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How to Map and Plan a New Garden

The cusp of the New Year is not prime gardening season in much of the United States. But, it’s often an excellent time to map and design a new garden or planting border, even in areas that experience real winter. All that is required are bare ground, a relatively mild day, and a few common household items.

Start by considering the garden’s location, size, shape, and desired plants and their growing needs. Roughly sketch out your basic plans. At this stage, don’t worry about precision or specifics. The finer details will be worked out later.

Setting the Garden Perimeter

A 50- to 100-foot tape measure with a tip that you can stake in place is extra-useful.

Once you have sketched basic garden perimeter designs on paper, grab a couple of tape measures and a notepad and pen (or smartphone) and head out to the new garden site. A 50- to 100-foot tape measure with a tip that you can stake in place is extra-useful. If necessary, also bring a garden hose to mark portions of the prospective border’s perimeter that aren’t already defined by paths, walls, and the like. Place stakes along any hose-defined edges so that you’ll have something to refer to after you return the hose to its winter quarters.

Curved garden edges have a freer feel but are more difficult to edge and map. Rectilinear bed edges look more formal and are easier to edge and map. (Image from Residential Landscape Architecture)

A border with at least one long, straight edge is a cinch to map. At regular intervals (5 feet usually works well), measure the perpendicular distance from the straight edge to the opposite side of the border. Also, measure the distances to any extant plants and features that will remain as part of the new garden. Transcribe the data to graph paper and – voila! – you have an accurate map of your soon-to-be-border.

A border with curving edges is somewhat trickier to map. In this case, extend the tape along the approximate “equator” of the border, and measure the perpendicular distances from the tape to both edges at regular intervals. Compared to the straight-sided border, a few more dots and a bit more freehand sketching are required to translate these measurements to graph paper.

Mapping the Garden

After taking measurements, put your design to paper.

A landscape design template is an especially handy implement for the drawing and mapping stage. You can purchase one (as well as graph paper) from most art- and drafting-supply stores, as well as online. It also helps if you have an image of your home’s footprint and yard to sketch upon and include for perspective. This will also help ensure that your garden is placed within your yard’s boundaries.

Plant renderings can be illustrated in many different ways. Have fun. Be creative.
(Image from Residential Landscape Architecture)

To map the border’s location relative to the house, measure the length of the nearest side of the house, and the distances from its corners to the ends of the border. Using graph paper and a ruler, compass, or landscape design template, lightly sketch a curve representing the distance from the one corner of the house to one end of the border. Repeat for the distance from the other corner of the house. The intersection of these curves pinpoints the end of the border. This technique also works if you’d like to map the border’s relationship to other landscape features such as property lines.

Choosing Plants for the Garden

Choose colorful, attractive plants that meet the site’s requirements and your aesthetic goals.

Next comes the really fun part – choosing plants. Given the border’s conditions and surroundings, what would grow and look well there? Compile a list of candidate garden plants that would provide a pleasing mix of flowers, foliage, shapes, sizes, and textures. When you’re happy with your list, start to play around on paper, beginning with the major “keystone” perennials, shrubs, or trees that will form the backbone of the new planting. A composition of rhythmically spaced “keystone” specimens – interspersed with clumps of smaller companion plants – generally works well. Lightly pencil-in a circle for each plant, spacing the circles according to plant size and vigor. Use a complete circle to represent individual specimen plants (often trees or shrubs), and fused circles (omitting their inner portions) to depict clumps.

Once the soil warms, start cutting and de-sodding your beds.

Once you have a good handle on the design of your new border, you can start planning how to execute it. It’s never too early to start sourcing and ordering plants (especially rarities that are likely to sell out early). You also need to consider how you’re going to prepare the border site. Is the site currently occupied by grass or by other plants that will need removing? Now’s the time to formulate a strategy.

Perhaps you’ll decide to rent a sod cutter come spring to remove turf from the site. Or maybe sheet composting is the way you’d like to go. Solarization – blanketing the site with heavy plastic to fry the existing vegetation as well as the weed seeds that lurk in the soil – is another excellent approach that works particularly well if you plan to hold off on planting until fall. A soil test might also be in order, whenever as the ground is workable (most state extension offices offer soil testing at a reasonable price). Finally, what’s your mulch of choice going to be? Now’s the time to find a source.

Whatever strategy you choose, you’ll likely need compost and soil amendments to improve the soil. If so, you’ve come to the right place! Fafard offers a bevy of such products, including Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend and Fafard Premium Topsoil.

Happy planning – and planting – in 2020!

About Russell Stafford


Hortiholic and plant evangelist, Russell Stafford, transplanted his first perennial at age 7 and thereby began a lifelong plant addiction. He is the founder and custodian of Odyssey Bulbs (and Odyssey Perennials), an online nursery specializing in cool and uncommon plants. Russell also works as a horticultural consultant, freelance writer (Horticulture and The American Gardener magazines), and garden editor. He formerly served as Curator and Head of Horticulture at Fernwood Botanic Garden in Niles, Michigan and as the Horticultural Program Coordinator at the Center for Plant Conservation, then located at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. His academic degrees include a masters in forest science from Harvard University.

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