Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Where to begin...

Where to begin…
Now that weather forecasters have predicted wind chills of –20 for tomorrow, this seems like a good time to think about an important part of gardening and landscaping: planning. Though I have been itching to start work on my greenhouse, this is great weather for planning and thinking.

A recent comment got me thinking about how to begin a garden. Also, I was reminded that I need to start thinking about this, since I’ll be teaching a class at the Montana Natural History Center in May on landscaping with native plants and garden design.

Beginning any project can be intimidating, but it does not need to be. I am always reminded of some advice from my gardening friend, Mike, “you can always dig it up or compost it”. So with that, get out there and start digging (well, not just yet because the ground is still frozen).

My biggest reccomendation is to design the space with you in mind and how you will use it. Too often gardens are designed for the plants they showcase (which is fine, if that is your goal), rather than how you will interact with the landscape and sit, relax and enjoy the space. Include as much seating and places to relax as possible. The more easily it is used, the more you will use it.
Develop a plan
This is really important, but again it does not need to be overwhelming and should not be an impediment. Start with a rough sketch or go to Google earth and print out a layout of your yard. Begin by examining the whole yard, not just a piece of it. Even though I encourage you to start small, plan for the whole thing and you will end up with an integrated plan that works together, as opposed to a bunch of pieces. In the photo above of our backyard, taken from our roof, I was able to get a sense of what was working and what was not- a perspective you can't get on the ground. This view lead to some changes (see below).

Consider how you will use the space
Make a list of what you want in your yard and what you want to do in your yard. In our yard, for example, we have a series of rooms for different activities: dining, cooking, laundry, sleeping (the hammock room), vegetable gardening, potting plants, entertaining, etc…

Consider what parts of the yard are appropriate for what activity, public vs. private space, shade, sun, etc… For example our front yard is the most public and sunny space, so we have a dry, Missoula short grass prairie. Because of its “public-ness” and the southern exposure, it is not the best place to take a nap, for example. This site has interpretive signs and garden markers, to encourage education and public outreach. On the other end of the spectrum is our hammock stand located in the most shady and private part of the yard.

Below are a few photos before, during, and after converting this corner of the yard from a lilac tree, which occupied a surprisingly large space that we did not use, to this hammock room that we (read: my wife) use a lot now.

Determine site characteristics
This can take some time. In our yard, we are determined to not irrigate anything but vegetables and we have been able to accomplish this goal by considering the shade (a surrogate for water), and sun that specific areas receive and planting those areas accordingly.

Here are a couple of photos that illustrate a recent change in our landscaping. There was one patch of lawn that was very difficult to grow grass on- it was in a spot that did not receive shade from the house in the summer (though it does get some shade in the spring and fall). Last year I finally removed it and planted with native plants that do much better.

For reference, the birdbaths and clothesline screen in the photos below are in the same place, and the area that did not grow grass (where the dead grass is) is above and to the left of the birdbath in the middle of the picture.

Start small
This is where people can get overwhelmed and intimidated, don't try to landscape your whole yard at once. Start with a small, manageable size, work with it, plant it, weed it etc.. and see how things go. Like I have mentioned, native plants, even drought tolerant plants, take maintenance and management- it is xeri-scaping, not “zero-scaping”.

This photo below, shows one of the first projects we did in our backyard. We started small, though at the time this seemed like a huge change. For reference, this is the same corner of the yard the hammock stand (photos above) now occupies.
Start digging!
Or more appropriately, start drawing and thinking.


  1. I just loved the hammock stand in your garden. Did you do it from plans or buy it somewhere? Great article btw.

  2. Hi Randy,
    Glad you liked the hammock stand here is a link where you can download the plans for free:
    Thanks for your comments!

  3. Looks like we're living in parallel universes of planning a garden right now, and we have different approaches. For me, taking everything out and starting from scratch made most sense to avoid irrigation nightmares (kill the old plants or the ceanothus?). But it was also a scary (and somewhat costly) enterprise. I also needed a somewhat traditional plan for the landscapers, who rarely listen but will follow a plan.
    In the end, the answer usually presents itself...

  4. Dave- this was a perfect article (post) for me as I plan my first "garden room" in my yard. I have a lot of yard and planning to break it down into manageable tasks was good advice. I am anxious to start on my own project as I have been looking at your before and after pics. Thanks for sharing.

  5. An excellent post, Dave. I love the planning stages--the possibilities can in deed seem intimidating, but it is also the opportunity to create something new and exciting.

    Plus, I am all for getting rid of the water-thirsty lawns and planting with something drought-tolerant. Lawns are so boring anyway, doncha think? ;-)

  6. It was a pleasure to find your blog. The 'about our garden' section could have been written with our garden in mind, only difference is that I live on another continent, so I'm working with totally different natives, and irrigation isn't an issue at all in rain-drenched Belgium.

  7. Very good advice, useful information. Just in time for me since I plan to replace one part of our lawn with grasses and other low-maintanence plants. Thank you!