How to build a perennial garden from the ground up?
May 22, 2012 12:20 PM   Subscribe

Talk to me about building a perennial garden from the ground up. I'm a fairly new gardener, and have recently bought a number of plants online. This worked well, because we have a small but complicated garden layout (in terms of sun/shade/water) and I can figure out specifics without getting overwhelmed. I also enjoy being present in a nursery to see the plants in person, but the good places are a fairly long drive away and weekend crowds can drive me insane. Given a list of desired plants, how do you go about buying them? What is the most cost effective way of doing this?

After some research and experimentation, I've developed a "wish list" for 50+ plants that I'd like to grow. This won't happen overnight, but still, I'd like to be a bit strategic in terms of effort and money.

None of the nurseries have all of the plants on my list. Some have a few of them, with some overlap. But prices aren't the same, and neither is shipping.

Can you think of a way to figure out the nursery with the most number of plants on my list? Can that be tweaked by price?

The plant database on Dave's Garden has a feature where you can see which nurseries are selling a particular plant. Is there some way to cross-search those listings, either on that website or another one?

If there's no tech solution here, how have you done this manually? I've considered starting a little spreadsheet with the name of the plant, a few places it can be purchased, and price. This seems like a decent method for a few dozen plants, but not for 50+ plants at once.

Is that just impossible? Should I send the list to a local nursery and see what they can supply? Do people do that?

It's not imperative to buy them all now, and it would be totally fine to order a selection now, e.g. 25 which are available from one particular nursery. Is that the best way to go?

Any other tips on building out a garden? We started with a giant rectangle of sod, and have basically ripped that out to build a more natural and water-wise environment. We don't have any gardeners in our families and we're researching & experimenting as time allows. I'd be very grateful for any tips about best practices for "building a garden from scratch."
posted by barnone to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Any other tips on building out a garden?

Having spent the last few years doing an awful lot of gardening, I can't emphasise strongly enough the importance of (a) learning about plant propagation, and (b) getting to know your neighbours. Many, many plants can be grown from cuttings, by root division, and by various other means. Right now, for instance, I've a lavender plant that's maybe 18 inches in diameter. From that I could easily pull off enough cuttings to grow another 50 lavender plants, and you'd barely notice that I'd done it. And then of course, there's seeds! Growing perennials from seed isn't hard at all. For a few dollars/pounds/euros you can have a garden full of plants with just a little patience. I almost never go out and buy ready-grown plants any more - it seems like a waste of money - and if I do, I generally pick plants that I know I can divide up to give me lots and lots of little plants to grow on for the next season.

Get to know your neighbours, especially the (generally older) ones who spend time working out in their gardens. We swap plants with friends and neighbours all the time - people are happy to stand and talk gardening, and they'll let you know what grows well and what doesn't in your soil. Several times I've mentioned to someone how much I liked a plant in their garden only to have them go round the back and bring me out plants in pots to take home. Gardening is a great way to get to know the community of people around you.
posted by pipeski at 12:39 PM on May 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

Beside what pipeski said about propagation and neighbors, your local societies and garden clubs are good source. I have scored great specimen at reasonable prices from both the Iris Society and the Hemerocallis Society.
posted by francesca too at 12:44 PM on May 22, 2012

I don't have any suggestions for finding your plants that pipeski and francesca haven't covered thoroughly, but I do have a suggestion for building the garden: Take copious notes.

It doesn't matter if you do it in a spreadsheet or a notebook, but record the plant, the variety, light preferences, water preferences, how it can be propagated, how it actually did in the spot where you planted it, where you got the plant or seed, etc.

You'll learn more about your plants, your garden, and have a reference in case you ever want to acquire more varieties of the plant (or plant the same thing elsewhere). Also, it'll help you keep track of which nurseries have the best plant quality and shipping practices to aid you in future purchases.
posted by ThisKindNepenthe at 12:52 PM on May 22, 2012

50 different plants!! no - that's way too many unless you've got enough space where you give enough room to plant a few of each variety. It might sound cool, but its not going to end up being aesthetically pleasing

Don't bother propagating things unless you have seen someone else with the plant, they can speak to the pros and cons of the plant, you have a space specifically set aside to do the propagation, and you can't find it being grown at one of the better perennial growers. It just is not an effective use of time and money. Also not all things grow well from seed.

Go to a local garden and look around at what looks nice to you at that point of the year. Go on garden tours and ask questions, hit up libraries for talks, read books on gardening. Take notes. Really its not very hard - but be patient - don't over plant. You really need 2-3 years for a garden to even begin to resemble what it will look like at maturity. Make sure you understand how big your plants and shrubs will be at maturity. Build in spaces to fill in with annuals for hits of color during high summer (if you live somewhere hot - like much of the east coast - the perennials won't be doing much in July and August for example)

For buying perennials there are usually a few wholesale nurseries that do most of the growing for the garden centers - I'd guess they'll have their tags on the plants still. For example in NY/LI one of the bigger growers are These Folks. Also a lot of times there is a reason why things that look pretty in a book and are supposed to grow in your area aren't being sold.

For general advice - bed prep, bed prep, bed prep. Everything else becomes a question aesthetics and understanding what plants like what sort of conditions - which honestly there are plenty of places to find that advice either from your garden center or preferably, other avid gardeners.

My family business has been designing and installing perennial gardens for 25 years. (of course I haven't worked there in 13, but hey...)
posted by JPD at 1:02 PM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Agree that 50 plants are too many for anything but a someday wish list. I would personally not add more than 8-10 different kinds of plants to my garden per year. Fewer if you're talking about woody perennial foundation plants. I mean, you never know what will flourish and what will thrive in your exact environs.
posted by purpleclover at 1:24 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you checked out Bluestone Perennials? They have discounted pre-planned gardens that come with little planting diagrams. You can't beat their prices and all of their plants arrive in great shape.
posted by Ostara at 1:29 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

> I mean, you never know what will flourish and what will thrive in your exact environs.

...or what will be eaten by bunnies and dug up by squirrels.
posted by goethean at 1:32 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Take it slow, and be sure you really need all those plants. Remember to think in terms of the size of the mature plant. If you're spacing everything correctly, it will look kind of puny the first few years. You may even want to add some annuals to fill in the visual gaps.

I built my perennials bed off orders from 2 different web nurseries for the more obscure stuff, and a few trips to local stores for the more common, plus the decision that even if I'm not crazy about the masses of liatris, yarrow, and ornamental grasses left by the previous owner, they're okay in moderation and will take up space until my young shrub grow from a little 18" mail-order twig to an actual bush. I picked the websites according to no easily quantifiable method. Off my list, a lot of things were flexible ("some raspberries") and some things were pretty cultivar-specific (I want X cultivar no matter what) and some were somewhere in the middle ("any saskatoon that doesn't grow taller than 10 feet and doesn't send up a billion root suckers, but that rules out all the most common") so I picked the two nurseries that got me my 4 most emotionally-important plants, which happened to cover about 75% of my "that would be nice" list, too.
posted by aimedwander at 1:38 PM on May 22, 2012

I really did well when I first planted a perennial garden by using Jackson & Perkins, which provides some great ideas in their Gardens by the Numbers and the plants too. (You can also just borrow their ideas and order elsewhere by clicking on the "more information" option on each garden's web page.) Unsure why they currently show all of them as "sold out" but I'm sure if you called/emailed they could help you out.

Their roses are just gorgeous too, btw.
posted by bearwife at 2:02 PM on May 22, 2012

You don't want to buy 50 plants all at once unless you know what you're doing. Design wise, it's better to have swathes of many of one type of plant, rather than single plants here and there. If I'm designing a garden for someone I use about 12 different plants max, with more variety and unusual things in planters where people congregate. As the garden matures and people start to get a better idea of what they want, plants can be added. If you're in the west, buy a Sunset Garden Book. It has many useful plant lists, some basic garden designs to riff off of, and cultural information of tons of plants. As a gardener we always kept one in the truck for reference.

Local nurseries are almost always better than buying online, especially if they are independent. they generally stock plants that work in your area, and can give you better advice than an online store. Many, many national catalogs and stores sell things that don't work in specific areas. The nursery I worked at would put together orders for clients, but remember, gardens evolve, they aren't built.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:03 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you have a small garden (even if it's complicated) you'll probably only need 25 max if you want the variety - I personally don't like a garden full of the same things, so I understand the desire to have lots of different things.

Then it will be a matter of testing things out and seeing what they do in your garden.

I would start small, remember that things will grow, not work out in certain places, get eaten, etc. Things I thought were far too delicate for my garden have flourished while very hardy plants are just not growing at all.

So start small, this will give you a feel for what works and what doesn't and will allow you to keep your costs down. A garden is an on-going work of art.
posted by mleigh at 2:52 PM on May 22, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice so far. Let's just ignore the number of plants for now. We literally ripped out an entire yard of sod, and took out the half-dead rhododendron. I'd like a few little grasses, some groundcovers, shade plants for the path on the other side, some little rock garden plants, a few vines to cover a hideous fence, a few 'feature' plants or small trees, some flowers and small plants for the front, etc. I shouldn't have given a number -- just think "want to put things in my empty garden" instead of specifics. And I know it won't happen immediately but I'd like to get a bunch planted this summer, for a variety of reasons.

I definitely want to get involved with other local gardeners, but I know that it takes time to build relationships, and because of other obligations (work, travel, family and otherwise) it's hard for me to see that happening until later this summer or this fall. But thanks for the reminder that it can pay off in the long run, and be a worthwhile social hobby too.

If anyone's in the Boston area with some cuttings or divisions to share, let me know!
posted by barnone at 3:03 PM on May 22, 2012

Not much advice to give in the sourcing- and number-of-plants departments, because I have created a most magnificent mess of my perennial beds by overbuying too many various plants, too. What is your plan for dealing with weeds and grass roots, though? You said you ripped out a whole yard of sod. If there's a chance the grass will try to come back, please divert a portion of your plants budget to a mulch budget -- if you value your sanity! I'm always in too much of a hurry to plant my beautiful perennials to prep my sites carefully, and end up with GRASS and THISTLE gardens :)
posted by bluebelle at 3:49 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: JPD know what s/he is talking about when advising to prep, prep, prep the bed. My grandmother used to say, " It's better to put a $2.00 plant in a $30.00 hole than put a $30.00 plant in a $2.00 hole."

Some of the local nurseries here will draw a plan for your garden, of course they want you to buy their plants. It is good if you can build a relationship with a particular nursery. They can be an invaluable source of information. The nursery I use will take a plant order over the phone and call me when all of the plants are in.
posted by JujuB at 4:27 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm thinking that if you just ripped out sod, you've got grass roots and sadly depleted soil. Why don't you work on the quality of the soil this season, and plant some annuals for color and coverage this year. You're not limited to zinnias or marigolds. Try some sweet peas on the unsightly fence, and some sunflowers of different sizes. Ornamental kales probably won't bolt to seed as fast in Boston as they do in the south, and weird old Okra has the most magnificent flowers you've ever seen. One pumpkin can cover and shade a quarter of your plot in a few weeks.

The upside is that you spend very little on these annuals. They build and loosen the soil, and they are dense enough that they will prevent a lot of weeds coming out. At the end of the season, they all go on the compost pile and prepare to be your green manure for next year.

In the meantime, you can start inserting your perennials as they become available, and your garden won't look like a pincushion while you wait for them to catch on.

The other thing is that I have better experiences with perennials when they are planted at the end of the summer and have all winter to be dormant and work on their roots. Nobody ever wants to hear that in May, of course.

On review, JuJuB's grandmother is really smart.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 4:34 PM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you join and hunt around the forums, you may find some great sources for free cuttings. You might have to pay postage.
posted by DMelanogaster at 7:41 PM on May 22, 2012

Best answer: Congratulations! I love gardening, and it's so exciting to start from a clean slate. Hopefully I can help.

As far as I know, there is no tech solution. Maybe someone, somewhere, has created an app for that.. but not one that I know of.

If there's no tech solution here, how have you done this manually? I've considered starting a little spreadsheet with the name of the plant, a few places it can be purchased, and price. This seems like a decent method for a few dozen plants, but not for 50+ plants at once.

I think the key is to prioritize here. Which plants do you really want to get into the ground this year? Pick your top 3 in each category (rock plants, shade plants, foundation plants, vines, grasses etc.) then do a spreadsheet just for those. Alternately, you could prioritze by which ones vary significantly in price. Trees, for example, may vary by a significant amount depending on vendor, but marigold seeds are going to differ by a dollar at the most. Don't worry about putting your commodity plants on the list.

I've never ordered plants online, only seeds, so I've usually just ordered from the most convenient site. I have one plant sale that I go to for all my vegetables, one tree farm out in the country where I buy trees and one exotic nursery where I go and lust after plants.

Is that just impossible? Should I send the list to a local nursery and see what they can supply? Do people do that?

I think that's a great idea. Send it to them and ask if they can do a quote. The worst they can say is no and at best they may order them in for you. If you are worried about pricing, send the same email to a few different places (including online) to compare.

It's not imperative to buy them all now, and it would be totally fine to order a selection now, e.g. 25 which are available from one particular nursery. Is that the best way to go?

I think that may be the best way to go. One consideration is that once you get all these plants, you actually have to put them into the ground. I often underestimate the amount of time this will take.

Any other tips on building out a garden?

Do a google search on "horticultural society""your town name". This will let you know where they meet, when they have their plant sales and who to ask questions of. They can be a great resource for local information, such as "which bug made this hole in my plant".

To build up your soil, you may want to invest in a big bag of black earth. We got a cubic yard delivered to our house for about $120Cdn. This is the company we used: Big Yellow Bag. You can also use compost, leaf mold, manure or a combination of all these things. Generally, going with natural materials will give you better long term results than using a chemical fertilizer.

In some areas, you can get great plants by going to garage sales. If there will be plants available, it is usually indicated in the classified ad. Most churches also have a yearly plant sale. These are the most price efficient methods of getting plants, especially ones that have acclimitized to the area.

I hope this helps!
posted by valoius at 6:22 PM on May 23, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. Good to know I'm on the right track. We spent most of last summer amending the soil with compost and peat moss and mulch, and put in some perennials towards the end of the warm season. I'll keep adding as I can, and fill out with coleus and sunflowers this year. We've already bought bags of mulch and will buy more as needed.

I also found someone on Craigslist who is having a plant sale, and has offered for me to come over and poke around her garden, to see if there is anything else I'd like. Seems like an easy and local way to get a number of specimens.
posted by barnone at 9:03 AM on May 25, 2012

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