How to turn dreams into blooms

Design: It's not too soon to start a growing plan. Here are some basic steps you should take before turning over the first shovelful of dirt.

March 07, 1999|By Jenn Williams | Jenn Williams,contributing writer

Deciding to plant a garden is the easy part. The planning process, however, may leave novice gardeners with more than a few questions.

Now is the best time to start looking for answers. Even though the typical planting date in Maryland is after the last frost (around Mother's Day is often a good rule of thumb), you can actually begin to design your garden now.

Kirsten Coffen, a landscape architect and owner of Garden Architecture in White Marsh, says the first step should be to figure out whether you want plants, flowers, vegetables, trees or shrubs.

"Look around your yard," she says. "You need to consider whether you want flowering shrubs to create privacy or just a small vegetable garden."

She and other garden experts also suggest contacting a professional designer or looking through catalogs, books and even in other yards for ideas.

Once you know what you are going to plant, you need to consider where to plant. Coffen says important factors to consider are the topography of the land, whether you have a low area that retains moisture or a high elevation that is dry, whether the plant requires sun or shade, and, most important, the condition of the soil. You can have your soil tested by contacting your local cooperative extension service.

"I can't stress enough the importance of good soil. That's the foundation of a good garden," Coffen says.

Betty Hemphill, the owner of Hemphill's Garden Center in Fallston, says gardeners can also spread lime, compost or cow manure over the garden area now to enhance the soil. By mid-March, the soil can be tilled.

Local landscape architects have some tips on size, shape and design.

Scott Rykiel, vice president of Mahan Rykiel Associates in Baltimore, says many people tend to plant large gardens that overwhelm them by summer. He suggests planting a 3- by 6-foot garden so it's not too much for a novice to handle. Steve Klausmeyer, a greenhouse manager and grower for Kingsdene Nurseries in Monkton, says a 10- by 25-foot garden is considered small while a 50- by 50-foot garden is considered average.

Rykiel tells people that one of the easiest and best ways to lay out beds is to take a garden hose and bend, twist and curve it to help create the ideal shape of the garden. Once that is found, the grass along the outer edge of the hose can be traced with spray paint or surveyor's paint, which can be purchased at hardware stores. The paint serves as a temporary marker, which disappears once the grass is cut.

The cost of planting and maintaining a garden varies, depending on the type. Coffen says that the cost of a small garden for a rowhome could be anywhere from $300 to $500, while the cost for a garden of someone living in a single family home might be as much as $1000.

The decision to plant perennial or annual flowers also can have an effect on the cost and color of the garden. Coffen says an annual garden will provide a color display throughout the growing season, while perennials have a shorter blooming period. She says people can counter that problem by staggering the perennials so different plants are blooming at different times.

Whatever you plant, mistakes in the garden can still occur -- and be costly. The most common? Watering too much or not enough. To determine whether a plant needs water, Hemphill says, stick your index finger in the soil, up to the knuckle, and water only if the soil is completely dry.

"People tend to kill their plants with kindness. They add too much fertilizer or too much water, or plant them too deep," says Bill Minster, the general manager of Kingsdene.

Another common mistake is not considering the ultimate growth of the plants and spacing them too close.

But beginners shouldn't let possible mistakes deter them from starting a garden. "Gardening can improve the value of your house," Rykiel says. "It's an easy hobby, and it looks good."

Fail-safe plants

For the beginner, garden pros recommend these popular and easy-to-grow plants, flowers and vegetables.

FLOWERS AND PLANTS

hosta

purple coneflower

Coreopsis 'Moonbeam'

Pelargonium (geranium)

petunia

black-eyed Susan

fountain grass

pansies

phlox

VEGETABLES

leaf lettuce

string beans

onions

corn

potted cherry tomatoes

red beets

potatoes

First, plant your ideas on paper

One way to plan a great garden is on paper.

First, get some large-size graph paper, at least 11 by 17 inches. One-quarter or one-eighth scale is the most convenient. Locate the plat of your house lot, most likely filed with your mortgage papers. Plot out the size of your lot and place the house on it, including the location of doors and windows.

Next, draw in all other major structures and landscape elements, such as existing paths, decks and patios. Place major trees and shrubs on the plan, and draw a light circle to delineate the canopy of the trees.

Then decide how you want to use your yard. Ask yourself if you want a play area for your children; a patio for entertaining; a dog run; a garden for cut flowers.

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