How To Start A Flower Garden

Bright  flowers.
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Variety in color, shape and size makes an appealing flower garden.

Imagine your ideal flower garden—the color, the fragrance, the bird and insect life it will attract. That garden can be yours with a little planning, some effort, and patience. Planning your garden begins with a survey of your space and its assets. The ideal flower garden will be in a site that gets plenty of sun—at least 6 to 8 hours per day throughout the growing season. There are flowers that will bloom in less sunlight and even in dappled shade, but full sun will give you the widest choice of flowers to plant and your best chance of success. Pay attention as well to practical considerations, such as where your water supply is located. As you think about your garden's layout and location, you can pre-visualize it by arranging a garden hose in the shape of its perimeter. This is especially helpful with irregularly shaped plots.

Removing Sod

If your flower bed will be in a place currently covered with grass, your first task is to take away the turf. You may accomplish this with a machine or by hand. Because flower gardens are generally smaller and narrower than vegetable gardens, mechanical means of grass removal are usually unnecessary, but for a garden plan that includes extensive flower beds, the use of a sod cutter or a rototiller might be desirable. Both machines are available from equipment rentals. The difference between a sod cutter and a rototiller is that the sod cutter neatly slices the sod in long strips and the rototiller chops it up. When you use a sod cutter, the strips of turf may be rolled up and replanted elsewhere. The chopped-up grass produced by a rototiller must be raked from the garden bed and discarded, otherwise, it is likely to take root and sprout again.

Removing sod by hand requires cutting it into manageable pieces and lifting them away, leaving behind as much of the soil as possible. A square garden spade works well for this. You may additionally want to shake excess soil free from the sod pieces.

Worker digs the black soil with shovel  in the garden
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Mix in compost and PH correctives as you till the soil.

Testing the Soil

Now that you've exposed the soil, you can assure optimal performance from your flowers by testing your soil's PH and fertility. Chemical soil test kits and electronic testers are available at garden centers, home improvement stores and online. You can also get a soil test kit from your county extension office and send it back to them for an accurate analysis. Ideal soil PH for flowers is between 6 (slightly acidic) and 7 (neutral). You can correct your garden's balance by adding lime if it's too acidic, powdered sulphur or aluminum sulphate if it's too alkaline. Before you plant your garden, you'll want to loosen up the soil. This is an opportunity to mix in PH correctives as well as amendments, such as composted yard waste and composted manure to enhance fertility. Spread the amendments on your garden, then dig and mix them in as you till the soil.

Plan Your Flower Garden

Planning what you will plant can begin long before you actually break ground. Considering the range of choices you will need to make, it is wise to begin your research early. There is a reason why seed companies issue their annual catalogs in the winter: this is when gardeners are eager to plan for the following spring. Every flower garden is unique and an expression of the tastes and vision of an individual gardener, and that uniqueness is a product of your choices.

Bright flowers close-up.
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So many choices!

Annuals or Perennials?

Flowering plants fall into two basic groups—annuals and perennials. Annuals go through their entire cycle—starting from a seed, leafing out, flowering, making more seeds, and dying—in a single season. Annuals bloom for most of the summer and are great for adding color and variety to a garden. Perennials, once planted, come back year after year, but they usually have a shorter blooming season. Perennials, chosen well, provide reliable structure, "the bones" of a garden. Remember that just because a plant is classified as a perennial, doesn't necessarily mean it is eternal. Some perennials, such as lupines, are relatively short-lived plants, lasting a few years; while others, such as peony, may well outlive the gardener. Short-live perennials that last only two years, such as foxglove, are known as biennials.

Choosing Your Flowers

As you weigh your choice of which flowers to plant, keep in mind that there's more to consider than just color. The height of the plant is also important—you don't want tall flowers at the front where they would block shorter ones behind. Plan your planting so that the flowers get progressively taller toward the back of the garden.

Flowers come in a variety of shapes—daisies, plumes, spires, buttons, globes, and more. Pay attention to how you mix different varieties so that you get textural contrast in your garden as well as height and color.

Some flowers do best when started as seed and others can be purchased as small plants, known as sets, ready to be placed in the garden. You can also grow your own sets from seeds if you have a sunny spot near a window or a fluorescent grow light set up and if you plan ahead. Provided they've been kept moist, seeds will germinate as soon as the soil warms. It may take several weeks for them to sprout, grow, and bloom, so be patient. If you choose to plant from sets, your gratification will come quicker. Just be sure to wait until safely past the last frost before putting them outside in the ground.

Blooming flower
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A well-designed flower garden provides both excitement and serenity.

Flower Garden Design

There's no single or correct way to design a flower garden—you're designing it to please yourself, after all. It's helpful, though, to be aware of some of the design principles at play:

  • Harmony. Choose colors that work well together. Even if you want your garden to make a single strong color statement, a little variation within that color range is more interesting and more pleasing than a uniform flat color.
  • Contrast. Too much sameness can get tedious. Think about ways you can build color and textural surprises into your overall design theme.
  • Rhythm. Good design excites the eye but also provides it places to rest. Plan your flower garden so that some areas grab your attention and some areas are quieter.

Keeping a Garden Journal

Garden designs evolve from year to year. The flowers you choose for your new garden will go through a full season, and some will please you and some will disappoint you. Some may not thrive in your soil or under your light conditions. Some may bloom too early or too late or too briefly. That's why it's a good idea to keep a garden journal. With a garden journal, you can keep track of what you planted, when, and where. If you started plants from seeds, you can record when you started them and when they were ready to plant. The next year you'll know if you need to adjust your timing.

Gardeners are always alert to ways they can improve their garden next year. Unsuccessful annuals get replaced with promising alternatives. Perennials that don't suit their location get moved, or removed and replaced. There are too many details about how the flower garden unfolded through the summer to ever expect to remember them all through the fall and winter. A well-kept garden journal can provide the answers.


Bill Nelson

Bill Nelson

A former agency art director then freelance designer, illustrator and copywriter, Bill has written for the medical, technical, industrial, food and agricultural industries. With over 35 years experience in the area of home improvement. He has produced books on multiple subjects for Home Depot, The Handyman Club of America, Hometime, Black & Decker and Popular Mechanics.