In every gardener's lifetime, he or she has the opportunity (or misfortune, depending on your outlook) to start a garden project from scratch. A project that wasn't someone else's botched job or neglected endeavor. A project that is wholly new and beloved to the creator. Planning is the key.
Okay, so maybe the image here is a little...ah, ambitious. But regardless of whether you want something extraordinary or something simple that suits your personality, you must take some initial steps before you turn one spade of soil.
Location, Location, Location (no, I'm not a realtor!)
Assess the space you have and consider all the factors such as USDA zone, high and low temperatures, space, light, and soil. Additionally, think about your own time constraints, perhaps any physical limitations you might have, where you spend your time outdoors, access to water, and impact of the proposed garden space on other family members and/or pets.
Climate: research the hardiness zone in which you live, and determine the heat index and freezing points for that area. This information is important, as it will help you determine what will grow and thrive in your garden. The PlantFiles here at Dave's Garden are an excellent place to find the growing conditions for thousands of plants.
Space: how much room do you have? How large an area do you want to care for? Be smart and start small to avoid burning yourself out with overwork.
Light: if your property has many trees, you'll need to take that into consideration. Plants that like shade or partial shade will do well; those that need sun will not. If your property has no trees, you'll be unable to plant the tender shade-loving varieties unless you provide them with the protection of some shrubbery. Be sure to assess your light conditions after the leaves come out in spring, and during the main growing season when the sun is highest. Remember that in early spring and late summer, the sun hangs low in the sky and is often blocked by surrounding trees or hills. (I learned this the hard way!)
Soil: before you spend any time digging, or money on plantings, test the pH of your soil. Plants are very particular to soil types, and you need to select those that will grow in what you have on your property. Soil can be amended, but it is a long process.
What Shall I Plant?
Before choosing plant specimens, ask yourself some questions: How much time do I have to devote to caring for this garden? Can I physically do what is required to keep the garden up? Who will water my garden while I'm away on vacation? Will children or pets interfere with my garden design plan?
For a first garden, sometimes it's a good idea to begin with annuals and bulbs. They will provide instant gratification and give you a chance to see if you like the design you've made, or have chosen the right location.
Vegetables & Fruit: a kitchen garden is a delight to someone who likes to cook. Most vegetables and fruits require lots of sunlight to do well. The vegetable garden plot should be as level as possible to allow fertilizers and water to soak in where they're needed.
Flowers: most plants grown for their bloom are sun-lovers. For cutting, some of the best flowers to plant are iris, gladioli, zinnias, dahlias, and roses. Flowers meant to remain in the garden plot to enjoy include coreopsis, clematis, lilies, gallardia, black-eyed susans, or coneflowers. With few exceptions, plants with spectacular blooms require lots of sunlight.
Specialty Gardens: rock gardens are fun to create and within a year will basically take care of themselves. The specimens usually only require sun and the occasional rain. Lily beds are fantastically easy and such a joy when they are in full bloom. Better yet, they return year after year. Try a small oriental garden using a dwarf Japanese maple as the center focus. Shade gardens are gorgeous if the conditions are right: plenty of moist shade, good drainage, and plenty of air circulation to prevent mold and rot.
Where do you spend your time outdoors? Don't waste time and money planting an area that you can't see from most areas of your yard. An elaborate flowerbed along the back of the house won't give you much pleasure.
Where is the hose hook-up? You need to be able to water freely and often, with ease.
If you don't have room to dig permanent flower beds, try using arrangements of containers to form an above ground garden.
For areas where soil is so poor or unworkable, build raised beds for your garden plots. (These are easier on the back too.)
A brand new garden can be a real challenge, but also a joy. Take the time to prepare so you'll have a finished creation you'll love.
About Toni Leland
Toni Leland has been writing for over 20 years. As a spokesman for the Ohio State University Master Gardener program, she has written a biweekly newspaper column and is the editor of the Muskingum County MG newsletter, Connections; she currently writes for GRIT, Over the Back Fence, and Country Living magazines. She has been a gardener all her life, working soil all over the world. In her day job, she scripts and produces educational DVDs about caring for Miniature Horses, writes and edits books about them, and has published five novels.