Planning a Perennial Garden, where to start ?


Planning a Perennial Garden, where to start ?  Well, admittedly it can be a little intimidating , but it’s really not that difficult if you just follow a few simple steps.  Gardening is like cooking, you just need to follow the recipe.

Already you’ve made a great selection….perennials…plants that keep on giving, voila !  Depending on the plants you choose, in just a few short years that one plant can easily be divided into  3-4 plants.  And before you know it, you’ll be giving your little off-springs away… since your garden is now chock full !

For both perennials and annuals the type of light, soil and amount of moisture depends on the plant.  The good news…when you purchase a plant it will have a tag giving the requirements for this plant.  The tag states the amount of light needed, when they bloom, their mature height, the amount of moisture needed, basically the details to keep the plant happy.

If you find a plant that is missing this tag and you’re a newbie at gardening,  I would shy away from it…there are other plants that do have tags, so let’s spend the money and time wisely so you won’t be disappointed.  This tag is a big help when you plant your little beauties, you can place it  into the soil with your plant,  so next season you know what is planted there and how to care for it.


violin and handWhen I first started gardening, when I was in my early 20’s,  I thought, how difficult could this be ?  Some sun and water, no big deal.  So way before google and all the others were available…I would read the catalogs.  I’m sorry, I forgot there may be some of you who aren’t familiar with a catalog…basically it was like a book (?) with pictures and you would make a list and cry every night that you really, really, had to have it and you would be extra, extra good, clean your room, eat all your dinner and not bite anyone anymore.    Oh, I’m so sorry, I digressed.

Anyways, I would  decide what plants I wanted based on what I saw in the catalog.  Then I would go to the nursery and pick out my plants,  not really paying too much attention to those tags, after all  everyone knows they need water and sun.   So, half way through the summer I would realize …hey my plants don’t look like those…I must have got the duds  !!!

Yup, you guessed it, It was not the plant.  As usual I was too quick to jump in with both feet, and paid the price by feeling totally disappointed and angry with myself ( can I have a hug ?).  If  only I had taken the time to read that annoying tag that had that technical stuff on how to raise them, I would have known those lovely hot pink and bold purple impatiens (an annual, that only lasts for one season) which I had spent a ridiculous amount of $$$$$ on…..did not need to be kept in the hot blazing sun for 8 hours a day.   Who knew, I thought all flowers need sun !

Can any of you gardeners out there relate to this (please feel free to fib, I can’t handle anymore disappointment today) ?

just a thought 5Lessson learned …. tags are our friends.  If the garden is in a mostly sunny area….don’t buy plants requiring shade.  This may sound simple enough, but the temptation to prove the tag wrong can be quite strong, especially when you have fallen in love with a gorgeous beauty.  To bad relationships don’t come with tags!


So, Where do I Start?

The recipe for any great perennial garden starts with 3 ingredients ….light, soil and water.   So before your start planting , get to know the environment of your garden , and then you can select plants that match those ingredients, for a garden that will thrive for years to come.

1 – Lighting :

Okay, first get to know the mood of the garden area.

  • Is the area bright and cheerful,  in a sunny location…more than 6 hours of direct sunlight ?
  • Is the area a bit confused….part sun – part shade ?
  • Is the area moody and has a tendency to be more shady?
sunlit garden
                         via Garden Landscape

Not to worry,  it’s not uncommon to have all of these light conditions in one garden. The amount of light can vary throughout the day if the garden is near structures, buildings, fences or trees, since these can create shadows and affect the natural light.  So at different times of the day visit the garden area  and take notes of the lighting, so you can have a better understanding of the conditions.

Notice at top of this pic, the plants are in the sunlight, and the bottom front of the picture the plants are still in the shade.

So, unless your garden is in an open unobstructed area, this is the way the average home garden will be. Once you know the light conditions it will be much easier to select the right plants for that location.

But before your run out and start buying up all those gorgeous nursery plants, there’s still a few more things you should consider, unless of course you have extra money….your 401K is already in the 7-8 digits, the house and the kids college are all paid for, and the surgeon says you can get another 3 years out of your face lift…….so, you can afford to skip this step and throw that extra money into the ground and have no regrets.  Wait,  if that’s the case I have the perfect location in my yard…so please, come on over !!

Hmm, well maybe you just might want to read on a bit more, so let’s check out the soil.


2 – Soil  – It’s more than dirt.

The soil is the foundation of a garden and plays an important part on how the plants perform.

  •  Bad soil = poor flowering, anemic growth
  •  Good soil = gorgeous, healthy plants.
blue and white flowers the pink clutch blog
via The pink Clutch blog

Soil also varies in it’s chemical components, whether it’s acidic or alkaline, and how it  affects the  plants performance. For example, Azaleas and Rhododendrons love acidic soil.  And the flowers of the Hydrangeas actually change color based on whether the soil  is acidic or alkaline.

A quick way to Test PH Level :

  • Wet a small area of the soil and sprinkle a handful baking soda over the damp part.
  • If soil begins to bubble = has  an acidity with a PH level of 5 or under = probably too acidic.

Depending on the type of plants you select, you may need to adjust the PH level ….check the plant tag to determined if this is needed.

But for most perennial flower gardens, this is not such a big deal.  If you do need to adjust the PH level for specific pants it’s easy to do with some homemade treatment or purchased soil amendment products.

If the designated garden area is now grass, that will have to be removed. Dig down deep enough to get the roots and remove grass and roots.


enriched soil via lowes
via Lowes

One of the best ways to improve your garden soil is to enrich it with a mixture of one part perlite, 2 parts each of top soil, peat moss and compost.    You  can check the local nurseries and garden centers for pricing, and  give them the dimensions of your garden and they should be able to help you with the quantities  needed for your garden.

If your working with a tight budget, and amending the soil is taking a big chunk out of your budget, consider having a smaller garden for this year, so you don’t skip this process….it’s just so important to the success or your garden.



Building up and adding the amended soil to the garden:  Add a layer of the  amended soil to the garden, rake until the area is even, and don’t be afraid to walk on it…this will help compact the soil…otherwise when it’s wet, it will have sags and gullies and be mushy.  You want the soil underfoot to be firm (not packed like concrete) but firm enough for a good base for the plants, so they’re held in place when planted.  We don’t want them floating onto the lawn.

Continue to add this amended soil to the perennial garden bed until it is built up enough for the water to drain off properly.  Plants should never sit in a puddle of water, this can cause disease and rot the stems of the plants.


jeans garden bed
via Jeans Garden Files


This is a good example of how a perennial garden will look with fresh amended soil  and new plantings.

Notice how it’s built up and then tapered down towards the front and back for good drainage.





3 – Water

DIY drip irrigationprovident living
               via Provident

Be sure to have access to a water source, you don’t want to carry buckets of water back and forth.  And decide whether your garden should be water wise.  Many places over the past few years have placed restrictions on outside water use.

Some very clever DIY  watering ideas have popped up over the years, so be sure to do some research on the internet to see if any will work for you. Click on pic for the directions of this clever watering idea.

I used this method in my garden last year due to the water ban, and it works very well.



Now What …Time to Plant ?

Not yet, there’s just a few more things you might want to think about before you start digging.


Purpose -Will your Perennial Garden serve a purpose?

If you have plants and shrubs already in your yard, you should take them into consideration in designing your garden as the continuity of the design, makes a greater impact.   And the new plantings should enhance and blend with the established theme.

Part of planning the perennial garden is to consider how the garden will be used.

  • To enhance the overall appearance of your home
    •  Include some of the same plantings already used and continue with the theme that’s already established.
  • Is it in a private space
    • A private or secluded setting, allows you a lot more freedom in plantings and design.  You’ll also have the ability to postpone some maintenance for a little while, like weeding.
  • In public view
    • Public view, this will keep you on your toes.  Pruning, deadheading, weeding and overall maintenance will be high on the list.

If the garden is in an area where you entertain or where children play, you should do a bit more research in the selection of your plants.  You don’t want to have plants that are toxic or encourage bees,  in an area where people or pets will be gathered.  And you want to stay clear of delicate, high maintenance plantings that could be trampled on.  If you need plants to distract mosquito’s and insects there are quite a few plants that can be used for this task as well.


Time – How much time are you willing to spend maintaining the garden ?

When planning a garden, it’s important to consider the time required to maintain it.  There will be weeding, watering, pruning, dividing, deadheading and more to keep the garden looking fabulous.  So you’ll need to decide how much time you want to dedicate.

  • Few (less than 4) hours a week —–If this is your time commitment, consider growing plants in containers, which requires far less time and tasks.  It can be just as much fun without a lot of fuss.
  •  Day or two weekly —-This time frame can be very reasonable for a small garden.  For now, small is good, the object is to have fun and enjoy what you’re doing…not to be a burden .  Once you experience the time needed to maintain your garden, you can then decide if you want to  go bigger.
  • Time is no problem —- Ahh, one of the lucky few, the only limits will be energy and enthusiasm.

Caution:  It could happen to you….if  you get  ” bitten by the bug” and become passionate about gardening, you’ll somehow find another little corner of the world to add a few more plants, and reasons to spend more time in the garden.


 Garden Design – The Home &  Garden

The perennial garden should enhance and compliment the home. Since the home is the most important and largest part of the landscape, the garden needs to be in harmony with it’s surroundings.

  • Formal gardens usually have walls of evergreens and hedges, with plants and shrubs arranged symmetrically (they mirror one another) around  hardscaped areas, such as stone walls, terraces and walkways.

    via moss and ivy
    via Moss and Ivy
  • Semi-Formal gardens are similar but with a bit more relaxed tone, perhaps herbs or vegetables within the garden area.
  • Natural or Cottage gardens are the most relaxed of all the gardens, they are often filled with plants that attract bees,hummingbirds and butterflies.  The intention of these gardens is to have it appear as it would in the wild, a natural free flowing style, with no pomp and circumstance.
  • Contemporary gardens can be a blend of all of the above. It’s not uncommon to see all white gardens accented with dramatic artwork, cottage gardens accented with boxwood hedges.

The whole idea is to find what design compliments your home, your yard and most of all your lifestyle.


Color – Experiment With Colors

Colors in the garden set a mood or tone and plays an important role in the design of your garden.  Color plays the same role on the outside as it does on the inside of your home.  Reds and golds are vivid colors and referred to as “hot”, while blues and greens are “cool”, and they all have a place in the garden. It all comes down to your preference. But what’s more important is how the color(s) are displayed.

One of the key elements in designing the garden is to plant in masses and in odd numbers.  This grouping of colors and textures adds impact and provides continuity in design. So whether your planting  shrubs, ornamental grasses or  flowers, the principle is still the same.

Here’s an example of good design:

todays garden org 500x568
                                                  Photo    via Todays

Take note of the grouping of plants, a good practice to follow is plant in odd numbers, 3-5-7.

example: 3 Helenium, 3 Lobelia, 5 Monardo, etc. this gives the garden a feeling of  abundance and certainly makes more of an impact, than planting one of each.

Of course your budget will dictate how much you can spend, but you don’t  have to fill in the entire garden in one season.

You’ll soon find other gardeners more than willing to share and that’s  what it’s all about, because a garden is never done.

They’ll always be another plant you just absolutely have to get, and they’ll be some,  that for whatever reason aren’t doing as well as you expected…it’s all part of the gardening experience….frustrating, challenging, rewarding and satisfying all at the same time.


Zone – Find yours

In gardening, it’s important to know your hardiness zone.  This zone is nothing more than an area of the country in which a plant can adapt and perform at it’s best.

To find you hardiness zone, go to
and just type in your zip code to find your hardiness zone.


Your Plant Preferences

Deciding what plants  to incorporate into your design should be dictated by what you like and how it fits into the overall design.

Start by cruising the web for ideas, and search by your zone.  Don’t waste your time and add to the confusion, by looking at plants that won’t work in your zone.  Just pin, love, save, whatever when you see something  you like, you can always undo it later if you find it doesn’t fit into your plan…..the object here is to see what plants catch your eye.

While cruising through the volume of pictures and getting some great ideas, you will at some point, suffer from IOS (Information Overload Syndrome*) , though not fatal it can result in confusion, whining, rapid pulse, disorientation and emotional stress.

* Don’t panic, it’s not a real disease. I just made it up.

An example , you start out looking for “perennial plants for zone 5”  and now find yourself looking at “perennial flower gardens”, which may or may not include plants for your zone, so stay focused. Remember, it’s only flowers, the world will still be here when you wake up in the morning.


Layout – Determine the shape of the garden

The easiest and most practical way for determining the shape of your garden is to use a garden hose, string and maybe some sticks , doesn’t get much easier than that.  Just lay the hose or string out in design you think will work for you…if it doesn’t, no big deal…just move them around until you get just what your looking for.  Then just stake out the area, start digging and get your garden started.


Have a Plan

Treat your garden like a recipe…” Plan for Success”….for the best results always take gardening in steps, don’t jump in and expect everything to work out …it won’t.  A little preparation goes a long way, and when you see your efforts rewarded it gives you the encouragement to continue.


 Some final thoughts.

  •  When you start actually selecting your plants, remember the 3 basic ingredients of a great garden….light, soil and water….and group your plants with others that share the same ingredients, it’s as simple as that.
  • Plant in masses in odd numbers of (groups of 3,5,7 etc.). Use colors and textures for contrast in the garden.
  • Most importantly, it’s a garden….not brain surgery, or an exact science.  Every yard, location, soil, light, and plant preference is unique and you will have some failures but also some successes, as every gardener can attest to.  The bottom line should be the enjoyment and satisfaction you get from the experience.

Any gardener will tell you, a gorgeous garden doesn’t happen the first or sometimes even the third year, it takes time to evolve and just when you think you have finished…..surprise, they’ve just discovered a new variety which you know you absolutely, positively have to have.  So beware you little beauties, time to move over, mama needs to make room for just one more ( how many times have we heard that one before)!

So just relax and enjoy the wonderful journey of gardening, the best is yet to come.


Until then…..




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