This quiet time in the garden, when not much is happening, is the perfect time to check out your garden, and learn more about it. The biggest stumbling-block in creating a beautiful garden is making poor choices of plants and trees. The wrong plant in the wrong place is a source of constant frustration. No one want to feel they have failed, and when your plants don’t thrive that is how we can feel. Slow, unhealthy growth, a failure to flower or fruit, pests and diseases, eventually death – all these horrible outcomes are mostly the result of poor choices when putting plants into the garden. Instead, you can have healthy growth, a profusion of flowers, and vigorous, thriving plants – by making the right choices.
The first step is to get to know your garden better, and doing that is simple. It is easy to collect some basic garden information – facts that will help you make the right choices of plants, and the best spots in your garden to plant them. Let’s look at the basic pieces of information you need to find, so you can grow a better garden.
Basic Garden Information Everyone Should Know
- Climate Zone – know what plants will survive your winters
- Last Frost Date – vital for planting annual flowers, and for choosing spring-flowering shrubs and trees
- Soil Type – sand, silt, clay or loam? Many plants prefer one or the other
- Soil pH Value – find out if you can grow acid-loving plants
- Garden Orientation – find which way is south, and where the shade is
This is the first and most basic piece of information to collect. Your climate zone is based on the average winter low temperatures in your region. It is a useful guide to hardiness, and to which plants will survive your winters without dieback or death. There are several systems in use, but the simplest and easiest is the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Hardiness Zone Map. This divides North America into 11 separate planting zones. Each one is 10°F warmer than the next one, with lower numbers being colder than higher numbers. Florida is mostly zone 9, while northern Minnesota is zone 2.
It is easy to find the growing range of almost any plant based on the USDA system – every nursery will list it as basic information. You can find your hardiness zone on this map, and more information in the article below it.
Average Date of Last Frost
Another useful piece of climate information for gardening is the average date of the last frost. You can find this from your local weather station. Depending on where you live, it could be any time from March to late May. Knowing this will decide when you can start planting tender annual flowers, and it is also useful when working with spring flowering trees. Some trees flower very early, and if your area experiences late frosts regularly, it is better to choose later-flowering varieties of these plants, to avoid that late frost, so your flower buds will not be damaged or killed.
The Type of Soil You Have
Some plants are not choosy about the kind of soil they grow in. Others are, and it really helps to know what kind of soil you have. There are four basic types of soil – sand, silt, loam and clay. These reflect the sizes of the grains of minerals in your soil. Sandy soils drain well, but are often dry, and may lack important nutrients. Clay soils are rich in nutrients, but they are often either too wet or too dry for good plant growth. Silty soils have fewer nutrients, and often also drain badly. Loam soils are the best – like the baby bear’s bed – and are the easiest to garden in. If you know your soil type, then you can plan how to make it better, and also what plants will thrive. It’s easy to check your soil type, and we will make this the subject of a blog in the near future. Keep an eye out for it!
Your Garden Soil pH
This is a measure of the balance between acid and alkali in your soil. For many plants it doesn’t matter too much, but for some plants, notable rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias, it does. These plants need acid soil, while some other plants, like flowering cherry trees, do better in alkaline soil. This measure is called the pH (pronounced as two letters – ‘P’ and ‘H’, not as ‘F’) of your soil, and neutral is the number 7. Numbers below 7 are acid, those above are alkaline. Most soil will have a number somewhere between 4.5 and 8.0. A soil with a pH of 6.5 is considered ideal for most plants, but acid-loving plants prefer something closer to 5.5.
You can pick up a simple kit or electronic probe at most hardware stores or garden centers. Check your soil in several places, as it may vary, especially if you have a large garden. Once you know this magic number, you can choose plants that enjoy the soil you have. Although it is possible to make some changes to your soil pH, it is better to choose plants that thrive in what you have, rather than try to change it. It is easier, and sometimes worthwhile, to raise the pH a little. It is much harder, and rarely successful in the long-term, to lower it. If you want to grow acid-loving plants in an alkaline garden, it is easier to do that in pots, using suitable soil, than it is to modify your garden soil.
Your Garden Orientation
If you know the compass directions in your garden, it is easier to see where the shade is. Most smartphones have a compass in them, or you can find a free app. Make a simple sketch of your garden, and hold the compass over it, so that you can mark north, south, east and west on your plan. If your garden is open, with few trees, then beds that face south or west are ideal for all those ‘sun-loving’ plants. North-facing beds against walls or fences will be shady for most of the year. Plant ‘shade-tolerant’ plants in those spots. East-facing areas are good for plants that love ‘partial-shade’, but some evergreens will be damaged in winter in those places, because the morning sun on cold mornings can burn them.
Knowing the directions is also important when it comes to planting trees. If you put trees to the south of your home, they will throw long shadows across the house – and all the garden in between. You might want that shade, but if you want a sunny garden, keep your trees to the north or east, so that the sun will continue to shine on most of your garden.
If you don’t consider where the shade will be in a few years, as your new trees grow, you can easily end up with plants that were in sun, suddenly being in shade. If this is going to happen, then choose plants for those spots that will also tolerate some shade. If you plant real sun-lovers, such as Crape Myrtle trees, you will find they decline badly as the surrounding trees start to mature.
Now that you have collected these basic facts about your garden, you are in a much better place to make smarter plant-choices – and the best locations to plant them in. Now you are on your way to enjoying a beautiful, trouble-free garden.