A garden is an investment. Before planting, take into account things like your lifestyle, where you live, and how much time you’re willing to set aside for it. Perennials are an excellent starting point for new gardeners. Before you begin shoveling out cash, read these pre-planting tips to ensure success year after year.
Do Some Window Shopping
Before you invest a pretty penny in your prospective garden, it makes sense to visit some pretty places. Walk around your local botanical gardens or parks. Are there any neighborhood gardens that constantly catch your eye? Check out a few nurseries to see what makes you happy. Snap photos of everything you like, and ask questions at all those places! There’s nothing a garden enthusiast likes more than offering advice to a beginner. Gardening books and websites can also be good sources for beautiful pictures and helpful tips. Make a garden inspiration board with all your photos and tear-outs to see how it all looks together.
Take a Look at Your Life
That sounds dramatic, but in order to have a thriving garden, you have to get realistic about what you can handle. If you work long hours and are carting around kids all weekend long, you may need to limit yourself to low-maintenance perennials like catmint, switchgrass, hosta, or yucca. (Look to the landscaping of local businesses for some guidance — they usually have beds stocked with lower-maintenance plants.) You may also want to invest in automatic sprinklers to make life easier on both you and your garden.
Consider Your ZIP Code
You know the old saying, “Location, location, location.” Where you and your property are on the USDA Hardiness Zone map will help you figure out which perennials will likely thrive. You should also consider what your summers are like. Do you get a lot of rain, or do you live in a city with watering restrictions, and therefore need to consider drought-resistant plants? And when do you typically get your first frost? That can dictate what you plant and when you plant it.
Pick a Good Spot
Here again, location is everything. What direction does the plant bed face? A north-facing garden isn’t going to get much sun come winter. Is it close to where the kids play? Do your pets like to run around that area? Does rainwater pool there, or does frost tend to collect there? Is it near a stream or pond that floods? How close is it to a water source? If it’s far, are you going to be OK regularly hauling watering cans there? (Spoiler alert: You’re not.)
Take Your Architecture and Views Into Account
You certainly don’t have to take your cues from the style of your house, but the cohesion can be nice. If you live in a cottage, consider an English-cottage style garden. If you live in something more contemporary, you may like a clean Japanese or modernist garden. Visit some houses similar to yours and take note of what you like and don’t like. Also, think about how much of the garden you can observe from the house. The more you can see your garden from inside, the less likely you’ll be to neglect it.
Perennials are classified by how much sun they need, whether that’s full sun, partial sun, partial shade, or full shade. Once you know how sunny or shady your spot is, you’ll be able to make site-specific selections.
If your soil has a lot of rocks, you’ll need to devote time and money to get rid of them. You’ll need to assess if it’s full of clay or sand, as that will affect what you need to add to improve drainage. Determine how acidic the soil is, too, in order to predict which perennials have the best chance to thrive there.
Contain Your Excitement
There’s no shame in the container gardening game. It has lots of advantages, not the least of which is that you can drag pots inside when bad weather looms. It’s also a great alternative for folks who are short on yard space. For dramatic looking pots, follow the “thriller, filler, spiller” motto: Combine a tall plant (the thriller) like common sage with a lower-growing filler like a Shasta daisy and a third that will spill out of the pot, like creeping Jenny.
Stock up on the basics: a watering can, wheelbarrow, watering hose, sprinkler, hoe, spade, hand trowel, shears, rake, and gloves.
Read the Signs
In addition to knowing the “common name” for a plant, it’s best to know the plant’s scientific name, aka its genus and species, too; what you think of as “Coral Bells,” someone else might call something else. Plant labels will note the scientific name; in this case, “Heuchera” is the genus and “sanguinea” is the species name. In addition, the plant breeder will often give a flower a fun cultivar name (i.e. “White Cloud,” “Chatterbox,” “Carnival Limeade”). But wait! Labels offer even more information — sun exposure needed, ideal USDA zones for hardiness, the expected size of the plant, how much space to leave between plants, care and watering instructions, as well as any other special features.
Make a Plan
Once you’ve done your homework, think about the style of garden you want. You can go monochromatic or pick a color palette. You should also consider creating seasonal interest. Draw out your plan with all your picks so that when you head out to shop, you know what to buy rather than becoming overwhelmed and later suffering from buyer’s remorse.
Easy Does It
These beginner-friendly perennials will have you looking like a pro.
- Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia): Zones 3 to 9 — It likes full sun and doesn’t require a ton of water.
- False Indigo (Baptisia australis): Zones 3 to 9 — While it grows slowly, this sun lover is drought-resistant.
- Peony (Paeonia): Zones 2 to 0 — Some people have managed to keep peonies for 50 years!
- Common Sage (Salvia officinalis): Zones 4 to 10 — It’s easy to grow, and comes in over 900 varieties.
- Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana): Zones 3 to 9 — This border plant requires minimal care.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, Perennials.