If you want to to be able to sit back and enjoy your outdoor spaces once the mercury rises, it’s best to start thinking about your garden plans now. Whether you’re a DIY’er or you’d prefer to bring in a professional, these are 10 questions you need to answer before creating a garden plan.

“A garden is half-made when it is well planned. The best gardener is the one who does the most gardening by the winter fire.” – Jerry Baker

What are your garden goals?

What are your gardening goals this year? You don’t have to makeover your entire yard. Start small with a specific location based on your goals. Here are some examples of goals you can set for this season:

• Add shade trees to save on summer cooling costs.

• Plant a privacy hedge for outside entertaining.

• Mix in plants with different bloom times to get more color throughout the season.

• Fill empty spaces in existing beds where other plants didn’t work well.

• Create a more welcoming entryway that draws your eye to a focal point.

• Incorporate a specialty garden, such as a native, vegetable or butterfly garden.

Whatever your goal is this season, be specific about the location you want to focus on and what you want to achieve.

What kind of light does the area receive?

Before you start a garden plan, it’s important to know not just how many hours of sunlight the space receives but also what kind of sunlight. Morning sun is not as strong as afternoon sun. Plants that need full shade are best for suited for areas that receive dappled sunlight, while plants that need part shade should receive no more than 3-6 hours of morning sun. Plants that need part sun will do best with 3-6 hours of afternoon sun, while plants that say full sun only will need 6 or more hours of direct sunlight.

What are the soil and drainage conditions of the site?

With any site you are planning to garden in, it’s important to identify slopes or irregularities, as well as drainage and soil conditions (loamy, compacted, rocky, etc). Once the soil is workable, dig a hole six inches wide and one foot deep. Fill the hole with water, allow it to drain, and fill the hole again. If it takes more than 4 hours to drain the second time, it’s likely that the area has poor drainage.

You can also test to see what kind of soil you are working with by doing a squeeze test. Again, this is best done when the soil is workable and preferably when it’s damp but not sopping wet. Take a handful of soil and squeeze it. If it falls apart right away, your soil has a high concentration of sand. If it stays clumped together, it is heavy with clay. If it stays in a clump but easily falls apart with a poke of your finger, your soil is loamy, which is the best soil condition for most plants.

The Growing Place Recipe for Great Soil (covers a 4 ft. by 6 ft. area)

• 1 bag of Leaf Mulch

• 1 bag of The Growing Place Choice Garden Mix

• 1 bag of Blended Compost (or compost from your garden)

• 1/4 bag of Espoma® Bio-Tone Starter Plus

Spread and turn into the existing soil with a shovel or garden fork.

Is the site in a microclimate?

Microclimates are where conditions are different in a specific location than the surrounding area.  Microclimates can happen in every yard.  For example, a low pocket can be a trap for cold air and moisture, while a south facing slope will warm up faster than a north-facing hill. Knowing where microclimates occur in your yard will help you choose the right plants for your garden plan.

What is the size of the planting area?

Knowing the dimensions of the area will help you determine how many plants can be accommodated in your garden plan. Look at the maturity size of the plants you’re considering.  Allow enough space for plants to reach at least two-thirds of their mature size. Make notes of existing structures and plants in your garden plan as well. Take pictures of the site as a visual reference, especially if you are keeping some existing plants and hardscapes in your plans.

What are your lifestyle needs?

It’s important to answer some of these lifestyle questions before creating a garden plan, such as:

• How much time you are able to spend tending to your garden?

• Are you new to gardening?

• Do you travel a lot?

• Do you have physical limitations where you need easy-to-care-for plants or a raised bed?

• Do you have small children or pets you need to consider when making plant choices?

The right plants need to be in the right place to thrive, but they need to work with your lifestyle as well.

What is your design aesthetic?

Think about your design aesthetic. Do you prefer a more formal or casual look? It’s also important to consider the style of your house. Think of your landscape as an extension of not just your design style but of the architecture of your home. Also consider the color and form different plants can offer, not just during their growing season, but with regards to fall and winter interest as well.

What is a hardiness zone?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has designated regions based on average high and low temperatures, as well as precipitation. In order for a tree, shrub or perennial to survive and grow year after year, the plant needs to be able to tolerate the year-round conditions of that region. Northern Illinois is in a hardiness zone 5.  You can visit the USDA website to see an interactive map of all the designated hardiness zones. The Growing Place only sells trees, shrubs and perennials that are suitable for our zone.  You may find some of our perennials labeled “tender”. This means they require extra protection during our cold winter months.

What are frost-free dates?

Frost dates are based on historical data and the probability of a frost in spring and fall.  This is relevant when planting annuals. Annuals are not winter hardy in our zone, so they will not come back year after year.  Since annuals are more sensitive to colder temperatures, it’s important to know the frost-free dates before planting certain annuals. The National Gardening Association’s website has a frost date calculator where you can type in your zip code to find out specifics dates for your area.

Some of our annuals are labeled “cold tolerant”, which are great for adding color in early spring and fall, because they can handle a light freeze. Tender annuals, including tropical plants as well as some herbs and vegetables, can be damaged during a spring or fall cold snap, which is why these plants should be planted between within frost-free dates. Otherwise, these plants will need to be protected indoors or under a frost cloth at night if air temperatures dip below 40 degrees.

How do I search for the right plants?

Once you have determined your goals as well as the conditions that will work best for you and your space, you can start searching for your ideal plants. Use our plant search to find trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals that meet your needs and start making your wish list for opening day, April 1.

Looking for design services?

If you would like some assistance in creating a garden plan, our landscape design services will be available starting March 15.  For more information on pricing and scheduling, visit our landscape design services page.