Roots and Shoots: Designing a New Garden

By Pamela Doan

A tree had to come down and a new, full-sun area for landscaping opened up in front of my house. The dining room windows look directly out on it and I’m feeling pressure to make it perfect.

As I’ve become more experienced from many years of trial and error in the garden, it’s become more difficult, not easier, to make a new garden. Now I understand better the complexities of plants’ needs, my needs, and the ecological role I want my landscape to serve.

I know what not to do, which is to go shopping for plants and pick up whatever I like. That’s lead to a lot of transplanting and, “Oh geez, how did this get so huge/small/spindly/dead?” Right plant, right place is the mantra of successful gardening, but you have to know something about both.

This time, it’s going to be different. I will be prepared.

Inspiration. Garden visits, whether to those created by professionals or regular folks, always reveal something. Trying to match the New York Botanical Garden’s native plant section isn’t reasonable, but I have learned ways to group plants and use texture. The Highline, Stonecrop and Innisfree are some of my spiritually companionable landscapes, and Instagram has become a source for seeing what other gardeners are doing. For books, I’ve returned to The Living Landscape by Douglas Tallamy and Rick Darke for ideas as I make a list of all the plants I want.

Function. I want my garden to be beautiful and welcoming, of course. As one of the first views of my house, it’s going to make an impression. I’ve pictured myself as someone with an herb garden outside the kitchen door where I can quickly snip something while I’m cooking, so it needs edible plants mixed in. Back to that ecological role: it has to provide food and habitat for birds and insects, too.

A support for hops that leads down a path at the Cornell Cooperative Extension office in Millbrook provides gardening inspiration. Photo by P. Doan

Budget. I neglect this area. Who wants to constrain their vision with money? But most everyone has to set a cap. Starting plants from seeds, using plugs from garden centers instead of mature plants, and bartering with friendly gardeners will help. (See, honey, I am fiscally responsible.)

Evocative. This is the feeling I want to create. French country garden? Mediterranean hillside? Native meadow? I’m not too formal in this category.

Maintenance. Many gardeners underestimate the work of tending a garden in years to come or are so afraid of time-consuming projects that they revert to lawn, stone mulch and red bark ground covers. Design with weed control in mind — pruning, watering, mulching and amending soil with compost — all the major work that goes into gardening. I’ve found that native perennials and herbs require the least amount of nurturing.

Evolution. Choose plants with an understanding of how they grow. Allowing for sufficient space for a 3-inch perennial to grow up and out means not having to shift things around later when it’s crowding the plants around it.

Resources. Given our uneven rainfall, considering where the water will come from matters. Ten years from now, during a drought, I don’t want to rely on using my well water for plants. As climate change brings hotter, drier weather in summer, milder winters and more extreme weather in general, any gardens I plant need to factor in that future. Water, nutrients, heat tolerance, cold tolerance — if I’m going to take care of this garden, it has to be light on the natural resources it requires.

In the next Roots and Shoots, I’ll continue with more steps that go into designing a garden and maybe have an update on my progress.

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One thought on “Roots and Shoots: Designing a New Garden

  1. I am a beginner at northeast gardening and just embarking on this process. It’s like five-dimensional chess! I’ll look forward to your next article with interest.