When My Bench Was New

Would you agree that the natural inclination for most gardeners starting out is to plant around the foundation of their house first?

Whenever I moved to a new house and garden, I seemed to plant the foundation plants across the front of the house first, add a vegetable garden the first spring, and then look around to see what other gardens to plant.

Here's a garden made up entirely of sunflowers that I planted in the yard at my second house.I recall that I planted perhaps ten or twelve different varieties of sunflowers in this garden, and it is probably as close as I've come to being obsessed with a particular genus of flowers. I started out like most sunflower growers, with the "Mammoth Grey" in my nearby vegetable garden, and then decided I should have all kinds of sunflowers, to attract birds and bees from miles around.

I must have really liked this garden of sunflowers because I have six or seven pictures of it in my time travel box of pictures. That's a lot of picture of one garden from the film camera days.

Two years later, I was through with mass plantings of sunflowers and planted a variety of flowers in two flower beds in my back yard.
I believe those are Wave Petunias along the front, some Nicotiana back behind and who knows what else. I didn't really start faithfully keeping a garden journal until I moved to my current house and garden.

Do you recognize that bench? That's the garden bench that I painted purple earlier this year and use as the backdrop for most of my vegetable harvest pictures.

Having moved three times to new gardens that were essentially blank slates, I have some advice to offer other new gardeners in similar circumstances.

1. If the builder says, "We'll plant some shrubs along the foundation and a tree in the front yard", make sure you want what they are planting or ask them to give you credit so you can buy your own trees and shrubs. The builder of my second house planted six Andorra Junipers across the front of my first house when I wasn't looking. I promptly tore them out and put them in the trash. I don't like junipers.

2. Plant trees first. They provide structure to your garden. I didn't do a good job of this at my second house so the back yard was still essentially tree-less when I moved away after six years.

3. If you know where you want to put your vegetable garden, don't let the builder sow grass seed in that area. It's easier to sow grass seed later than to dig out grass to plant a vegetable garden. Ditto flower gardens.

4. Don't let the builder bring in fill dirt. If they start talking about "fill dirt" ask them to bring in top soil instead. I did this at my current house and it has been wonderful.

5. Strongly consider hiring a landscape architect to develop a master landscape plan. A good one can show you how to plant in phases, gradually adding plants each year as part of a master plan, so you don't have to buy all the plants the first year. (I wish I had done this!)

What advise do you have for new gardeners?


  1. There must be some grand karma out there and today is the day of the "5 Things." Too funny that I posted my "5 Things I Learned Gardening This Summer" just a few minutes ago!

    As for advice for new gardeners?!? That will take some thoughts. Right now, I feel very humble and more like taking advice than giving it. Except, perhaps, to say that gardening takes more time--and mone--than you could ever imagine!

    --Robin (Bumblebee)

  2. Carol, that is really great advise. We've built two new homes and I wish we had brought in top soil. We didn't get grass in the back yard until our third year because there was no soil, just hard clay. We put down so much grass seed only to have it wash away or dry up before it could take root.

    Next time I'll also have them skip the builder's landscping special. At both new houses the lone tree in the front yard died the first year and I've always disliked the shrubs.

  3. We've never had a blank slate, so making our gardens called for equal parts of subtraction and addition.

    I think you've given excellent advice. How about this one:
    Don't put in permanent plants until you've had time to figure out how sun and shade patterns will shift with the seasons. You also need to know what happens to the water when you get a big rain.

    These may apply less to blank slates without existing trees, and more to older houses with newer gardeners.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  4. I'm doing that now.... we bought an old house and the yard had been haphazardly planted. We spent the first year getting rid of everything we didn't like or was planted in the wrong place. The next year we spent digging rocks and other undesirable things out of the yard. This year I've got my front foundation planting in and trees in the backyard to establish structure. Next year I get to start flower beds in the backyard... woo hoo! It's been a long time coming.

  5. Regarding tip #5: A good garden designer can do the same thing, and will generally charge less.

    How to find one? If you see a garden in town that you admire, just knock on the door, tell them you love their garden, and ask whether they used a designer. If they did, they'll be pleased to share the name; if they didn't, they'll be flattered. Or ask for referrals at a trusted local nursery.

  6. I'm with Annie on this one, Carol. Learn where you have shade and sun at various times of the planting seasons. My biggest mistakes were always due to my overestimation of the amount of sun certain areas of my yard get.

    And think of the big things first - trees and shrubs, then plant the pretty flowers. I've also never started from scratch but if I did I'm sure I'd be overwhelmed and would call the garden designer!

    P.S. Carol, I've posted my garden bloggers book club review.

  7. got you beat by two, Carol. 5 new landscapes. Can you imagine the money I have dropped in boxwoods, alone?
    My advice: start with foundation plantings and one perennial bed right outside your picture window. The one you look out the most. That way, as you work your way out from your house into your yard, you can watch your perennial bed fill up and feel like you are getting somewhere!

  8. I find that I have (sadly) made all but one of the mistakes you warn against in your article. Live and learn I suppose. Your advice is quite good I only wish I had read it sooner. I do have to say though that through my mistakes I have learned a great deal. My tip to new gardners is to try and try again. If something does not work the first time around don't be discouraged have patience.


  9. My advice is to ensure you have an older sister who has a horticulture degree, is obsessed with gardens and gardening, and ask her what to do with your landscaping.....

  10. Good advice 'Sister oth'. Since we have a professional in the family we don't need to resort to outside help. We just ask Carol.

  11. Love your Sisters advice, Carol. I get the same from mine.

    Pam is right about garden designers being more reasonable to do a master plan for the landscape. Annie has a very good point about knowing the sun and shade patterns.

    Another important consideration is soil. Don't plant a thing until it's been amended.

    LostRoses has good advice -plant the big things first; trees and shrubs.

    My advice for new gardeners is to do your homework if you plan to do it yourself. If you aren't confident that you can do your own landscape then definitely seek the advice of a garden designer.

  12. I agree with Carolyn Gail - its all about the soil! If you have good soil, you can grow just about anything. If your soil is lousy, nothing will look good. Best way to improve soil? Compost dumped on top. It will eventually find its way down. Another bit of advice, for those with clay soil, DON'T ADD SAND - you'll end up with concrete in your beds. And finally, the advice I wish the previous owner's of my house had heeded - when planting trees & shurbs, plan for their mature size. What looks like a little twig today may be a house-eating monster in 10 years.

  13. The only advice I can give to new gardeners is that they should visit "May Dreams Gardens" blog first. You might not realize this Carol, but I have learned a lot from you.

    Our soil is terrible in the back of our house. Weeds have a hard time living in it! We hauled in top soil for the bed surrounding the house. Soil has been our problem here in NC.

    Prior to that, we lived with sandy soil for years. It was good for planting but didn't retain much moisture.

  14. I've never had a blank slate. I've lived in a number of places but they have always been older places with big trees and grown-up shrubs.

    My advice may apply more to people with places like I've had than to those with blank slates. But I suggest "waiting." That's right. Don't do anything. You start to look at a place differently as you grow into it. The ideas that you have immediately after you move into a place don't seem quite as good after awhile.

  15. I agree with Bill...waiting is the key. But then I've never had a blank slate either.

    I'm still fooled by the shade. Every time I think I know where the shade is going to be and try to work new beds around it, the trees up and grow on me..

  16. Robin (Bumblebee)... Yes, good karma around the garden blogosphere. I do think the more you garden, the more you want, and plants aren't always free.

    Robin's Nesting Place... As you can see from later comments, others agree, good soil is key and good soil doesn't normally exist in new subdivisions.

    Annie in Austin... A great piece of advice. It is important to know where the sunny and shady places are, and definitely where the rain runs to.

    Wrenna... Your comment points out something else, that a garden is not made or re-made in one season or even one year. It takes years, unless you have money to hire a bunch of landscapers to do it all for you. And what would be the fun in that?

    Pam/digging... how true, a garden designer may charge less. Finding good garden design isn't that easy sometimes as I don't think enough people use garden designers.

    LostRoses... It's not so overwhelming to start with zip. In some ways it can be better because there is nothing to remove (other than sod). And I do wish I had hired a garden designer.

    Sissy... five new gardens? That's probably a record of some kind. And good point, think about what you see looking out the windows and plant something pretty there.

    Karrin... I agree, learning from mistakes can be hard lessons, but you won't forget them.

    Sister with the Homestead... Who's obsessed with gardens and gardening? Me? I do wish I had taken at least one design class in college...

    Eleanor... Aren't you lucky :-),

    Carolyn Gail... That's great advice "don't plant a thing until the soil is amended". It makes a big difference to have good soil.

    Mr. McGregor's Daughter... It is so hard to plant taking into account a plant's mature size. I think for shrubs and trees, it is also helpful to buy as big a plant as you can afford.

    Mary... That is such a nice comment. I'm going to add that to my top 5 list! Thank you!

    Bill... Excellent advice. Waiting and getting a sense of the garden is important.

    MSS@Zanthan Gardens... Even in new gardens, those trees grow and move the shade around. I'm finally getting some shade in my garden.

    All, excellent advice! I hope new gardeners take time to read the comments as well as the post. Thank you!

    Carol at May Dreams Gardens


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