The cottage garden at Old Westbury Gardens.

The cottage garden at Old Westbury Gardens. Credit: Vince Kish

There's little more satisfying than walking past sweetly scented, colorful garden beds en route to your front door. It doesn't matter how beautiful your house is, without a garden it just looks barren.

The great thing about perennials is that once they're planted, they return year after year, so not only do you get your money's worth, but you don't have to spend time and effort installing new plants every spring. And if you choose the right perennials, they can get by with very little care and water once they're established.

The first thing you need to decide before planting is whether you want a bed or a border. Simply put, borders are viewed from only one side -- the front. Usually, they're situated up against a house or a fence. Beds are visible from all sides, that is, you can walk completely around them. You might have a bed in the center of your lawn or use one to divide areas of the yard into separate "rooms." 

Find the right spot
Naturally, you'll want to situate your garden in a highly visible spot, where you'll be able to enjoy it every day. Maybe you'd like to enhance the view from your kitchen window so you'll feel better about washing dishes.

You might want to pretty up the front walkway or beautify the street view of the house. Consider, too, replacing grass in the "hell strip," the area between the sidewalk and the street, with tough, drought-tolerant plants that will defy its reputation as a difficult spot to grow plants.

Once you've determined a planting area, you'll need to consider sunlight. Observe the area throughout the day, taking note of shadows cast by trees, houses and other structures. If the area receives six or more hours of direct sunlight a day, it can be considered a sunny spot. If the area is sunny in the morning but shady in the afternoon, you'll need to select plants suited for a shady garden.

For areas in between, such as those that receive indirect sunlight filtered through a tree canopy all day, go with plants that are labeled for part shade. Also assess whether the soil remains soggy after a rainfall or if the drainage is good; some plants hate wet feet, or soggy roots, while others cannot tolerate dry conditions. Your observations will help you select the right plants for the right place. 

Check the soil
Before planting anything, it's imperative to conduct a soil pH test. The hard truth is that it really doesn't matter how much fertilizer you apply: If the soil's pH isn't in the right range for your plants, they won't thrive. That's because each plant requires a specific pH (generally 6.0-7.0 for most perennials) to absorb nutrients, even if those nutrients are present in ample supply.

Do-it-yourself test kits are widely available, but it would be much better to take soil samples to the Cornell Cooperative Extension office nearest your home and have the master gardeners there test it for you for a small fee. The benefit is that the test results will come with their expert recommendations for amending the soil to meet the exact requirements of what you plan to plant in the area. (Get more details from the CCE by calling 516-228-0426 in Nassau, 631-727-7850 in Suffolk.) 

Design the shape
While awaiting your test results, experiment with the layout of your proposed bed or border by outlining it with a garden hose before digging. Leave the hose in place for a few days so you can consider it from every angle, and adjust it as you see fit.

If you're a formal-garden type, keep lines straight and shapes symmetrical. If you prefer an informal look, experiment with curving, asymmetrical shapes. If the area is small enough, dig up weeds or grass inside the planting area, and till to 12 inches deep. Otherwise, spray it with a weed-and-grass killing product, taking care to follow label instructions precisely (more is not better). Vegetation should be dead and easily raked up in a week or two, at which point you should till the soil as recommended above. 

Add compost
After adjusting the soil pH according to your test results (by adding lime, etc., if indicated), there's another important amendment you must not overlook: compost.

Nicknamed black gold, compost is rich in just about every macro- and micronutrient your plants will need, including some not present in synthetic fertilizers; it improves the water-holding capacity of sandy soil, the drainage of clay, and even the soil's structure; it supports beneficial insects and earthworms; it keeps roots healthy, diminishes the need for fertilizers and can even cut down on harmful pests and plant diseases. Do not skip this step, as you only have one chance to improve your soil with organic matter and that's before planting anything in it.

Once plants are installed, it becomes very difficult to work around them without disturbing their roots, and top-dressing becomes the most practical, but not ideal, method of incorporating compost. Since you're starting with a clean slate, take advantage of the opportunity to mix compost into at least the top 6 inches of soil. This should be very easy to do since you will already have tilled the area. 

Check plant requirements
When determining what to plant in your new beds and borders, take into account what appeals to you as well as the characteristics you learned about the site during your observations. Browse through garden catalogs and visit nurseries, taking note of information on plant tags concerning sunlight and watering requirements, bloom times and hardiness zone suitability.

Plants sold in the perennials section of local nurseries should be appropriate for Long Island gardens, most of which are in Zone 7 on the USDA hardiness map (the exception is a small area around the pine barrens, which falls under Zone 6). The lower the zone number, the cooler the region, so if a plant is labeled as hardy to Zone 7 or below, you can safely assume it will survive our winters.

Purchasing plants from a reputable garden center will increase your odds of success. Observe how plants are displayed and cared for. Are they wilting in the sun? Are they watered regularly? Don't buy unlabeled plants because the variety or color could be different from you expect.

Though you might be lured by plants in full bloom, it's possible they were shipped from a grower in another state, and chances are they could be ending their seasonal cycle. Choose plants with unopened buds instead. Look at the soil inside the container and avoid loosely packed plants that appear to have been freshly potted; they might have a weak root system. Choose stocky, full, multi-stemmed plants versus sparse ones. 

Check the roots
To ensure plants aren't root-bound, turn pots over and check that roots aren't growing out of drainage holes. Next, gently slip the plant out of the pot and examine the roots. You should see a nicely spaced stringy root system; if you see a tangled mess of roots encircling themselves, buy a different plant.

Roots should be cream-colored, not yellow or brown. Finally, to save money, compare the cost of purchasing a thriving larger plant that can divided into two or more with that of buying several smaller ones. 

Spring, summer, fall
Be aware, too, that most plants available for sale now will be spring bloomers. Avoid the temptation to plant all at once, or you'll have a spring-only-blooming garden for years to come. With some  planning, you could leave spaces in your beds and borders and fill them in as the season progresses and later bloomers become available.

When you bring your plants home, set the pots in your prepared bed or border, respecting the spacing recommended on the plant tag. To avoid turning your garden into a jumble, place plants in drifts, odd-numbered groups of three, five or seven of the same plants, as opposed to alternating plants by variety or using just one of each. And repeat the same groupings in two or three areas for continuity. Instead of straight lines, try triangle patterns or a scattered fashion for a more natural look.

Take note of each plant's projected size at maturity and arrange accordingly. For beds, situate the tallest plants in the center, surrounded by medium-height plants, with the shortest ones around the perimeter.

For borders, plant the tallest plants in the back, and use the shortest as edging in front. You can taper down from the center, too, if you like. Also consider bloom times, as foliage from early bloomers can be successfully hidden by later-flowering plants placed in front.

Water when you plant
Once you're happy with the arrangement, water each plant in its pot and twist the pot into the soil to make an impression. Starting at the back of the border or center of the bed, remove the first pot and dig a hole twice as wide as the impression, taking care to dig exactly as deep as the pot

Gently loosen the root ball with your fingers to encourage roots to grow outward into the soil, and place the plant into the hole, tamping the soil firmly with your foot to eliminate any air pockets. Continue planting, moving your way forward from the back of the border to avoid stepping on or otherwise damaging plants (for beds, work outward from the center and then walk around to the other side and repeat.)

Water each plant thoroughly right after planting, and apply a slow-release high-phosphorus fertilizer (look for the center number in the N-P-K ratio to be the highest of the three) to support healthy establishment of the root system.

Apply two or three inches of mulch around plants to retain water and keep soil temperature even and weeds at bay, but don't cover the crowns. Water daily for the first week or two, adjusting for rainfall, after which a weekly deep watering should suffice throughout the first season, except for during periods of drought.

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