Planning a Flower Garden

Planning a Flower Garden

Planning a Flower Garden  Whether you are starting from scratch or reworking an existing garden, there will be problems to overcome as well as satisfaction to be gained in creating your own flower garden. Your starting point may be an expanse of bare soil, a joyous, overgrown muddle of brambles or a rather pleasant mature garden, with a scattering of roses, an elderly lilac and the remains of a rockery in the middle of the lawn. Whatever your starting point, and whatever type of garden you ultimately wish to create, good planning is needed at the outset.

Working with what you have

The perfect site for a garden may only exist in the eye of the mind: imagine a gentle sunny slope, the soil well-drained and at the same time rich in humus, as easy to work in the depths of winter as it is moisture-retentive in summer, a soil that is neutral, neither acid nor alkaline, and therefore suitable and adaptable for any plant you might care to grow. Add a patch of light woodland with a stream for shade and water lovers, some sheltering walls for tender shrubs, several mature hedges of yew (Taxus baccata) and box (Buxus sempervirens) and, of course, a mild climate where it only rains when you want it to and then only at night. Needless to say, the owner of this small paradise would have a deep pocket, endless time and boundless energy for hard work.

Reality is usually quite different from this gardener’s paradise. You may have to contend with unsightly views of neighbouring buildings that you can do little about, over-shadowing trees that rob your garden of light and your soil of nutrients, intrusive pylons or washing lines, or visiting cats. You may have a demanding job or family of small children that leave no time for wandering dreamily around the garden wondering what to plant where, let alone the strength to do some serious digging.

If you have just moved house, you may have considered only the suitability of the house itself, its size and number of rooms, and failed to notice that the main garden received little sun and the soil was limy and poorly-drained in some areas. If it is a new house the builder may have irretrievably mixed the topsoil with the subsoil, or perhaps decorated the subsoil with a thin dressing of topsoil, thus lulling you into a false sense of security.

Instead of the scorched-earth look of the patch attached to a newly-built house, at the other extreme you may have to hack your way through a jungle of weeds, ideas flooding into your head as you unearth the remains of former paths and discover plants that need rescuing. An inherited garden that has been cared for can pose problems of a different kind. It may all seem pretty to begin with, but strangely unsatisfying. The plants do not quite complement each other and the layout seems a little awry.

However, always remember that one of the curious facts of gardening is that all gardeners think that their garden alone is beset with insurmountable problems — if it is not subject to late frosts, vine weevils and swirling wind tunnels you may be sure they will complain that their soil is sticky, unworkable clay with an abnormally high slug population or alternatively a hot, dry rubble in which even such plants as the algerian iris (Iris unguicularis), notoriously fond of dry conditions, is short of water.

Whether you are starting a garden from scratch, or wanting to beautify an existing one, the first thing to decide is what sort of flower garden you want. Would you like to be able to find something lovely in flower any day of the year or do you want one glorious display of summer colour? Perhaps you have fallen in love with lilies, sweet peas, roses or auriculas and want to specialize in growing them? Do you want to set aside an area for growing flowers for cutting, or should they be mixed into the borders? Have you considered making flower beds in particular colour schemes? Is fragrance a priority? You may well have all of these requirements, in some measure, but first let us assess the limitations of your existing garden, and consider how we are going to work these ideas in.

The size of the garden

The size of the garden imposes its own set of rules, for the smaller the garden the more each plant must warrant the space it takes up. The first instinct of the new garden owner is to go straight to a garden centre and buy a little bit of this and that.

Plants in their pots at a nursery all look equally desirable. Before making a purchase, it is important to find out all you can about them. You can of course look them up in books to try and find out their ultimate height and spread. But it may be less easy to discover how long they take to reach their final size and books may not explain exactly how the plant behaves: does a tree cast a light shade (such as a Gleditsia, Laburnum or Amelanchier) under which it is possible to grow quite a range of plants or will the soil underneath it become so densely shaded that little else will grow there? Think carefully about this if you want to pack in as many plants as possible.

Another important point to consider when choosing a small tree is to find out how greedy it is. Does it have roots that run about on the surface of the soil, taking all the moisture and plant foods, as a silver birch does? Or can you plant almost up to the base of the tree, as you can with an apple or pear tree? How does a tree or shrub look in high summer when the garden will probably be used most often? The late summer foliage of shrubs like lilac (Syringa), Philadelphus and Forsythia is a dull, leaden green and no great asset to the garden at that time.

The Climate and Aspect

The vagaries of the local climate and the orientation of your garden are two of the most important considerations at the planning stage.


Both the general climate of your area and the various micro-climates within the garden must be taken into account, for even a tiny garden will have its warm corner, its draughty wall and an area devoid of sun.

When you are told that a plant is tender, you imagine this means that the first hard frost will kill it. But it is not as simple as that. Plants can be tender in many different ways. With some, yes, it is the first hard frost that blackens Dahlia foliage, South African Gazania and Osteospermum, tender Helichrysum and Salvia. But sometimes it is not so much winter cold that kills plants, but lack of summer sun to ripen the wood and give it resistance to cold. And some foolish plants, used to winters where the weather stays cold and there are no false springs, are deceived by a sunny week at the end of winter. They come into leaf too soon and are promptly shrivelled by frost. Other plants, alpines in particular, are cold-hardy but sensitive to winter damp, and must be covered with glass or polythene.

Cold air flows downhill, just like water. If it becomes trapped by running into a hollow, or by meeting an obstacle such as a high wall, it will form a frost pocket. It is only by working in your garden and observing your plants closely that you find out which are the choice, sheltered spots, and which areas should be reserved for the hardiest customers.

Rainfall is often unpredictable and even in wetter areas there may be drought conditions for part of the summer. So when planting your garden try to keep those plants that will really suffer from lack of water in the same place, the nearer the tap the better, so if water is very short you can easily rescue your astilbes, willow gentians (Gentiana asclepiadea), rodgersias, himalayan blue poppies (Meconopsis) and so on.


The aspect of the garden is a primary consideration. One side of the house will get little light in the darker months and flowers that have good winter foliage should be the priority here (Bergenia, Epimedium, Arum italicum italicum, Tellima, Brunnera, Iris foetidissima, Campanula latiloba, Helleborus and P ulmonaria, for example). If the entrance to the house is on the sunless side, you could make winter your theme here and plant the essential shrubs of winter, Jasminum nudiflorum, Viburnum farreri and one of the lovely winter-flowering mahonias (Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ or ‘Lionel Fortescue’).

Wind can damage plants in several ways — by breaking the branches of trees and shrubs, by rocking tall plants and breaking their roots so that they can no longer take up sufficient moisture. Winds also increase the rate of transpiration — too much moisture is lost from the leaves and the plant becomes stressed. A solid structure such as a wall can cause violent turbulence to leeward but a hedge, slatted fence or a shelter belt of wind-resistant plants allows the wind to flow through. In windy areas young plants can be protected by screens of fine plastic mesh supported by canes or posts. Town gardens often have the problem of swirling winds that rush along the narrow gap between houses; if you stand in the garden when the wind is blowing hard you will see which are the most protected spots.

The sunny side of the house presents problems of a nicer kind: you have to decide, from a wonderful range of sun-loving plants, which are truly worthy of the premier spot. Make sure that you really love the plants you choose, and are certain that they will grow only here and nowhere else in the garden. You do not want to waste a precious position on something that will do just as well elsewhere.

Shady borders

The meaning of the word shade, when considered in terms of gardening, can be very misleading. Some of the choicest woodland plants we grow like shade, but the kind of shade they require has to be qualified. Imagine a bed filled with loose, woodsy soil, rich in humus, nicely moist at all times of the year but nor too wet, in shade but not overhung by dense foliage. A tall tree canopy shelters this bed from hot sun and although it is always in shade, there is also plenty of diffused light. No drying wind disturbs the composure of the plants nor shrivels ‘their leaves; each autumn a natural mulch of fallen leaves nourishes the soil. This is the bed for Glaucidium palmatum, canadian bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Jeffersonia, Trillium, Arisaema, Anemonella , some hardy orchids (Dactylorhiza, Epipactis) and other beautiful plants for shade.

The other extreme is the condition known as dry shade; in which the soil is robbed of moisture by an underground network of tree roots. If you could X-ray the soil and see the multitude of fine roots, spreading in all directions, rapaciously gobbling up all water and plant foods, you might well hesitate to plant anything. Overhanging trees and high buildings may aggravate the situation by deflecting rain. In a way this part of the garden would be easier to plant, since the range of suitable plants for such a site is relatively limited.

26. December 2010 by admin
Categories: Garden Management, Planning and Design | Tags: | Comments Off on Planning a Flower Garden


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