Author: Alex Delaney

As the pandemic drags on and many of us are confined to our homes, gardening is becoming as popular as it was during WWII. Gardens allow you to create balance in your life. They are great stress relievers. And not only do you get physical exercise, but the focus required also helps clear your mind, and the work itself can create a calming environment. In addition, you can have fresh, chem-free vegetables and lovely flowers for your dining table.

It takes three years for a new garden bed to mature. So don’t expect perfection right away. Think of your garden as a work in progress. As such, you can correct mistakes by move plants around or adding other plants or garden items. Keep in mind, many plants don’t mind being moved, as long as you give them the care they need, but you should not move plants during the heat of the summer, or cold of the winter. Spring and Fall are the optimal times to start a garden or move plants around.

When starting your garden:

1) Determine your preferences:

  1. a)  Do you like formal gardens with clean lines and plants that stay put? Formal gardens utilize straight lines and geometric plant shapes. Think Melania’s new Rose Garden with its concrete walkways and well-controlled bushes. Color schemes are well thought out, avoiding clashing colors.
  2. b) Or do you prefer a less formal garden where paths are curved and natural materials are used for walkways?  The less formal garden tends to have sweeps of color and plenty to draw the eye.

2) Determine your constraints:

  1. a) Is your garden area full sun, full shade, or somewhere in between. This will determine what you can plant. Sun lovers, such as coneflowersor lilies will not bloom in shady areas. In fact, they will likely wither and die, while shade lovers, like ferns and columbine will burn up in sunny areas.
  2. b) Know your zone and use it to chose plants. Atlanta is in zone 7b to 8a with the northern suburbs, such as Alpharetta, Kennesaw, Lilburn and Dallas, in  Zone 7b while southern suburbs, such as College Park, McDonough and Lithonia, are in 8a. As a new gardener, you’ll want to stick to plants that have the best chance of survival, so make sure they are approved for your zone. But once you feel more confident, you can take some risks.

Given our mild winters, some tropical plants may come back even though Atlanta is above their zone limit. Take, for example, Brugmansia, or Angel’s Trumpet. This fabulous, small, tree-like plant has gorgeous, large trumpet flowers. While it has a hardiness zone range of 9 to 11, I’ve planted several in my yard. I mulch them carefully every winter, and they keep coming back. But I am well aware that one cold winter will likely kill them off.

3)  Placement factors: Plants require specific environments. Some are shade lovers, others prefer full sun, and many fall somewhere in between. Is your priority to start a garden in a particular place? If so, you need to know whether it is a sunny spot or is some level of shade. If you haven’t decided on the placement of your garden, determine what you want to plant, then watch how the sun travels over your yard to determine the best place to dig your garden.

  1. a) Vegetables and sun-loving annuals and perennials generally prefer full sun. Make sure your garden area gets 6 to 8 hours of sun a day.
  2. b) Shade-loving plants cannot tolerate sun. While there aren’t as many heavy bloomers for shade gardens, there are lots of colorful options with hostas, coral bells, astilbe, and many spring bloomers.

Note: Some plant labels will state a sun-loving plant can tolerate some shade. But be aware that flowering sun plants often will not produce as many blooms in a more shady area.

Now that you have the basics covered, it’s time to get your garden bed ready.

1) Prepare your soil. Atlanta is known for its clay soil, and few plants can survive without having this clay enriched with amendments. Home Improvement stores and gardening centers sell ready-made soil specific for vegetable gardens and flower gardens. But to really help your plants thrive, consider mixing a large bag of ready-made soil with peat moss and Black Cow, or another manure mix. Your plants will love you for it.

2) Design your garden. This is the fun part. Looking at your prepared garden bed, consider how it will be viewed from your patio, your window, your street. if the garden is up against a wall, place taller plants in back, middle-sized plants in the middle, and lower growing plants in front. If it is in the middle of your yard, plant the tall plants in the middle, and move out from there. This way, your garden is appealing from any angle.

3) Buy your plants. While you may be tempted to grab a wide variety of plants when you go shopping, don’t. A pleasing garden has a swath of color, and the shape of the plants as a unit will impact how they look. Always buy in odd numbers,3 or 5 or 7 of the same plant. Then arrange the plants, considering growth maximum size, in clusters if you like the more informal garden, or in rows if the formal garden is more pleasing to you.

4) Planting time. When you are ready to plant and make sure it is during mild temperatures, take the plants out of their temporary pots and tickle the roots out a bit. Often plants will become root-bound in their pots. If you don’t tickle the roots out, they will continue growing in a circular pattern, restricting their future growth. If you have already prepared your soil, this part is easy. Just dig a hole larger than the soil base, place the plant, and cover the roots.

For larger plants, such as bushes and trees, dig the hole at least twice as deep and wide as the root ball. Fill the hole halfway with a water/fertilizer mixture. Wait until the hole drains, then plant.

5) Mulch. Once your plants are happily adapting to their new environment, there is a final step to take. Mulch is a great way to provide a unifying look to your garden. It also helps conserve moisture and control weeds in the summer, and protect tender perennials in the winter.

Come back soon for our next installment of “Gardening During the Pandemic” when we will look at easy to grow plants for the Metro Atlanta Fall garden.

*Alex Delaney was a certified Master Gardener in the State of Ohio before moving to Atlanta and has spent many wonderful hours volunteering at Cox Arboretum in Dayton and at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.