Designing a Garden From the Ground Up

Woodland phlox, a native groundcover, has fragrant flowers that are white, pink, red, lavender or purple.
Woodland phlox, a native groundcover, has fragrant flowers that are white, pink, red, lavender or purple. (Photos By Sandra Leavitt Lerner For The Washington Post)
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By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, January 24, 2009

Most homeowners approach landscape design in a way that is meant to meet their immediate need, whether that is screening, groundcover, shade or flowering plants. The proper approach to landscape design is multi-dimensional -- considering interest on ground, vertical and overhead planes.

ยท Ground Plane: Design the floor of your garden based on how you intend to use the soil. Sometimes you need space that is firm and can bear weight, while other areas are best kept light and airy for the health of plants' roots. If a garden is to withstand the test of time and produce for decades, it needs proper preparation and a firm foundation.

Plants do not grow well in compacted soil. Planting beds should contain earth with a loose, crumbly consistency that must stay light and moist and drain well. One time-tested method of soil preparation is to lay three inches of compost and dig it 10 to 15 inches into the soil. If your compost isn't ready yet, buy Leafgro or another ground, fully aged leaf mold.

Research shows that wide planting areas are most effective for creating rooting environments. Even if you are planting one tree, enrich as wide an area as realistically possible. The classic basin or bowl method of planting doesn't allow for proper drainage or root development, and plants will struggle to survive.

"Natural carpeting" is a crucial element on the ground plane. Thousands of acres of lawns are planted for this purpose, but this method is not practical under shrubs or on steep slopes. Use other groundcover options in bare areas under trees and shrubs that are open to erosion or severe weed problems. Mulch is recommended under trees.

Some suggested plants for covering your garden floor:

Canadian ginger (Asarum canadense) -- Silver variegation on some, good shade plant.

Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) -- Native, shade tolerant, pink to white flowers, heart-shaped leaves, some with variegation.

Lilyturf (Liriope muscari) -- Pink, purple or white flowers; green or gold to white leaf variegations.

Pachysandra evergreen (P. terminalis) or native deciduous (P. procumbens) -- White, fragrant flower; good shade tolerance.

Periwinkle (Vinca minor) -- White or purple flowers, variegated hybrids available.

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