Starting A Garden From Scratch
by Janet Davis
by Janet Davis


Janet Davis is a freelance garden writer and horticultural photographer whose stories and images have been featured in numerous publications. Magazines featuring her work include Canadian Gardening, Canadian Living, Gardening Life, President’s Choice Magazine, Chatelaine Gardens and, in the United States, Fine Gardening and Country Living Gardener.


August 2, 1999

The cheque has cleared and you've been handed the keys to your brand new house. Let's see're going to need a sofa (can't put the old one in that gorgeous living room) and there are drapes to buy, and carpets, and....

And there's no money left for the garden.

I happen to be one of those garden-obsessed folks who'd rank the garden ahead of curtains (that's what shrubs are for, right?) and a sofa (no time to sit when you have a garden). But it is a fact that for many cash-strapped young homeowners, landscaping is low on the list of new house priorities. Compound that with the fact that many builders still dump clay subsoil from the foundation excavation on top of rich topsoil (probably farmland in its last life), and you have the double whammy. No cash and lousy soil.

What to do?

Let's assume the builder added a thin layer of topsoil and put down sod. An ordinary lawn takes the pressure off, but if you want a real garden down the road you should have a plan of attack.

Begin with a plan of your property as it is now. Make a rough sketch showing the house, driveway, sidewalks, sundeck, air conditioner, etc. Try to make it approximately to scale, e.g. 1 inch = 8 feet. When the sketch is finished, overlay it with tracing paper to try out different concepts. For a 3-dimensional look at how certain effects will change things, take a photo of your house and property, enlarge it at the copy shop, then make lots of extra photocopies to sketch in ideas for paths, flower beds, patios, etc.

Now do the best thing you can do in planning a garden. Wait.

Pull a chair up to the window that looks out on the garden, then spend a lot of time looking out that window. Read books and magazines, walk through established neighborhoods where the trees and shrubs you like have reached their mature size, and where the gardens offer a variety of ideas in terms of design, plants, hardscaping, furnishings and accessories. Don't be in a rush to put a shovel into the ground -- "window shop" to find out what you do and don't like.

Try to figure out how you're going to use the garden. A young family will likely want a place for swings and a sandbox that's in open view, and will probably want low-maintenance plants and soft lawn for kids to run on. A gourmet cook might want vegetables and herbs close to the kitchen door. What about a water feature? A "secret garden" with a rose-entwined arbor? Some way to disguise the clothesline and hide the compost? Would it help your game to put in a putting green? (Probably not, but put it in the plan.)

Sometimes, the property itself tells you how it wants to be used. I spent a few years watching kids, dogs and the mailman ignore the little sidewalk that led from our driveway to our front porch in favor of a worn footpath across the lawn that allowed them to continue down the street without back-tracking. The following spring, I hired a paving stone contractor and marked the popular "path" with stakes and string, creating a sweeping walkway similar to a horseshoe driveway, only for people instead of cars.

While it's very tempting to put all the shrubs and flowers in borders around the property line and just fill the inside with lawn, that isn't always the most dynamic use of the space. A garden that can be taken in at a single glance is not as visually interesting as the one that invites the eye to take a little journey. The challenge, however, is in creating a journey that combines form with function: make it pretty but make it flow.

Paths should be wide enough to accommodate wheelbarrows and delivery men and should actually lead somewhere. Stairs should have a tread-to-riser ratio that makes climbing them comfortable. If you love giving parties, consider devoting more space to hardscaping than to lawn (high heels will always opt for patio or deck). What about building in some storage near the barbecue, so you can keep utensils outdoors? And if the only spot for the tool shed is in view of the house, how about giving it windowboxes and adding a rose trellis?

These are all things that you should spend lots of time pondering before spending money, and possibly making a mistake you'll regret later.

Next time, I'll talk about laying out beds and borders (both formal and informal), including the use of screens and hedges. And in the columns that follow, we'll look at some top-notch trees and shrubs for smaller gardens; design paths and patios using a variety of paving material; and think of some interesting ways to use accessories to create a special focal point in your garden.

  • New Eden
  • Kids Garden
  • Plant a Row Grow a Row