How to Create Your Dream Garden

Turn your backyard into an outdoor oasis with these tips for picking, planting, and caring for outdoor plants.

Pick the Right Plants

Landscape and professional gardeners know that plants that are not suited for your yard’s conditions won’t last a long time no matter how much care they receive. This is true for any plant capable of living more than one season and even, to some extent, for the annuals that will grace your yard for only a few months. Make a list of the conditions at your home: the pH and work-ability of your soil, sun and shade, rainfall, winter cold hardiness, summer heat and humidity, and anything else you think might be important. Good reference books list the needs of common garden plants, but common sense will get you far. For example, if you live near the Great Lakes, use plants native to that area or to other parts of the world with similar conditions and you can’t go far wrong. Also be mindful of what is likely to get eaten by wildlife in your area, such as deer. If you don’t know, inquire at your local nursery.

Fit Plants to Your Yard

If you choose acid-loving shrubs, such as rhododendrons and azaleas, for your landscape but your soil isn’t acidic, understand that you’re creating a lifelong maintenance chore for yourself. Sure, soil pH can be adjusted, but only temporarily. Products that lower soil pH do so only for a season, if that long, so you’ll have to apply them year after year, forever. A garden that requires extra care can still have a long life, but the chances decrease as the maintenance load goes up. Keep this in mind before planting a sun-loving shrub in a shady yard or a moisture-loving plant in semiarid terrain.

Say “No” to Invasive Plants

No matter how much you like a pretty but invasive plant, you and your garden are probably better off without it in the long run. Plants that can rapidly overrun their neighbors probably will, and once that happens, the whole garden may have to be torn out. So for the long-term health of your garden, pass on the invasives and stick with well-behaved plants that make good neighbors. A reputable nursery can help you sort out the two.

Divide and Thrive

Most herbaceous perennials, such as aster, daylily, and phlox, need regular division. That means digging them up every three to five years, liter-ally dividing the roots into smaller clumps by cutting or by shaking them apart, and replanting them. Division promotes profuse flowering and new, vigorous growth. Astilbes are a case in point. If left undivided, they tend to flower less and less over the years, as their roots get crowded and woody. The same clump, once divided, can explode with blossoms. But don’t automatically divide everything. Some perennials simply don’t need division, and a few downright detest it. Check a good reference book before dividing any perennial whose preferences you don’t know.

Give Plants Space

If you plant trees or perennials so close together that they shade one another as they grow, eventually one of them will have to make way for the other. Although it’s hard to imagine a tiny seedling as a full-fledged plant, determine plant spacing according to the plant’s mature size, not its size when you get it. This is even more critical for trees than for perennials, since they are tougher to move once established. Any good plant reference book will tell you a plant’s size at maturity.

Wait On Those Bulbs

Spring bulbs are a joy-it’s undeniable. That burst of color when most other plants are still dormant is just the remedy for the winter blahs. But if your perennial garden is new, wait a season or two before planting bulbs. You want to make sure you’re happy with the overall layout and won’t be making big changes, because if you decide to move things around midseason, you may find yourself spearing bunches of brand-new bulbs with your spading fork. Rather than have to replace them, be patient and put bulbs in when you know everything else will stay put.

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