What better way to begin the New Year than with planting (or at least dreaming about) a new garden? For some of us, a new garden could mean completely re-doing an existing large-scale landscape; making a few minor though significant improvements (such as filling in planting beds, more efficient irrigation or new lighting) or it could involve something as simple (though still quite beautiful) as putting a few new colorful pots on a patio or balcony to enjoy with a morning cup of tea.
Whether your project costs $50, or $50,000 we can apply some of the same core principals:
1. Know your site – take note of sunlight hours, irrigation sources and potential pest infestations before you begin. This should inform the kinds of plants your plan to install. If you are unsure, ask a neighbor whose garden you admire what worked for them, or visit a website or nursery where experts can direct you. Of course you can hire a designer, but that is not always necessary.
2. Know yourself! – how much time do you want to spend on the project? This includes the design, the installation and the maintenance. You may love to spend an hour a day in the garden as a means of relaxation, or it may be worth your while to pay someone else to do the ‘dirty work’ so you can enjoy the final product when you get home from a long day at work. If you are honest with yourself about what you can and cannot do, then you can outsource if necessary to make sure your garden improves over time, instead of deteriorates. I’ve seen it so many times – a garden is only as good as its maintenance. It is no fun to go to the trouble and expense of creating something beautiful only to see it wilt because no one thought about long term watering, weeding, composting and trimming.
3. Know your budget. No, really, know your budget. As a landscape designer for the past 15 years, people’s eyes are often bigger than their stomachs. In this case, of course I mean that it’s wonderful to look at fancy magazines to get ideas, but if you have a specific budget, it’s best to be realistic so that you aren’t disappointed with the end product, or end up not getting to finish at all. The garden is supposed to be a source of enjoyment and beauty, not resentment and regret. Don’t forget, it also doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can deliberately plan it in stages over months or even years. Often we can get what we want if we are will to be patient with the timeframe – and more than anything, a garden teaches patience!
4. Consider a “mixed-function” garden. By that I mean consider planting both ornamentals and edibles. Here at The Edible Apartment (TEA), we grow dozens of vegetables, greens and herbs alongside flowering plants that are native to our zone here in California. That way we can eat our yards while also enjoying something beautiful to look at. You hardly need to go to the market when you have a grocery store of organic, just-picked produce right outside your front door.
5. Employ low-impact installation and maintenance methods. At The Edible Apartment, we sheet mulch all of our existing landscapes before planting. That means we cover the existing site (typically an underutilized lawn) with overlapping sheets of cardboard (given to us for free by nearby stores), then we water the cardboard, then we cover it with fresh organic soil and compost. After that, you’re ready to plant right on top! It’s low impact and actually improves your soil’s health because once the cardboard decomposes, it adds more nitrogen into the soil. I’d also suggest rain barrels to collect and re-use rainwater, drip irrigation and mulching on top of the soil to prevent evaporation. These are some of the methods we employ here in Los Angeles, where water is scarce, but our desire for beauty and fresh produce is not!
6. Compost. For the novice (or even experienced) gardener, this may seem like some ‘out there’ science experiment, but trust me, it works, it’s easy and it’s actually fun. Get a large container to put all of your kitchen scraps, grass cuttings and brown leaves into, and turn it with a fork or shovel a couple times a week. In no time, last season’s banana peel will be next month’s handful of ‘black gold,’ aka the most nutrient dense (homemade and free!) soil on the planet.
I hope that whatever the style and scale of your landscape, you’ll give a little thought to your project so that you can enjoy it for years to come. Gardening can be a bit intimidating if you are just starting out, but it doesn’t have to be. I once heard a talented and seasoned landscaper say: “The best gardeners are the ones that have killed the most plants because they weren’t afraid to go through a bit of trial and error to find out what works.” I suppose this is true of life both in and out of the garden.