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Think about plotting your garden plot

  • Marybeth Kampman
  • Recently, my sister's apple tree met an untimely demise. It fell into the middle of her yard, drastically changing her backyard landscape. After the debris was cleared she was faced with a proverbial blank slate. She asked family and friends how they envisioned her new garden. Along with elaborate drawings of arbors, raised beds and winding garden paths came a simple drawing from my 7-year-old nephew. There were a few flowers around the perimeter of the garden but taking center stage were a tree house, hammock and a large picnic table. He had drawn what in his mind was needed for play, relaxation and the all-important big family meals.

    Whether you decide to seek a professional's services or do it on your own, take the time to dream a little about your ideal garden. What activities will take place there? Will it be a place to grow vegetables, relax and read a book, a place for your kids and pets to play, a place to entertain? Do you want to create more shady or sunny spots, invite or keep out critters, improve the curb appeal or the accessibility to your property?

    Most probably you will want your garden to meet a variety of needs. Make a list and then prioritize it. Elicit feedback from those that will be using the space.

    Go inside your house and look out. What do you see? What do you want to see? Are you looking into your neighbor's kitchen window? Would you be better off with or without a fence or tree to block or enhance the view?

    Consider when you will be using your garden: Are you home all year round? What time of year are you most likely to use your garden? What time of day? Who will take care of your garden? If you will do maintenance yourself, it is important to be familiar with the plants that go into your garden. If you plan on hiring someone, you'll need to budget for it.

    Speaking of budgets, it is a good idea to think big and broad in the beginning stages of planning sessions, but at some point it is important to set a budget. You may need to scale back your plans, learn to do some of the work yourself or stage your work over a number of seasons or years.

    Make a map of your existing space. Measure the perimeter of the space that is to be your new garden. Draw out the space noting the measurements. Mark important landmarks such as the placement of the house, fence or trees.

    Now, comes the tricky part. Get some 1:4 graph paper and reproduce your map to scale. This may sounds like an ordeal, but it will be an extremely useful and tool. Make multiple copies of the basic plan and try out a variety of ideas for your garden.

    Get a compass and use it to orient the way the sun will travel across the garden. As the seasons change so does the angle of the sun.

    In summer the sun is higher in the sky and provides more hours of daylight. In winter, there are less hours of sunlight and longer shadows are cast. Note the way the sun travels for a few days. A more visual log can be made by taking a quick digital photo from the same spot(s) at different times of the day over a set period of time.

    When asked about their garden, many people say, "Well I have a sunny garden," or "It's kind of shady." A garden that is in "full sun" gets six hours of direct sun a day, partial sun refers to three to six hours of sun a day preferably in the morning and early afternoon.

    Shaded areas get less than three hours of sunlight each day. To be successful you will need to choose your plants according to the amount of sun they will receive.

    There are some realities that can't be changed. Property lines, zoning laws, permits for fences and retaining walls, building codes for construction, regulations about pools and spas, tree or historic preservation laws all must be addressed. Also keep in mind homeowner's restrictions and neighbor's sight lines.

    Access and fire prevention are important details. Locate power and water lines and consider placement of irrigation, water and lighting features accordingly.

    Consider ways to keep unwanted animals out of the garden, and ways to invite beneficial animals and insects into the garden. Soil type, wind, slope of the land, and existing plants and structures are all important details that can't be overlooked.

    Walk around your neighborhood and see what your neighbors are up to. Get ideas for layouts, types of fences, and choices of gravel or stone. See which plants seem to grow well in your neighborhood and which look nice grouped together. Take a few quick shots with a camera or jot down notes as you go.

    Talk to people in their gardens; they usually will be more than happy to share ideas about their garden. Go to your neighborhood garden supply store. Get familiar with plants and their names. Buy a good gardening book. "Sunset Western Garden Book" is the home gardener's bible; "Sunset Western Landscaping" and "Plants and Landscapes for Summer Dry Climates" by the East Bay Municipal Utility District would also be helpful.

    Although it's important to have a vision of your completed garden, do not try to do it all at once. Take your time and allow yourself time to experiment. If something doesn't work out, it is always possible to make adjustments. Allow time for your garden to develop its own unique character, which, in time, will reflect yours.


    - How you want to use your garden

    - When you want to use your garden

    - The view

    - The budget

    - The direction and amount of sun

    - Property lines and building codes

    - Animals and insects