The Q&A Archives: Help with starting our first plantings

Question: My husband and I live in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Our home has very little landscaping and we are both new to managing a yard. Our house faces due west with the garage on the south side, so we would like to place some plants along the northwest side of the garage and some additional shrubs approriate for a raised flower bed. I would like to layer in perenials in both beds with some greenery for year around color. My final goal is to have a beautiful flower bed along the garage wall that has some greenery showing through-out spring/summer/fall even when there our no flowers. Along the house I would like some shrubs and also some perennial flowers. I have no idea how to start planning this. Please help.

Answer: Making a good landscape master plan and then specific planting plans is somewhat complex and takes some careful thought. So you are smart to be planning ahead. Unfortunately I really can't tell you long distance what to plant where. You could consider hiring a landscape architect or garden designer to help you, or you can try to do it yourself.

You may find it helpful to identify nice plantings you can copy or adapt from books and/or similar nearby homes. (A quick photo for reference can be useful in identifying the plants and their spacing later.)

One way to start the process is to take a photo or series of photos (a disposable panoramic is great for this) of your house and garage as it is now. Then use tracing paper over the photo to sketch in a picture of the outlines of the buildings and features and then try out your ideas. You can make layers of tracing paper, keeping and discarding what you like and don't like. Mark in large and small trees, evergreen shrubs, deciduous shrubs, flowers, groundcover, walks, whatever. When you are satisfied, photocopy it for a final copy.

Next, get a copy of the plat plan drawing for your lot which will give you measurements of both the yard and the house on it. Or, you can make a rough scale drawing and measure the house and location of doors and windows and permanent features such as the driveway and walk. Also mark the compass points on it and any underground or above ground utilities. This is very helpful when figuring out what the mature sizes of your plants can be and how many plants you will need to plant for a given space. Again, you can fine tune your ideas and with tracing paper and eventually photocopy your final choice.

Now you are finally at the stage of selecting particular plants. Your planning will tell you, for example, that you need a five foot high and wide needled evergreen in a given spot and a small fifteen foot tree beside it. Your local nursery staff should be able to help you evaluate the growing conditions (sun, shade, soil, wind exposure, and so on) and identify plants that will do well (and fit) in the location where you want to plant. From that list you would select the ones that appeal to you and fit your design goals. You may also want to establish a time frame for your projects.

You might also want to look at a book or two about landscaping and gardening in general so you are aware of the growth habits and maintenance needs of what you are considering planting ahead of time. I think the books in the "Dummies" series such as Landscaping for Dummies, Gardening for Dummies, Perennials for Dummies and Annuals for Dummies are very practical, straightforward and useful. They assume no prior knowledge and also include some plant lists and maintenance tips.

I hope this helps and have fun with your planting!

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