Garden Planning: The Questions to Ask

I have a hard time visualizing how drawings on paper will look in three dimensions and in real space, which means my garden beds get done and re-done, sometimes on the fly, as I try to get the look in the ground to match the one in my head. In the past, I’ve had the good fortune of working with a local landscaper who I trusted to take my ideas and give them an appropriate shape that looked good in both two and three dimensions. From there, I would revise the layout and reassess the plants.

The formal garden at Rosenborg Castle gardens in Copenhagen. My garden will not look like this.

With our new house, I paid to have a one-time consultation with a garden designer (something I recommend most gardeners do before starting a larger project) and she reinforced some of the ideas I had and gave me some good suggestions for bed shapes and plant materials. I’m using those ideas to plan my back gardens on my own. Next year, we will re-do some of the sidewalks and stairs in our front, which have drainage issues, and at that point, I’ll probably hire a designer to give shape to the front. For now, I’m on my own.

Before getting too deeply into garden planning, you have to to ask the big questions. Here are some  I’ve been asking myself over the past year, and a few of the answers I’ve come up with.

Here’s the dream: a secluded spot and a nice chair. This was taken in Toronto during a Garden Bloggers Fling in 2015.

How will the landscape be used? Our yard basically has three sections and I see them as having three purposes. The front faces the street and I want it to be welcoming and to fit in with the other landscapes on the block, many of which have big trees and more defined spaces than we have. I don’t see us using that space for sitting outside much, though I’m open to adding a front patio area in the future. For now, I’m adding and subtracting plants from the existing bed and we are putting our bird feeder (and probably a bird bath) on the east-front side of the house. This was a purely practical decision. There’s a small window in the house that I can use to watch the birds, and as my husband says, “where do you want the bird poop?”

The backyard has two sections, a patio area that faces what will be a mostly edible garden, in raised beds, with some native plants around the beds. This is a spot for entertaining or having morning coffee. It needs some soft screening from the alley and neighbors and a big table with an umbrella. The raised beds are in and planted. The third section is between the house and the garage. It is screened on three sides by buildings and, because we are very close to our neighbors back entry, needs more screening on the fourth side. My hope is to fill this with lots of plants and turn it into a quiet garden for reflection.

The Grand Allee in Monet’s garden in Giverny, France. My garden will not look like this.

How will you get from space to space? We did some work on the paths last year, adding a brick path from the patio to the back gate. We walk that path several times a day and are very happy with how it turned out. We need to create a path from the back steps into the quiet garden and that will likely be done in grass with a brick edging. That’s on my to-do list for later this summer. A path from front yard to back on the east side is also needed and will be done in the future. On the west side, we have a narrow sidewalk and no option to do much about that.

What about water? There are two questions here, really. How will you get hoses from point A to point B to water plants, but more importantly, how will water flow be handled. We have a slightly soggy area in the quiet garden and I need to adjust both the outflow from our sump pump (which runs only during major wet periods, such as last month) and a downspout. This may take some engineering, but I don’t want people to be tripping over hoses and downspouts, so it need attention.

Cool little statue in a formal garden in Toronto. Likely will not be in my garden.

What’s your style? Several years ago, I read a very good garden design book that recommended people name their garden to help them get a feel for their style. Facetiously, I suggested “mole manor” as the name for our former yard, which had its share of critter issues. I have no idea what I would call this garden—Farm in the City? Urban Refuge? Howdy, Neighbor? I’m stumped. Our house is a 1939 bungalow, so something on the cottage-y end of design might work. I also like to use native plants, when possible. This is a question I’m still pondering.

What questions would you ask before designing a new garden?

The Before Pictures

Here’s what our yard looks like today. Keep in mind, these photos were take in early April—one of the least attractive months in Minnesota.

The front yard is pretty plain. We may change the entry area so this is on the back burner for at least a year.
The front side yard needs a lot of work and I may turn this into a space with all shrubs and perennials and a path to the back gate. That poor arborvitae has already been moved to a safer spot. It looks so bad because it’s right next to a vent that shoots hot, damp air out all winter. My bad. I didn’t think about what that vent was for when I planted the shrub last fall.
Out the back door we have a nice patio. This area is now fenced in. The spot between the patio and alley is going to be an area for edibles mostly. I’d like to put a nice vine or climbing rose on the garage, but am not sure the area gets enough sun.
Another view of the patio and garage. Figuring out what to do with yard unmentionables, such as recycling cans and hoses from the sump pump (behind the can) will be one of our first tasks.
New trees in what will likely be a shrub and perennial border. This shows the entrance to the secluded part of the garden — at least it will be secluded when things fill in better!

As you can see, I have my work cut out for me and not much space to work in! Any suggestions on what to do?

Welcome to My (New) Northern Garden

After 17 years in one house and nearly 30 years in lovely Northfield, Minnesota, I’ve moved. My husband is now semi-retired and for a variety of reasons, we decided to move to St. Paul. Last May, we sold our house (and garden!) and moved to a bungalow in the city.

The last sunset I saw in my Northfield garden. This hill is one reason we looked for a smaller, flatter lot! I do miss the ponds, though.

Our new garden is smaller and flatter than our previous garden—both attributes I was seeking—and it is pretty much a blank slate. It is a work in progress, and I’m hoping to use this blog as a journal of our new garden as well as a place to share information on gardening in the North.

In our first year in the house, we did some of the big projects, mostly removing an old one-car garage, building a two-car garage and extending the brick patio that came with the house to connect to the new garage and the alley. We’ve added fences, too. In terms of plants, we removed one tree (roots threatening the foundation) and planted five more, plus a few shrubs. I’ve swapped out some perennials I don’t like (mostly daylilies and hostas) for a few I do, and I have likely ordered way too many plants for this coming season.

I know it takes at least three years to make a garden, and I’m counting this as year one.  My plan is to focus this year on designing and planting the two back garden spaces (more on those in later blog posts) and then figuring out the front next year.

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted to this blog, and many people say blogging is dead. But I’m not convinced. People still want more in-depth information than an Instagram photo or tweet can provide. The original purpose of blogs was to serve as a shared journal — and that’s what I hope this blog will be for the next few years—a shared journal of my adventures in my new northern garden. Thanks for stopping by!