“In my garden there is a large place for sentiment. My garden of flowers is also my garden of thoughts and dreams. The thoughts grow as freely as the flowers, and the dreams are as beautiful.” – Abram L. Urban
A home flower garden is above all a place to create and dream. It is also a place to play, to work hard, and to rest, contemplating what human beings and nature can create by working together.
No matter the size of the garden plot you have to work with, your time and budget constraints, or your personality, you can design a flower garden that allows you to expressive your creativity, to get closer to nature, and to further enjoy being human.
Planning and setting up a flower garden may initially seem like a daunting task, but learning a few basics will set you firmly on the path to joy and beauty.
Flower Gardening Methods: How to Get Closer to Nature
“Gardening is any way that humans and nature come together with the intent of creating beauty.” – Tina James, 1999
There are two basic kinds of gardening methods. Unfortunately, the most common gardening done today uses chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. These chemicals over the long run destroy helpful soil organisms and throw flowers and other plants out of their natural balance. This system of gardening focuses on treating plant diseases and pests without strengthening the plant’s immune system and is harmful to the environment. Sadly, today it is practiced by most commercial gardeners and farmers.
The other method is organic gardening, which works to create a natural balance in your flower garden. This approach considers your garden as a living ecosystem, and uses the laws of nature to produce healthy plants that are resistant to diseases and pests. Organic gardening focuses on building up the soil, using plants wisely, and maintaining an ideal balance. Organic gardeners recognize that pathogens attack weak plants that live in poor soil. An abundance of soil organisms, from earthworms to fungi, provide needed nutrients to plant roots and keep your flowers healthy.
Organic gardeners also understand that some plants grown together will benefit the entire garden-ecosystem. Roses and garlic are a classic example and are discussed in detail in the book Roses Love Garlic, by Louise Riotte. Likewise, some plants grown together may actually create problems for overall garden health. This concept is called ” companion planting.”
We recognize that organic gardening is closest to nature and is beneficial to the environment and to your family. For this reason, it is the method that we’ll focus on in this website. If you are looking for a good source of organic fertilizers, organic pest control products, and quality gardening tools, we recommend Clean Air Gardening.
These ultra thin-but-tough nitrile gardening gloves let you feel what you’re doing while weeding, thinning, pruning, even picking up individual seeds.
Considering Your Region: Looking to Nature’s Garden
“None can have a healthy love for flowers unless he loves the wild ones.” – Forbes Watson
When you begin thinking about planting a new flower garden or expanding your current flower garden, you can look to the natural landscapes of your region for ideas. Wherever you live, there exists a diversity of micro-climates and eco-zones to explore. Next time you take a drive or a walk in the country, pay close attention. Depending on where you live, grassy plains may give way to rolling hills which turn into steep, rugged mountains. The edges of streams and creeks near your home also have unique, “riparian” ecosystems. Each of theses areas represents a unique community of plants working together in harmony.
It’s important not only to pay attention to the individual plants, but how they interact. Note the way larger plants provide shade for low-lying plants. What other relationships do you observe? Study these landscapes and take notes.
While the natural scenery that surrounds us is a work of nature created over hundreds of years by environmental conditions, gardens are our immediate creative expressions using the raw ingredients of trees, plants, soil, rocks, etc. Nature has worked hard to find a balance of soil, climate, plants, insects and animals. For this reason, we can look to the native plants of our state for inspiration. If we plant a flower garden primarily of natives in thoughtful combinations, we will inevitably create a more harmonious and carefree garden. Using natives, your flower garden can also read like a picture book of the natural history of your region, blending the open spaces around your city or town with your created landscape. You will also attract birds and beneficial insects and your garden will become an extension of the natural world that surrounds you.
The Nature of Natives: Deciding Which Flowers to Plant
“We learn from our gardens to deal with the most urgent question of the time: How much is enough?” –Wendell Berry
Native plant species can form the basic template for our garden design. However, it is important to remember that the natural landscapes that surround us are dynamic. Climates change and ecosystems shift. Throughout time, humans and animals have introduced non-native plants and they have naturalized to our area to become common sights.
With this in mind, how do we define what a native plant is? This is a very complex topic worthy of a long discussion. To get a basic idea, we recommend reading plant identification books and other references specific to your area. These books will help you find plants that professional botanists consider native and which are relative newcomers. This government website can also help you explore the idea of native flower gardening (link is to a PDF file).
As far as your flower garden is concerned, you can be as strict as you wish when planting your garden and using natives. There are many non-natives that are very adaptable and will fit in very well with natives without disrupting local plant communities. The key is to find a combination that works for you while being environmentally responsible.
You don’t have to give up your favorite ornamental non-natives, but be aware that many exotic species can be aggressive and disruptive in your garden and out-compete natives. Many exotics are weedy and aggressive simply because their natural predators are not present in their new environment. The more you educate yourself about the natural history of your state, the better. The North American Native Plant Society maintains an excellent website.
Planning: Flower Garden Ideas with Nature in Mind
“Who would have thought it possible that a tiny little flower could preoccupy a person so completely that there simply wasn’t room for any other thought….” – Sophie Scholl
Once again, the best lessons for planning your flower garden come from nature. Take the time to closely observe relationships in local plant communities and you will learn a great deal. Also, it’s good to familiarize yourself with the different forms of plants that exist in nature and how they grow. In this website we’ve arranged information that will introduce you to the basics of perennials, annuals, bulbs, vines, etc. Read over this information briefly to get yourself further acquainted with the wonders of the plant world.
As soon as you’ve read this information and you’ve got a good picture of what’s out there in your natural landscapes, write down your observations and start thinking about plants and plant combinations you’d like to try in your flower garden. Next, consider issues such as your available space, and your time and budget constraints.
It may be useful for you to start looking at flowers in nurseries to see what they have in stock. We recommend shopping at your local family-run nurseries that specialize in native plants. They are generally more helpful and knowledgeable than the big chain nurseries and can assist you in choosing specific plants and give you tips on planting and maintenance.
You may also chat with other gardeners where you live about what has worked for them. Visiting their gardens will also generate new ideas. Local extension agents are another source of information and most now have web-based services.
Next, consider that a flower garden should appeal to all five senses. Picture the flower colors you’d like and the color combinations you think might go well with your home and your yard. Also reflect on the texture of the flowers and plants, as well as their heights. You should plan your garden in three strata: trees, shrubs, and groundcovers. Think about the smells you’d like to have in your garden, and perhaps choose a few plants that also provide edible fruits. Also think about the possibilities of raised beds, borders, walkways, benches, trellises, and other peripherals. Clean Air Gardening is one site that sells containers or planters for gardening that might be helpful.
If you have recently moved to a new home and are planning your garden, it may be better to wait a year before planting a large, elaborate flower garden. This way, you can observe the amount of sun and shade, temperatures, soil conditions, etc. that you’re working with. Also, if you’re relatively new to gardening, you’ll probably want to start small your first year to see what works and what doesn’t. You can add to your garden each year as you discover nature’s secrets.
Flower Garden Specifics: Map it Out
“Just living is not enough … One must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.” – Hans Christian Anderson
Now it’s time to determine the size of the plot you’re going to plant and to make a rough sketch of your property in relation to the plot. If you like, you can buy drafting paper and draw your map to scale so that it is more accurate. Color pencils are great for making maps so buy a set. Tracing paper is also a useful tool so you can make different layers of trees, plants, grasses, etc. and experiment before making your final drawing.
As you make your sketch, don’t forget to map out utility poles, faucets, existing plants and trees, sidewalks, etc. If you’ve done a good job of watching the sun and shade patterns of your yard, you can map these out as well. Make note of seasonal changes in sun and shade with different colors. If you’re interested in blocking out the wind with shrubs, draw in the direction of prevailing winds with arrows and indicate the season as well. Other factors to include in your map are slopes or hills, gullies, areas of special interest such as nice views you want to preserve, etc. The Garden Composer computer program might be helpful if you have a large and complex area to plan.
All this information you’ve compiled can now serve as your base map. Now you can begin the exciting process of defining your vision for your flower garden.
Flowers and Design: Working with Nature
“The Earth laughs in flowers.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
As different flowers come out at different times of year, you should think about the time you want your flowers to bloom and for how long. You can have them bloom all at the same time, or you can stagger them throughout the growing season so your flower garden evolves through time.
This is a wonderfully creative element to flower gardening. Imagine seeing your spring flower garden emerge in blues and purples with grape hyacinth and lilacs and then evolve to a rainbow of colors as your Four O’clocks come out later in the year. Read up on the flowers you want to use to familiarize yourself with their flowering times.
Another fantastic part of planning your flower garden is that you can actually set up thematic sections in yard. Consider these themes for your gardens: Butterfly Garden, Bird Garden, Wildlife Garden, Rose Garden, Perennial Garden, Shade Garden, Succulent Garden, or Water Garden, among others. This U.S. Department of Agriculture has great tips on adding unique and ecologically-minded themes and features to your flower gardens.
Now that you’ve got your base map and you’ve got a set of ideas and tools to work with, you can map out which plants you wish to place in your yard. There are no hard and fast rules when drawing your design, but in general it’s best to draw large shapes for themes such as “shade garden” and use symbols for more specific features such as an individual tree or a bird bath. You should draw in the shapes of trees and shrubs as if they were their mature sizes, not their planting size. This technique will help you visualize your mature garden and reduce crowding.
When you have finished making your design, you can actually map it out in your yard. Place string, pegs, rocks, or other markers to outline the shape of the garden plot. Outline the shapes of the various plant concentrations. You might even want to lay out colored paper or something similar to represent the flowers and other plants. Mapping your garden accurately will give you a good idea of how it will look when it is done, and what effect it will have on the appearance of your house and the rest of the yard.
You can consider purchasing several samples of each of the flowers you are thinking of using and placing them in the appropriate locations in your mapped-out flower garden. You can take back the ones that aren’t quite right and purchase others. You will eventually find the perfect flowers and other plants for your garden. After you have a good idea what your garden will look like, you’ll need to prepare your soil for planting.
Preparing Your Flower Garden for Planting: Here Comes the Digging!
“My green thumb came only as a result of the mistakes I made while learning to see things from the plant’s point of view.” – H. Fred Ale
Soil Basics for Flower Gardening
Soil is often divided into various categories, such as clay, sand, silt, and loam, although there are actually an infinite number of soil varieties because soil compositions can vary widely in organic matter, large and small rocks, minerals, pH, and other factors.
Most gardeners consider soil that has a combination of sand, silt, clay, and organic matter to be good soil. Measuring the pH of your soil is also a good indicator of how your flowers will perform and will help you determine if you need to make changes to the soil composition. Here is a terrific little electronic soil testing tool that can tell you how your soil is doing quickly and easily.
pH and Flower Gardening
pH is a scale used to measure the concentration of hydrogen ions in a solution. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14. Acidic substances have smaller pH numbers and more hydrogen ions. Alkaline substances have larger pH numbers and fewer hydrogen ions. 0 is extremely acid; 7 is neutral; and 14 is extremely alkaline. Limestone is an example of a very alkaline mineral. Sulfur is an example of a very acidic mineral. Note that arid regions tend to have alkaline soils and regions with heavy rainfall tend to have acidic soils.
Although the pH scale only has a 0 to 14 range, it is a logarithmic scale that is designed to measure vast differences. Think of the Ritcher Scale of earthquake magnitude as another example of a logarithmic scale. For example, a pH of 7 is neutral, but a pH of 6 is ten times more acid than a neutral 7. A pH of 5 is a hundred times more acid than a neutral 7, and a pH of 4 is a thousand times more acid than a neutral 7. Likewise, a pH of 8 is ten times more alkaline than a neutral 7. A pH of 9 is a hundred times more alkaline than a neutral 7, and a pH of 10 is a thousand times more alkaline than a neutral 7.
Testing Your Soil pH
To test your soil, it is a good idea to dig out samples from several places to see what the soil is like. Soil that hasn’t been worked is seldom ready for new plantings. It may have too much clay, too much sand, tons of rocks, very little organic material, a high or low pH, or other issues that you’ll need to deal with before you plant.
A good way to test the texture of your soil is with the “Ribbon Test.” After you take a soil sample, roll it back and forth in your hand. If it sticks together easily, it is high in clay, if it simply falls apart, it is probably has a lot of sand. Clay soils don’t drain well and are difficult for the roots to penetrate. Sandy soils drain well but don’t retain nutrients. Adding organic material will help both sandy and clay soils
You can test the pH of your soil with a simple pH testing kit. A good quality pH test kit is worth the extra expense because inexpensive ones are often inaccurate. The most accurate way to test the overall health of your soil is with a Garden Soil Testing Kit. These kits are relatively inexpensive and come in various styles. You can even buy an electronic soil tester that will also test the pH, as well as fertility, how much light you are getting, and other aspects for effective flower gardening.
The Magic of Compost for Successful Flower Gardening
If your soil is extremely acid, which can happen in an area with heavy rainfall, or with soil that has had overdoses of chemical N-P-K fertilizer, you may need to add limestone to ‘sweeten’ the soil.
Adding compost can also work wonders if your soil is out of the ideal pH range. This technique will also improve soil that is too sandy, has too much clay, or is low in the organic material that plants need to thrive. If you don’t know much about composting, don’t worry. You can find more information on composting at the Compost Guide.
Soil drainage is also critical to flower gardening. Mixing in compost is the best way to improve drainage. You can also try digging out a good quantity of the soil, around 16 inches deep, and placing a layer of fine gravel at the bottom.
Mulch and Flower Gardening
If you don’t have humus available from well composted material, you can help your garden through mulching. Mulching is nature’s way of composting. Forests provide a good example of nature’s mulching and composting system.
Forests are a complex growing community. Everything in a forest is related and works together. Leaves and dead branches fall from trees and other forest plants. Bacteria, fungi, nematodes, earthworms, and other habitants of the soil help break down the leaves and other debris into humus.
Humus is a natural living environment that benefits tree and plant roots.
To reproduce the mulch that forests naturally create, you can use garden waste from your home, such as shredded leaves, hay, shredded bark, or other similar substance. By spreading the material over the top of your garden dirt, you are mimicking the decomposing leaves and branches that make up a forest floor.
Mulching helps to keep weeds from growing and facilitates moisture retention in the soil. Mulching also begins the process of natural composting. Between treatments, soil organisms help to decompose the mulch that is closest to the ground. Earthworms and other critters that live in the soil pull composted material into the ground and naturally feed your plant’s roots.
You should add a little more mulch each year to your flower garden to keep the process going. You can use mulch even when your soil is in excellent shape. The mulch will keep the soil healthy and productive. You can further support your soil by adding a dose of organic fertilizer. Your mulch will work best when you add this natural fertilizer over the entire garden bed so that the whole area will gradually become healthier.
You can also go here for more information on mulching.
Flower Planting Tips: Off to the Right Start
“There is no spot of ground, however arid, bare or ugly, that cannot be tamed into such a state as may give an impression of beauty and delight.”- Gertrude Jekyll
— Make sure you’ve got healthy soil with plenty of organic material and an appropriate pH level.
— It is best to plant your flowers, trees and shrubs on a cool or cloudy day to minimize the stress of transplanting. Planting in the early morning or late afternoon also helps.
— Most flowers should be planted in the spring. Some plants can be planted during other times of the year. Ask your local nurseries for planting tips on the specific plants you want to use.
— Dig a hole in your freshly worked soil. Put the soil aside to fill the hole back in later. The diameter should be about twice the diameter of the root ball but the same height as the root ball.
— Take out the plant from its container, and gently work you hand over the root ball to stimulate the roots. For trees and shrubs, remove any wires, burlap, etc. from the root ball after taking your plant out of the container.
— Place the plant in the hole. Make sure it’s positioned at the correct soil line. It’s very important to place the roots at the proper level so that the plant’s roots aren’t exposed and the foliage of low-lying plants doesn’t get too wet. Some plants such as strawberries are subject to rot if their foliage is planted so that it remains wet.
— Fill the hole about half full with the original soil.
— Gently pack the soil to remove any trapped air.
— Give the plant a good drink.
— Top off the hole with soil, pack it again, and water one more time.
— You can build up a small berm of soil in the shape of a circle around the hole so that your watering is more effective.
— Cover the base of the plant with a good mulch. You can use recycled garden materials such as leaves, bark, nut shells, hay, grass clippings, etc. See here for information on mulching.
— After planting, follow the watering instructions appropriate to your plant. Keep your plants well watered for the first year until they establish a good root system.