The Well-Dressed Garden by Marty Ross

Gardening by Design

Plans and ambitious lists of plants are the stuff of a gardener's winter dreams. Getting it all sorted out by springtime can be a challenge, but you can take a shortcut with a preplanned garden.

Confidence is your first crop when you plant a flower garden according to a well-made plan. Expert designs, and the plants to go with them, take the guesswork out of garden layout and eliminate the exasperation of walking around the yard with a plant in your hand, not knowing quite where it should go. When you buy a preplanned garden, you'll still have to dig a few holes next spring, but you will not have to second-guess yourself.

Preplanned gardens are first and foremost designed "to help people who just don't know where to start," says Jan Boonstra Pavlinak of Bluestone Perennials, who designed 10 can't-miss perennial flower gardens for Bluestone's catalog. The company's preplanned gardens, first offered in the 1990s, came about because "it can be quite overwhelming to be faced with more than a thousand varieties of plants" in a mail-order catalog, Pavlinak says, and "we want people to have success -- to like gardening."

The elements of garden design can be intimidating even for experienced gardeners. The art of choosing and placing plants for long-term success calls for more than some experience with a color wheel. Designers put the puzzle pieces of a beautiful garden together by considering color, form and texture, and taking the mature sizes of plantings into account. They know which plants belong at the back of a border to create a backdrop or screen, and which charmers should be up front, where you can enjoy their forms and fragrances as you come and go.

Designers also have learned to steer clear of invasive garden thugs, and they have the skill and experience to choose plants that will contribute a succession of color through the gardening season.

Professionally preplanned gardens take all these things into consideration and solve a lot of existing problems, too. Plants chosen for rain-garden designs help channel and absorb stormwater; pollinator and butterfly gardens are colorful sources of nectar and food for beneficial insects. Plans for deer-resistant gardens emphasize plants that deer don't like -- so you can have a flower bed that isn't simply a buffet for beautiful but voracious wildlife.

High Country Gardens, which offers 20 preplanned designs and the plants to go with them, introduced a water-wise garden design, with 27 drought-resistant plants, in the late 1990s. "It clearly struck a chord with customers, allowing them to plant a professionally designed garden with a paint-by-numbers format," says David Salman, the company's chief horticulturist. Unlike paint-by-number pictures, these gardens are full of life.

Encouraged by success, the company started working with designer and author Lauren Springer on themed flower beds, such as one for late-summer color, and on designs to enliven the awkward "inferno strip" between the sidewalk and the street. Springer and High Country Gardens also created a series of regional flower-bed designs to attract hummingbirds and pollinators, and they collaborated with the Audubon Society on flower beds bursting with plants that provide shelter for songbirds and attract the insects they depend on to feed their young. Native plants and ornamental grasses are features of these gardens, as they are in gardens designed for High Country Gardens' sister company, American Meadows.

When you purchase a preplanned garden, the plan you receive is a bubble drawing -- a scaled representation of a rectangular, square, oval or circular flower bed on graph paper, showing the positions of plants on the ground. Mark off your bed with strings and stakes, or just with a garden hose, following the guidelines given in the drawing, and prepare the ground according to the directions. Then set each plant in place, measuring to allow growing room between plants as recommended in the instructions.

You may need to interpret the plans to fit your site and situation. "Stretch it out, curve it around -- do what you need to do," Pavlinak says, but keep in mind the conditions in your garden and do not expect sun-loving plants to thrive in shade, or vice versa.

Pay particular attention to spacing. When you stick to the recommendations on your plan, "the plants may look way too far apart, but it's one of the advantages of a preplanned garden -- it compensates for the very common desire to space plants according to their current size, instead of how they will look after two growing seasons," Salman says. Mulching around plants will keep the spaces between plants looking neat while your perennials become established. Mulch also helps control weeds and conserves moisture in the soil.

Early spring is the best time to plant preplanned gardens, to get young plants off to a good start before summer's heat sets in, but it's never too soon to consider your options. "Whether you buy a preplanned garden or not, the designs give you ideas and provide an example," Salman says. You could think of them as recipes for gardening success.

SOURCES

-- Check out preplanned garden designs from: Bluestone Perennials (bluestoneperennials.com), High Country Gardens (highcountrygardens.com), American Meadows (americanmeadows.com) and other mail-order specialists. Special prices are available on some designs with plants through the end of 2020.

-- Better Homes and Gardens also offers several garden designs (free to download) on its website, bhg.com.