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Ask the Landscaper: Tips for planning a garden from scratch

R. Wayne Mezitt sheds light on what can seem like a daunting, overwhelming undertaking. For more expert advice, go to

Some gardens successfully utilize temporary plantings like non-woody “filler” plants, colorful annual flowers, and tropicals in gaps between smaller, less costly “starter-size” shrubs and trees. The white cabbage pictured here is an ornamental planting.

Q. We are the second owners of a classic Cape (built 1950) in Salem, and last fall we pulled out the overgrown yews out front when we had the house painted. We also cut back the rhododendrons at the corners of the house. Do you have any suggestions for foundation plantings?


A. Your situation will be familiar to many other homeowners. It’s always difficult to anticipate accurately how large plants will become as they mature. Consider using slower-growing and compact shrubs. Some of the following tips should also be helpful:

Planning a garden around your home can seem like a daunting, overwhelming undertaking — so many choices, so much investment, so little understanding about what plants to use, seemingly huge risks should you make the wrong decisions. The process involves far more details than can be addressed in a few paragraphs here, but these fundamentals will help simplify the decision-making, whether you do it yourself or seek professional help.


You’ll need to determine the type of garden you want. Discuss with your family how you expect to be using the spaces. Are you seeking an appealing public face from the road, a welcoming entrance, screening, a foundation planting, a backyard retreat, a minimal-maintenance space to relax, or something else? Choosing a well-defined objective helps narrow the focus and simplifies your choices.

Walking around your neighborhood, visiting friends’ yards, touring public gardens, reading garden design publications, and participating in gardening discussions are all good ways to help develop concepts. Join a local gardening group or bring your ideas to design professionals at your local garden center.

Make sure the elements that make up your chosen area are appropriate for your intended purpose. Be aware of soil characteristics, moisture, sunlight, wind exposure, accessibility, and proximity to features you want to enhance or conceal. How do you intend to use the space each season? From what vantage points will the area be viewed or approached? Considering these conditions and others helps define the types, sizes, colors, textures, and other characteristics of the elements and plants you should choose for your design.

Investing the time to learn about the types of plants that suit your plans will yield considerable rewards. Many homeowners visiting garden centers tend to choose what is showing color at the time, and that’s generally a mistake. Combining plants with different seasons of interest adds significantly to the value of your yard. The best garden designs are appealing for more than a single point during the year and include considerations like maintenance needs, fragrance, form, and texture. Gardening publications, online resources, and horticultural advisers at your local garden center can suggest options.


Set a budget for your project. Installing mature-size (expensive) trees or shrubs may not be a prudent choice. Underestimating how fast plants grow and how large they will become are common mistakes, so design your plantings to accommodate change as their component trees, shrubs, and herbaceous perennials grow toward maturity. Make sure you start by installing the critical basic elements for the garden, adding less essential components as you are able. Some gardens successfully utilize temporary plantings like non-woody “filler’’ plants, colorful annual flowers, and tropicals in gaps between smaller, less costly “starter-size’’ shrubs and trees. Filler-type non-woody plants that can survive more than one season include rhubarb, strawberry, lavender, thyme, sage, oregano, rosemary, and chives. Annual herbs like dill, nasturtium, basil, and parsley can also be good choices. For vegetables, try chard, carrots, lettuces, beets, corn, kale, peppers, tomatoes, fennel, and cabbage.

Don’t fear making mistakes; every garden changes over time. Rare is a planting plan that never needs to be modified. Plants are living organisms, continually affected by elements beyond our control. Droughts, floods, sudden temperature changes, pests, insects, heavy winds, snow loads, and so many other factors are involved in influencing how well your gardens perform. Planning yours should be a pleasant and rewarding process, particularly when you ask the right questions.



Q. I put my potted perennials in the garage for the winter. Should I water them occasionally? I have been, but if they drain, I get a frozen puddle on the floor.


A. If the soil is moist when you bring them into the garage, the plants should require minimal watering because they’re not growing, and you don’t want soggy soil. Watering once or twice a month should work, but dig down a few inches to check if the soil feels dry. It’s best to add water when the soil is not frozen. You could put a saucer under the pots to hold any flow-through.

R. Wayne Mezitt is a third-generation nurseryman and a Massachusetts certified horticulturist, chairman of Weston Nurseries of Hopkinton and Chelmsford, and owner of Hort-Sense, a horticultural advisory business. He serves as trustee chairman for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society at Elm Bank. Send comments and questions to [email protected]. Subscribe to our newsletter at


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