Starting Over: How to Keep Your Sanity While Planning a New Garden

Calendulas, or pot marigolds, and pansies bring a burst of color to a winter vegetable bed.

My fellow plant-lover,

If today finds you in a new home, looking out the window at a landscape planted by someone else, you’re probably feeling overwhelmed, and a little frustrated. Even if creating a garden at this new home is important to you, it will likely go on the back burner until you’ve taken down the crazy wallpaper and rearranged furniture a few times.

Once the house is sorted out, there’s much to do outside. A few of the foundation shrubs are overgrown and need to be cut back hard, or ripped out and replaced over time. There’s a muddy area in the back yard where grass refuses to grow. Assorted perennials are planted here and there. How do you decide where to start?

Light is fickle.

Before you begin to plant anything new, you need to understand the light patterns on your property, and remember, they will change with the seasons. What seemed like part-shade in fall may in fact be full sun by summertime, when the angle of the sun has shifted. This means that those hostas you were in such a hurry to plant are going to be fried by the time July rolls around. Friend, I have done this and wasted three perfectly good Japanese anemones.

Clay, Loam, or Sand?

Soil tests should be done as soon as you can get to the task, so that when you’re ready to put important plants in the ground, you’ll know about things like soil pH and phosphorus. Contact your county extension office for testing information, or order a kit on the web. Unless you have loamy, beautiful soil, you’ll likely need to add a few inches of compost to improve soil structure before you start planting.

Learn as much as you can about your soil, because once you understand what you’re working with, it makes everything easier. You may find that you have brick-hard red clay under your bermuda lawn, but a loam-clay mix in the shady woodland nearby. Dry spots and damp spots will reveal themselves over time, and that may require few seasons of watching and experimenting with plant material until you find something that will thrive. Thankfully plants don’t mind being moved, so don’t hesitate to shuffle things around a bit until something works. Talk to anyone with a “mature” garden, and they will point out the plants they moved around five times before they got it right.

Oh Deer.

Don’t forget about the deer and rabbits that frolic in the wee hours (along with armadillos, voles, and other critters). You may not notice a few nibbled leaves when you’re knee-deep in packing paper, but in time, any deer or rabbits in the area will make their presence known. Animal pests, or the lack thereof, will inform your long-term plant choices, which is critical if you want to keep your sanity once you start to plant all of the things you love.

Here are a few simple tips that have helped me each time I’ve had to start over:

Start Small.

I like to have what my grandfather called a nursery bed (a small raised bed). This area is a great place to stash plants moved from your old garden, or bargain plants that will be useful for future projects. Fill the bed with bagged soil mix specially made for raised planting beds. Once you have your garden plan on paper, you can move this temporary bed to another area if you wish.

One of my first projects at my new home was a fenced area with raised beds (below) where I could grow vegetables in full sun, while keeping deer, chipmunks, and rabbits out. I wanted to take my time planning out the garden at my new place, so building this portion of my garden first satisfied my need to grow things while I made up my mind what this new deer-resistant landscape would look like. Today it overflows with a mix of permanent plants such as blueberries and alpine strawberries, combined with annuals, spinach, herbs, and a few beloved perennials that aren’t deer-proof.

This tiny fenced garden with raised beds was my first project at my new house to keep deer and rabbits from eating my vegetables.

Plant a Container Garden.

Containers are a constant in my gardening life. They are flexible design elements that can be moved around endlessly. They’ll keep your spirits up when you’re longing to plant something beautiful, but haven’t had time to prep garden beds. If you’re so inclined, you can create an elaborate container garden on a small terrace or patio, complete with trees for height and drama, along with pots of colorful annuals, perennials, and bulbs. All of these elements can be planted in your garden in a season or two when you are ready for them.

Pieris, asters, and thyme are planted for fall. The shrub will remain as the centerpiece for a winter container with violas once the asters have finished blooming.


Rome wasn’t built in a day. Remember that all of those beautiful gardens photographed in books and magazines are the result of many years (sometimes decades) of planning, experimenting, and just plain hard work. Choose one small area that is important to you and focus on that first before you move on to other projects. For more help while you plan your new garden, order my new book by following the link below:

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