So you want to put a new garden, or a first garden, into your landscape, but the task seems too overwhelming to consider.
All the books and magazines say you have to first remove the sod, dig the soil eight to 12-inches deep while working in organic matter and compost before you can even consider planting. But let's face it, digging is backbreaking work. While organic matter can immediately amend the hard, clay soil, soil amendments need to be re-added every year to ensure perfect, loamy soil. And what about the weeds? They will surely invade the new garden either by being blown into the bed by the wind, carried in on your shoes or dropped casually by a passing bird.
This article will convince even the least experienced gardener that a lovely flower bed can be achieved in just a few hours with minimal digging. The digging, in fact, is so minimal, you likely won't even think of it afterward.
But first, let's get one thing straight:
Gardens are constantly changing. Even perennials, plants that live from season to season, tire out after a few years. The plants you choose may eventually need dividing when they get too big for their space. You may decide later on that some plants just don't work with your plan. Still other plants may not like where they are living and either won't thrive or will die completely. Even with all our effort, weeds will attempt to move in, but with method, weeds are minimal. Soil will still need to be amended, but that doesn't have to be done all at once. There will be some maintenance involved, but if done correctly, a few hours in the garden at the beginning of the season will ensure a lovely little oasis for the rest of the summer.
Now that the harsh realities are out of the way, first begin with a plan. You should already know where you want your garden to be located. Perhaps you've been watching a particular spot in your yard and wondering if a little garden wouldn't make it better. In this garden, part was in full shade, some in partial shade and a smaller section is in full sun a good part of the day. The sun rises early on this garden, but by noon much of it is in shadows. Sunlight will determine the plants chosen for this spot. If your site is in full sun, good for you as you will have many more blooming plants to choose from.
Once you have your site,imagine how to fit the garden to the landscape. Most gardens are borders, but in some cases, an island garden, plopped right into the center of the yard, is what you want. It doesn't matter, because the basic principals are the same. Because there are no straight lines in nature, we don't want straight lines in our garden either. The fence that this garden will live against already has straight lines, so to soften the landscape, we curved the outer edges. The curves were first marked with a garden hose. The hose is flexible and can be moved around easily. Once it was arranged where we wanted, we sprayed a line alongside the hose with orange landscape paint. Just like masking tape over crown molding, once the hose was removed, we were left with a perfectly drawn edge. Keep in mind when you are marking your edge how well the mower will be able to maneuver around your curves. Don't make the curves too sharp.
Digging a trench is not back-breaking work. With a sharp pointed shovel, dig straight down along the outside edge of the painted border no more than four inches deep. Once you've cut into the border its entire length, go back and cut into the inside edge. You want your trench to be about four inches wide. The outside edge should be straight but the inside edge should curve upward and into the garden. Every foot or so, if you cut the strip you've just made, it will be easy to lift out short sections of sod to create the garden's edging.
You can leave the trench as your border, or you can use bricks or stones. Trenching is the preferred method, however, as no trimming will be needed when the lawn is mowed. It will take weeds a good while to ''jump'' the trench and re-cutting in the fall will be even less time consuming or difficult.
The next step is the most fun: choosing your plants. Don't worry about the sod; that will be taken care of without effort later on. In this garden, we knew this garden would change over time, but for instant gratification this season we chose several varieties of coleus for both color and texture. Smaller varieties were placed in the front shady section, while larger cultivars were placed near the back. We gave the plants lots of space because coleus grow fast and in large mounds that would quickly fill in the blanks.
To get a good idea of where the plants will do best, preview them throughout the garden while in their containers. Plants that preferred the sunnier spots included Gaillardia aristata, or blanket flower; Salvia nemorosa; and a bright red dianthus. We took advantage of the fence and planted a clematis vine. For a bit of temporary hardscape, we arranged a patio brick area to support a birdbath. We chose things we could easily move if we later decide to add a water feature.
Then comes the planting. The flowers went right into the ground, still ignoring the sod. A little digging was involved here as well due to heavy clay soil and the roots of a nearby tree. Variegated hosta were moved from another part of the garden to mound against the fence. We thought about lining the edges of the birdbath bricks with silvery-leafed Stachys byzantina to contrast with the dark coleus, but decided it could wait until we see how the coleus takes off. They can always be added later.
To plant, we dug holes larger than needed and added a bit of compost to the bottom. We also put a bit of super phosphate fertilizer in each hole to promote good root growth and to minimize transplant shock. In a few weeks, we'll follow up with a high nitrogen fertilizer for the coleus and hosta and a balanced fertilizer for the bloomers.
The next step will finally take care of the grass. Instead of spraying with chemicals or worry about sod removal, we simply cover it up. Newspapers do double duty in the garden. They not only create a temporary weed barrier, but they will decompose over the summer and upcoming winter, turning into compost that will help amend the soil. Newsprint is biodegradable and the ink used in the printing is soy based and organic. Do not use the shiny advertising supplements; however, as these utilize petroleum based components. Water your plants before you lay the paper and then water again, allowing the paper to become soaked well. Hosing down the paper as you go also will keep the wind from blowing it around.
Finally, top the newspaper layer with your mulch. We chose double ground bark mulch, but any of your favorite mulch-types will do. Some people prefer leaf mulch while others like cocoa bean. Keep in mind that some mulches will mildew and grow fungus if conditions are damp and warm.
The coleus will not survive the winter and we knew this going in. In the fall, we will replace it with permanent spring flowering, shade-loving plants, such as astible, pulmonaria, brunnera, bleeding heart (dicentra) and columbine.