Gardening Basics 101 from Scratch: How to Decide What to Plant

If you’re starting from scratch in your yard and have absolutely no idea what to plant, where to plant, how to design what your garden will look like, here’s your guide.

Over the past few months Chris and I have tackled our backyard. After renovating our 1800’s Victorian (GUTTING the inside), and doing the important things like making sure a bathtub on the second story didn’t crash through to the first floor, or fixing decades of structurally important wood rot, we decided it was time for us to have ‘fun’. And by ‘fun’ I mean hand digging and removing or adding actual tons of dirt and gravel. I think we calculated it out at around 11 tons total. I’m amazing with a shovel now. Call me if you need to dig a ditch. Or a grave. I don’t know your life.

While a separate post will go into the before and after photos of the yard and details of patios/fences etc, as well as our edible garden, this post is for those of you who have asked “How do you know what to plant!?”. To me, gardens, weeding, buying plants…it’s all fun. As a full time cat lady, I am also a part time plant lady. But trust me, I get it. It’s an overwhelming topic, and unless you grew up in a house that was outdoorsy or you have tried your hand at a few smaller garden projects you’re probably feeling overwhelmed.

Gardening Basics 101 from Scratch:  5 ways to decide What to Plant for success

Gardening Basics 101 from Scratch:

5 ways to decide What to Plant for success

  1. Find inspiration to see what you like: Go on Pinterest, walk around your neighborhood, go to an arboretum near by or watch garden shows on Netflix (Monty Don is what sucked us in and ultimately how we landed on our current planting scheme). More importantly be open to what you’re drawn to. By nature, Chris and I like very clean lines and a modern feel, but that’s not appropriate for a historic home, and honestly, not very much fun for plant variety. Eventually, if/when we move to somewhere that has more outdoor opportunities, we may create a modern space in addition to more full, flowing garden.

We ended up realizing we like English country gardens with a color palate paired with more modern touches and clean lines. If we had to call our garden a term, we’d say it’s “controlled lush”. Lots of plants that roll into each other, surrounded by clean, sharp lines (edging, walls) and within a certain color range (below you’ll see some of our plants- all white, black, blue greens, purples). We were drawn to classic English gardens like Sissinghurst’s white gardens with a mix of Monticello for our vegetable gardens.

2. Understand why you like it: Eventually, you’ll find similarities between all of your inspiration images. Write down the constants. Is it jewel tones? Is it plants with a tropical feel? It’s important to come to terms with the fact that sometimes and inspiration image may be based on an unobtainable aspect that can’t be translated to your current space. For example, if you realize you like the view over the ocean of that patio space rather than the three pots of plants in the image, you’re not actually helping yourself other than maybe you want to feel relaxed.

Gardening Basics 101 from Scratch:  5 ways to decide What to Plant for success
Gardening Basics 101 from Scratch:  5 ways to decide What to Plant for success
Gardening Basics 101 from Scratch:  5 ways to decide What to Plant for success

3. What are your constraints? This goes with understanding you can’t add an ocean view to your neighborhood on a whim. Do you have something you can’t move in your yard like a heat pump? Or a well cap? Do you need a play area for your dog or your kids? Can you deal with a high maintenance plant if you’re traveling all the time? We can dream all we want, but a dose of reality is the best way to create a garden that will make you happy.

4. Learn about your yard: Here’s my example. As much as I want a citrus tree, it’s not happening in Virginia without a greenhouse. It’s fine. I’m fine. I’m over it. You may love some plants, but they will not thrive in your yard. Draw or print a copy of your outdoor lot/space and add the following information:

- Find your USDA hardiness zone: Each area of the country has a designated zone number. On this interactive map you can plugin your zip code and find your zone. A zone number tells you the extremes of temperature in your area. When you buy plants or trees, they’ll always have a zone listed on their tag or within their information on a website. Don’t buy plants that can’t survive in your region. You might as well light money on fire. Also, this is completely different number system than climate zones that you use for your house and insulation.

- Find your sun/shade ranges: Would the area you’re planting be considered full sun? Partial? Shade only? These terms sound broad, but in reality it means that a specific area has a certain hour limit of sunlight. Plant tags also contain light information. Plant items that fit your light constraints to make them happy (and keep you from wasting money). You can find the information on sunlight for your yard throughout the year by entering your address into SunCalc. With that said, it’s also important to go look yourself- SunCalc doesn’t know if you have a giant tree creating shade in a certain area, so use common sense. Our yard contains the entire span of light needs from full sun to full shade. Which is great! It means we can plant a wide variety of plants.

-What is your soil type?: Dirt just isn’t dirt. It can be clay, sandy, a chalky dirt, loamy, peaty or silty. I KNOW. But it’s actually pretty easy to tell what kind of soil your yard has through a soil test. To see ratios of what kinds of soil are in an area of your yard, you can also perform a mason jar soil test (adding soil with water to a jar, shaking it and allowing it to settle). Soil type is important, but know you can also adjust your soil for better planting by adding soil conditioner, compost, grit and other items you can buy at your local garden or home improvement store.

-What are your water problems? Because we have zero-lot-line neighbors (their houses are literally the boundary of their properties that connect to ours), it means water management is a problem. Downspouts pour water onto our property, so we had to do some work to find solutions on diverting water, or planting sturdy plants that can handle downpours in certain areas.

Gardening Basics 101 from Scratch:  5 ways to decide What to Plant for success
Gardening Basics 101 from Scratch:  5 ways to decide What to Plant for success
Gardening Basics 101 from Scratch:  5 ways to decide What to Plant for success

5. Research and Plan: You’ve got your constraints, you know what you like, now it’s time to shop around for plants (before you commit and buy). Being the type of person I am….I made a list and then I made a spreadsheet to see height, width, color, sun and water needs. This helped me make sure I had enough variety of heights and colors throughout our space. Chris created a form of our garden area and we printed several so I could play around with writing in plants different places before committing. In general for this retaining wall area that spans the yard, I wanted to create a tall, filler and ‘spiller’ element. This means that there’s a tall, medium and small moment of interest everywhere.

Don’t rush this step.

We made sure we had a variety of heights throughout our garden to create visual interest at all eye levels. We also made sure our color scheme (whites, silvers, purples and blue-greens) were evenly spaced throughout the garden to continue the color story in the entire yard. Lastly, in our spreadsheet we made sure there was interest throughout all four seasons. This is called ‘succession planting’. It means that when my spring bulbs retire for the season, something else is coming up in that area. And when winter finally rolls around, we have structure or color rather than all of our perennials (plants that come back year after year), going underground.

The garden is a work in process and if we’ve done our job, it will only get better and better looking. We’ve acknowledged we may have to move some plants, maybe even get rid of one or two as time goes on and give them to neighbors. It’s an ongoing design and an ongoing education, but I hope what we’ve learned over the past few months is helpful as you plan your own space.

Gardening Basics 101 from Scratch:  5 ways to decide What to Plant for success

Dietitian Nutritionist. My husband Chris and I create food and beverage photos, videos, stopmotions and recipes. And they're really cool.