I became a gardener by accident. Sixteen years ago when we built our house, my husband seemed to think that putting in windows and doors was more important than having a beautiful garden. I argued bitterly, but my husband won, and hence the last pennies of our budget went into securing the openings of our home. When we moved in, we were left with the remnants of concrete patches on the front lawn, and a few determined croton plants standing feebly within the rubble in the garden beds.
I didn’t know where to start, especially with a very limited budget to work with. On my first visit to the plant nursery, I asked the clerk where he had the ‘pretty, flowering things’, and he had the audacity to ask me if I wanted them for a shady or sunny area. I pretended to be distracted by a plant, and hightailed it out of there. Well, the next few days were spent studying my garden – watching where the sun hit in the mornings, where it hit in the evenings, and where the border walls and taller trees provided shade. I went back to the nursery, ready to expound on the climate of my garden, and this time the clerk asked me about the drainage of my soil ….back again I went to my concrete patches and crotons.
Long story short, I learned that you cannot just buy plants and bury them in the beds. There happened to be very important steps to follow in designing a garden –
1) The soil has to be prepared – after construction, there is often a lot of cement dust and debris in the soil which will burn plant roots. Remove the upper crust of tainted soil and add top soil (purchased from the plant nurseries). Good top soil contains a mixture of rich soil and manure which add nutrients to the harassed and depleted soil. The deep plowing to mulch in the added soil also loosens up the packed dirt to allow for proper drainage.
2) The sunny/shaded areas need to be identified – watch how the sun travels through the garden through the course of the day. Sometimes areas which seem shaded become extremely hot as the sun moves over the garden during the day. When buying plants, the nursery clerks are very helpful in advising which ones grow best in these areas.
3) Remember that plants are usually sold as seedlings so they are small when first purchased. However, some get quite large. It is important to ask what heights they grow to. Taller shrubs and trees are placed to the rear of beds and low growing ones to the front. Also, taller trees cannot be planted beneath house eves as their height causes damage as they mature. Root space is also an important factor as large and extensive roots cause damage to walls and pipes if planted too closely.
4) Decide on the type of garden you want to see every day – some clients actually tell me they want very few flowering plants in their garden; some like structured, straight beds while others like a free-flowing garden. Decide what look you like, and shape your beds according to the style you want. For straight beds, it is eye-catching to buy a line of similar plants to form a uniformed hedge, while free-form beds do well with small clusters of similar plants for bursts of colour.
5) Remind yourself that your garden can be done in stages – not only are large rocks, pieces of wood (treated with Cuprinol) and clay pots beautiful décor features within beds, but they also cut the cost of providing plants for the entire bed. Even gravel can be used as a décor feature to areas until you are ready to plant.
6) Purchase plants which grow from cuttings so that you can clip and replant instead of having to constantly buy new ones. Creeping ground cover is also an inexpensive way of keeping beds full and colourful.
7) Keep expensive or care-intensive plants in pots rather than directly in beds so that their watering, fertilizing and spraying can be well monitored and their life and beauty prolonged.
8) Most importantly, think of your garden as the place that will reward you and your family with happy moments and great memories, so enjoy every moment of the plowing and clipping and watering. It will become one of the most satisfying and relaxing experiences of your life!