Lawn and Garden

Preparation and Planning

By Debbie Friend, WVU Extension Service Braxton County agriculture agent

Flowers add beauty to the landscape around your home and can be a source enjoyment for you and for those who drive by your home or stop by for a visit. Basic information about flowers is important before you begin making an investment in your flower gardens.

Is it an annual? A perennial? A biennial?

Annuals

geranium Annuals complete their life cycle in one year. They grow, flower and die in one year. Annuals can also include some of the “tender” perennials in West Virginia. For example, in Florida, some verbena may be a perennial. However, in West Virginia, the winter temperatures are too cold for verbena to survive. Some common annuals include impatiens, petunias, geraniums, marigolds, and alyssum. Annuals are often used in a variety of containers and to add season-long color to flower beds. Annuals can also add color variety when mixed in with leafy perennials.

Biennials

foxglove Biennials complete their life cycle in two years. Usually, a rosette of leaves grow the first year, and the plant flowers the second year. Several common biennials that are staples in many West Virginia gardens include foxglove, hollyhock, sweet William, and Canterbury bells. It’s important to plan ahead when using biennials in your landscape. Because they flower only in their second year of growth, you may want to add plants for the first two years. After that, the self-seeding biennials will provide continued color. Otherwise, you may have that plant blooming only every other year.

Perennials

hosta Perennials are often the gardener’s best friend. Perennials are long-lived plants that grow and flower every year. Perennials can be divided and some can spread by seeding. Once the initial investment is made, perennials can provide starter plants for other areas of your garden and for neighbors and friends. Readily available perennials include daylilies, liatris, liriope, bleeding heart, hostas, and many others. With planning, you can have color throughout your garden from spring into late fall by carefully selecting perennials to include.

An important consideration when purchasing perennials is to make sure that they will be hardy for your area. Consult the USDA Hardiness Zone map for help. Much of West Virginia is in Zone 6; the mountain counties are in Zone 5. When selecting perennials, make sure they are hardy to at least the zone where you live.

Search the USDA’s database using your zip code to find your plant hardiness zone.

Bulbs

tulip Bulbs are great ways to spice up your flower gardens. Bulbs are often grown for their bright, showy flowers, and they are relatively inexpensive. They also combine well with other plants in a landscape. Bulbs are useful for growing in beds, containers, grassy plantings, cutting gardens, naturalized areas, and rock gardens and for forcing indoors.

Common bulbs include tulips and daffodils. The term “bulb” often includes corms (gladiolus and crocus), rhizomes (bearded iris and cannas), and tubers (dahlias and tuberous begonias). Bulbs are actually underground food storage structures of plants. Hardy bulbs can stay outside throughout the year; tender bulbs (such as dahlias and tuberous begonias) must be dug each year and stored inside during winter months.

Some bulbs flower in the spring – tulips, daffodils, crocus. Other bulbs flower during the summer months – cannas, dahlias. Most bulbs prefer a sunny location in well-drained soil that is rich in organic matter.

Plants

Plants are available for a wide variety of growing conditions. It is important to do some research and ask questions before making the initial investment in a plant. Often there are plants with similar bloom habits that are available for different conditions. For example, impatiens prefer partial to full shade. Vinca, a plant with similar bloom habits and available in similar colors, is adapted for sunny spots. Trying to force shade-loving plants to grow in a sunny spot or vice-versa will not lead to a successful, vibrant garden.

Selecting your tools

Gardeners need to have a few tools to make their job easier. Many small tools are available with ergonomic handles to lessen stress on your body and to make it possible for gardeners with arthritis and other physical challenges be able to continue gardening. Garden tools can also be adapted to make them easier to use. Tools that are commonly used in gardens include the following:

  • Digging tools: shovel, spade, spading fork, hand trowel, hoe
  • Weeding tools: hoe, hand cultivator, hand weeder
  • Watering: water hose, bucket, watering can
  • Pruning tools: floral shears, pruners

You don’t need to invest a lot of money in tools initially. Buy what you need to get started and then add to your collection as you need more tools. You might want to talk to experienced gardeners to decide what you really need or to learn about the most “handy” tools to buy.

Site selection

Give some thoughtful consideration to potential sites for your new flower garden. Don’t select areas where pets like to stay or where children enjoy playing – their habits are difficult to change and can interfere with your garden.

Think about how your garden will look with other aspects of your landscape. Try to locate your garden where you will enjoy it – maybe just off the back porch or outside the kitchen window where you can enjoy it while cooking.

Flat to gently sloping areas can work well for beginning gardeners, and you want to avoid overly wet or dry sites. Don’t forget to check for any underground utilities that could result in problems when digging. Try not to compete with large trees or hedges – their roots can be troublesome with digging and can take a lot of moisture from the plants you are trying to get established.

Decide how you want your flower garden to look. Do you want a formal garden? Do you want straight or curving edges? Lay out your flower bed using stakes and string for straight lines or lay a water hose on the ground to help keep the shape of a bed with more curving edges while you are doing the initial work on your flower bed.

Preparing the bed

Now that you have decided where to locate your new flower bed, the shape that it will have, and the types of flowers you want to grow, the most crucial steps toward success can begin.

Preparing beds for planting may seem like a daunting task, but taking care with this part of garden preparation can lead to many years of beautiful flowers. A few tasks to complete include:

  • Do a soil test to determine the pH and fertilizer requirements for your plants. Soil test forms are available from your county WVU Extension Service office. The test is free – the only cost is for mailing in the soil test. Your WVU Extension agent can provide recommendations for lime and fertilizer amendments based on your soil test results.
  • Remove existing vegetation: You can remove existing vegetation by digging it out (including the roots), by smothering it (with cardboard, newspaper or plastic covered with mulch), or by using a broad-spectrum herbicide. If you choose to use an herbicide, read the label and wait until it is safe to put new plants in the ground. Some herbicides have a long residual effect and could kill the plants you want to grow.
  • Add organic matter to improve the soil. Much of West Virginia has tight, clay soils. Adding compost, manures and sometimes better quality top soil will dramatically improve your results. Adding 3 to 4 inches of organic materials and working it into the top 6 to 8 inches of soil will provide a great foundation for your plants to grow in.
  • After you have placed your plants, add mulch around the plants. Putting a few layers of newspaper or cardboard under the mulch can help control weed growth. Landscaping fabric will work to deter weed growth as well. Organic mulches are great ways to help control weed growth and improve the appearance of flower beds.

With planning and preparation, you can have flower beds that provide year-round enjoyment and add interest to your landscape.