Winter Is Garden-Planning Season

The Hill Gardener – January 2017

The garden of your dreams begins with a good plan.

With the holidays over, the rest of winter will fly by. Don’t miss the chance to follow the advice of American horticultural giant Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858-1954), who wrote, “A garden is half made when it is well planned. The best gardener is one who does most gardening by the winter fire.” Now is the time to just sit and do nothing with respect to your garden. Whether you are considering minor adjustments or a total makeover, taking advantage of the slow season will give you pleasure now and save you time and resources come spring.

The Power of Imagination
Some garden books begin with practicalities when inspiration would do more to fan the flames of motivation. Before getting too bogged down in reality, spend a week or two in your garden happy place. Look at books and magazines, including “Heaven Is a Garden: Designing Serene Outdoor Spaces for Inspiration and Reflection” by Jan Johnsen (2014); and the local classic, “The Secret Gardens of Georgetown: Behind the Walls of Washington’s Most Historic Neighborhood” by Washington Post columnist Adrian Higgins (1994), even if some would argue that Capitol Hill is Washington’s “most historic neighborhood.”

Don’t miss this year’s new book coauthored by Mid-Atlantic native and noted designer Carrie Preston, “30 Garden Designs: Exceptional Designs for the Ordinary Garden.” Preston has designed gardens in the Netherlands for over a decade. The typically small scale of these Dutch gardens and their European slant make them particularly inspiring because it helps us break out of boxes we didn’t realize we were in. The book is only available in Dutch for now, though its copious illustrations will make it valuable and understandable to anyone. To order:

Winter is usually when I have time to read from my collection of 19th– and early 20th-century garden books. Some libraries may have original or reprinted editions of treasures like “A White Paper Garden” by Sara Andrew Shafer (1910), “Planning Your Garden” by W.S. Rogers (1929), and “Garden-Making” by Liberty Hyde Bailey himself (1898). The introduction of “Garden-Making” contains gems like, “The satisfaction of a garden does not depend upon the area, nor, happily, upon the cost or rarity of the plants. It depends upon the temper of the person. One must first seek to love plants and nature, and then to cultivate that happy peace of mind, which is satisfied with little.” Good advice for gardens and for life.

The website, is a trove of home improvement ideas that users can slice and dice according to any metric, including home style, budget, geographic location (select DC Metro), number of stories, and more. For gardens, select Exterior Photos. Without filtering your results, a basic exterior photo search will yield about 700,000 results, too many to be useful. By filtering on DC Metro, two-story brick exterior, my search displayed 334 results. Results are specific projects that usually show several photographs of each. You may save individual photos or entire projects to what is called an Ideabook. I have several Ideabooks in my free Houzz account with titles like tree planters, driveways, and walkways. If you are working with a design professional, you may create an Ideabook and share it with them. You may also search products for sale with categories such as lawn and garden, outdoor structures, fire pits & accessories, or outdoor cooking.

Whether your inspiration comes from another century in analog or from the digital world, you will find clarity from this kind of open-ended searching to refer to later when you have more site-specific information. Next the task becomes marrying the dream with the reality.

Dreams into Reality
There are many forks in the garden design decision-tree. That is why some people seek professional assistance from the landscape designers and architects who see Capitol Hill clients. Many advertise in these pages and in the Fagon Guide ( For more on seeking professional help see my column, “Getting the Help You Need with Your Garden,”

Here are a few basic questions to ask:

  1. What’s your time horizon, meaning, how long do you hope or expect to live in your home? You will spend a very different level of effort on a home garden intended for resale in three years or less, than for one you plan to stay in for 10 years or longer. You will want to be honest about this to keep expenses appropriate to the situation.
  2. What’s your budget? You may have no idea what landscape work costs, but you still have an aspirational price beyond which you will not, cannot, or should not go. There is no ceiling on the cost of landscape work (think sculpture, waterfalls, limestone paving), but there is a floor below which you will not be hiring help and will be doing mostly a DIY project. That number is often around $10,000. This is not a value judgment. Remember our friend Liberty Hyde Bailey!
  3. The third major decision is horticultural. Are you an active gardener already, or do you wish to be? Are you most interested in plants for ornament, plants to create habitat for birds and pollinators, or edible plants whether they are trees (figs, plums), shrubs (blueberries, elderberries), vegetables, or herbs? While these categories are not mutually exclusive, it will help to have some idea of your horticultural priorities. Perhaps you are a plant collector. Some people with small gardens have showcased just one species, like hosta or ligularia, planting many cultivars of one species for a harmonious-looking space with related yet varied individual plants. Hint: this can work beautifully in a shade garden.

The answers to these questions will help develop what designers call the program – a prioritized list of requirements, plus some extras if budget and space allow.

Now Go Outside
Now comes the part where you bundle up and go outside with a measuring tape, a camera, and some graph paper on a clipboard. You can also download a compass app on your phone to check your garden’s orientation. Using graph paper with four squares to the inch, try to draw the space so that one square of paper equals one foot on the ground. If your garden is 16 feet wide, you will draw a line that is four inches across, and so on. Even if you opt out of graph paper, measure your space and not the dimensions on your paper. Note any items to remain, to be removed, or to be relocated, whether “hardscape” such as paving or plant material. Be sure to include the fence in your drawing, as often fences on the Hill have different construction on different sides of the yard. This is always something to consider making more regular, perhaps with staining to create a more finished look and sense of enclosure. Note any borrowed views, such as the neighbor’s giant maple tree, or a church steeple. Don’t be afraid to make big changes. After all, it’s only paper. Make some hot chocolate when you come back inside and see how far you can go on your own with your plans. Enjoy the process and don’t hesitate to call for help, even if it’s for an hour or two. Spring will be here before you know it!

Cheryl Corson ( designs gardens and landscapes of all sizes but has a special fondness for “ship in a bottle”-sized gardens and their owners. She is a licensed landscape architect and author of the “Sustainable Landscape Maintenance Manual for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed,”