’t need fancy mixes). This is a slowish process and will take a year to get decent soil. Pile up the bad soil so it won’t erode (make a raised bed) and add compost and manure. In a year you’ll have another bed of good humusy soil. The alternative is to dig down, take away terrible soil and back fill with a commercial triple mix.


Think in layers from your upward gaze down to the ground and buy something for every level. The mix is everything: annuals, perennials and woodies (shrubs and trees-you might as well learn the lingo as you go along).

  • My first instinct is to plant a serviceberry, Amelanchier canadensis. It’s hardy everywhere in the country and makes a lovely spring and autumn statement with berries to attract wildlife (especially important if there are no other berried trees and bushes around) and is shapely in winter.
  • One major tree beautifully placed will anchor the whole garden and make it feel older than it is. Use it to block out the unsightly or give shade to a deck or patio. This is a big investment and it’s wise to have the nursery deliver and plant it-they will guarantee it over winter. Choose a tree native to your area. Make sure it’s in the perfect spot by putting something of equal size in its place: move it around and get your position before deciding on the tree.
  • A small decorative tree: Japanese maple if you are in Zone 5 and warmer. Dwarf birches, cut leaf elder and sumach make a great substitute. Site it near your major tree as a contrast or to make a focal point.
  • Something evergreen (always think of what your garden will look like in winter): hollies, yews and boxwood are good basics.
  • A couple of small shrubs: try something beyond the usual spirea (maybe a new hybrid with a cut leaf); an oakleaf hydrangea can be more interesting than one of the mophead varieties. Lilacs for spring scent; clethra for summer bloom; and fothergilla for autumn color.
  • Put in at least two ornamental grasses for autumn and winter interest. The hot one right now is Deschampsia ‘Northern Lights’. Get a blue sea oats, Helictotrichon sempervirens, which will stay blue all winter.
  • Bring on the perennials: make a list according to your color palette and keep it simple. They won’t look like much for a few years so fill in the gaps with annuals of the same color. This will give you time to change your mind and develop some horticultural taste.
  • Here are some terrific annual fillers:Rudbeckia ‘Cherokee Sunset’ sunset colours on a 75 cm (30-inch) stemZinnia ‘Profusion White’ is divine, a very intense white 30 to 45 cm (12 to 18 inches)Argeranthemum frutescens (Margeurite daisy) ‘White Lace’ 45 cm (18 in); cream “Midas Gold’ 45 cm

    Artemisia ‘Oriental Limelight’ shrubby with green leaves edged in yellow

    Begonia rex ‘Denver Lace’ green edges, purple centres

Another good filler is to plant up containers with annuals and put them in obviously bald spots. Use any of the above plus trailers such as bacopa.PLANTING TECHNIQUES

After soil improvement, get on with planting vines. This will add interest within a year.

I’d go for a whole range of clematis to make life easy: Spring-montana, macropetala and alpina in any color or size. Summer: the hybrids (Nelly Moser is the most popular so avoid it, there are dozens of this ilk); Fall: Sweet Autumn clematis is a must and grows 15 feet the first year. When you plant, dig a big hole, make sure there’s lots of organic matter in the soil and place the plant about two or three inches below the level of the soil. Cut the plant back to about four inches above ground. Sounds miserable but will pay off in the future. Next year, cut the autumn and summer flowering forms in the spring and leave the rest alone except to shape.

When you plant anything, always make a hole twice the size of the container. The loosened soil will give the plant a chance to spread its root system. Top dress with a good compost or compost and manure mix and don’t bother with anything else except mulch.


The great dramatic secret of good gardening is simple. Mulch, mulch and mulch again. This is adding organic matter to the surface of the soil around plants to protect them from heat and cold. It will feed the soil as bacteria and other little creatures break it down. This will elminate all other fertilizing. Make a thick blanket and don’t let it touch the plants themselves.


If you can’t handle all the cleaning up, planting and putting away, hire a gardener to come in at least every two weeks. The prices range from $15 an hour up to about $40 for quality maintenance.

Designers will go up to $100 an hour. They will consult, give advice, do drawings. They don’t usually plant or do hardscaping.

Landscape architects will do plans and construction but if you’re on a limited budget make sure you get something that can be done in increments. An articulate plan should have some basic hardscaping (the raised beds, water feature); do the planting yourself and put off as much as you can until next year.


Working against reality. Don’t plant a sunny garden if all you’ve got is shade.

Putting in something of everything you see in the nursery. Make a list and cut in half, then try half this year, half the next.

Putting in too many bits and pieces of hardscaping. Either get a complete design or start small and simple: one big rock is better than a bunch of little ones for instance

Adding decor before you’ve decided what it is this garden must do for you (masses of white plastic furniture come to mind). Keep the tschosckes to a minimum the first year then get out that collection of garden gnomes once you realize what your true style is.

Refusing to take plant size seriously. It may look ditzy but if you crowd plants in too close together they won’t get a chance to perform well. Add annuals to fill in spaces.

Sticking a blue spruce outside the front door (they grow to about 100 feet).

Jamming in a bunch of little sticks of cedar and expecting a hedge to grow in a few years.


Use a simple colour pattern in each border or area. Blue and white; all pinks and reds; limey green and burgundy. Just don’t make it spotty.

Concentrate on foliage which lasts longer than blooms and will ultimately give more satisfaction.

Invest your money wisely. 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 a really good one.

Buy good pieces of furniture one bit at a time, don’t worry about everything matching. It’s like interior decor-mixing styles is chic. Looks good too.

Always plant with birds, butterflies and other insects in mind, they will keep your garden healthy.

Think Biodiversity: get as much of a mix of plants as is humanly possible.

Plant in combinations that will attract good bugs, discourage the bad and be fodder for bees and moths.

Take care of your feet: don’t go around in sandals, you run the risk of mashing up your toes.

Your hands are your most important gardening asset: Use the amazing new Crabtree & Evelyn’s Gardeners Hand Recovery to keep them in first class condition. It really works.

Mulch, mulch, mulch.


Copyright Marjorie Harris, 2005