If you'd like a low-maintenance flower garden, your most important work will be done with pencil, paper, and some reference materials.
Old homes occupied by expert gardeners often feature gardens that are beautiful for decades after the gardener departed, almost as if they evolved naturally. Planning is the reason.
When you start planning your flower garden, here are some things to consider:
Annuals or perennials? Annuals bloom for one season and are replaced the following season. The gardens in those older homes are perennial gardens, coming back year after year...growing, spreading, and creating a mature landscape. If you are planning a perennial garden, consider what will happen when everything grows to its full size.
If it's flowers you're after, you can hardly go wrong planting roses. The repeat-blooming shrub roses are easiest to grow. Hybrid teas make the most elegant, long-stemmed flowers.
For flowers early in spring, plant bulbs. Daffodils will come back year after year, requiring virtually nothing of the gardener beyond planting in the first place.
Sun or shade? You can find plants that will thrive in both, but make sure one tall sun-loving plant won't grow up to shade out a shorter one. This also relates to...
Size. If you analyze most gardens, large plantings form a frame or backdrop for progressively shorter ones, ending with low border plants that rise a few inches above the lawn. Also consider how much the plants will spread out when they are mature.
Color. How will the colors complement each other when they are in blossom?
Season. With a little planning, something in your garden will always be in blossom from the early spring crocus through the mums of autumn.
Formal or informal? Formal gardens have geometric shapes and square, sharp edges. Their design is symmetrical. Informal gardens celebrate curves and gentle, wide arcs that flow from one view to another.
Foliage textures and forms. Sharp spikes, soft globes, and all the other forms that foliage and blossoms take can be mixed together for drama.
Mass. Don't be skimpy. Mass plantings not only add drama, they crowd out weeds. Use a mulch -- large chunks of bark are a good choice -- to cover the ground you leave bare for expansion...or plant these areas with annuals.
For inspiration, buy a book rich in color pictures of gardens and study those that appeal to you. Tear pictures out of home and garden magazines. You'll soon find there is a pattern to those you like. Analyze them.
For information, acquire mail-order garden catalogs. You can make your plan and do your ordering at the same time. Your local garden center is also the source of expert information on plants that do well in your area.
With solid planning, your garden will be more attractive and less work with every passing year.
Photography by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association