Garden expert offers tips on planting a new flower bed

We have all seen pictures in garden magazines of stunning flower beds full of gorgeous plants, and these same magazines often have useful design suggestions about how to choose and combine these plants in pleasing ways.
But generally not much information is provided about the practical details of how to actually establish a flowerbed in the garden — how to prepare the soil and how to get the plants into the ground and off to a good start. Since many of us are expanding our gardens at this time of year, let’s take a look at the practicalities for installing a new garden bed from scratch.
Getting started
If you don’t have one already, it is really helpful to make a scale drawing that shows the shape of the bed and the positioning of the various plants you want to use. A scale of either 1/4-inch = 1 foot or 1/8-inch = 1 foot works well for this purpose.
Ideally your new bed will contain some shrubs, and possibly a couple of smaller trees like crab apples, which together will create the backbone of the design. Then fill in around these with lots of perennials to provide a ground layer of color throughout the season.
Since the plants at the nursery are quite small compared with their mature size, it can be difficult to visualize how everything will look after five or 10 years. Having a plan will ensure that your plants are properly spaced for their long-term health. It will also show you how many plants you need to buy to achieve your design.
Show each plant as a circle that represents both its position in the bed and its mature size. The goal is to create a full and interesting design where, as they reach full size, the plants will slightly overlap. Juggle your plants around on the paper until you find something you like.
Remove the weeds and improve the soil
Before you start planting it is critical to get rid of all the existing grass and perennial weeds and then add compost to improve the soil.
If you are making your new bed where you currently have lawn, skim off the top few inches of soil including the grass and compost it for future use. (Avoid the temptation to use a rototiller as grass roots will remain in the soil, only to re-sprout later.)
If you are adding to an existing bed carefully turn the soil with a garden fork and remove all visible weed roots. For weeds with long roots, like dandelions, be sure to remove the entire root.
If you don’t mind waiting until the fall before you plant, another alternative is to smother the entire area with black plastic or cardboard. You can cover the area with mulch to make it look better while you are waiting! By the fall the heat plus the lack of light should have killed most of the weeds.
Improve the soil
Thoroughly dig the entire bed to a depth of about nine inches to loosen the soil and remove any large rocks. This is also best done manually rather than with a rototiller (which tends to leave a solid layer of hardpan soil under the tilled layer).
Now add plenty of compost — at least two inches deep over the entire bed and dig it into the top few inches of soil. Whether your soil is clay or sandy, compost will improve its workability and aeration, which in turn promotes strong root growth.
You can use your own compost or you can purchase a composted manure product — avoid fresh manure, which always contains viable weed seeds. Vermont Natural Ag’s Moo-doo is an excellent choice for home gardeners. If you can, get this in bulk from their location on Lower Foote Street in Middlebury rather than bagged, since bagging tends to destroy some of the valuable microorganisms in the compost.
Install edging
Edging helps to prevent lawn grasses from encroaching back into the beds and, over the long run, will be a significant time-saver. Look for 5-inch-high plastic edging in convenient 60-foot rolls. Install it so that the beaded top is just at ground level; once the bed is mulched it will be almost invisible.
After preparing the soil, cover the whole area with a light layer of mulch. Start by spreading several layers of newspaper over everything to stop light from reaching the soil and prevents weed seeds from germinating. Now add a couple of inches of organic material, such as ground bark mulch, which will help to keep the soil moist. (Bark mulch can be obtained in bulk from local lumberyards.)
However landscape cloth does not make a good mulch for flowerbeds. As the plants grow, their roots become entangled in the fabric, which then becomes really difficult to remove. And also avoid black plastic that, after a few years, will disintegrate into long shreds in your soil.
Always choose good quality stock from a reputable nursery and plant your new plants as soon as possible after bringing them home. Position them on the bed, shrubs first, and then perennials, according to your plan and then fine-tune the spacing.
You can buy plants from a nursery in two ways: either where the plant is grown entirely in a plastic container (container-grown) or where the root ball and surrounding soil is encases with burlap (B&B).
Before you dig the hole for a new plant, it helps to pull the bark mulch to one side but you can dig right through the newspaper.
For both container-grown and B&B plants, measure the height of the root ball and then dig your hole the same height of the root ball and no deeper. But dig it at least twice as wide.
For container grown plants, cut off the container, then gently scruff and tease out any roots that are encircling the outside. Place the root mass in the hole and fan the loose roots outwards in the hole. Hold the roots in an outward position as you gradually backfill with soil. The goal is to encourage the new roots to grow outwards into the surrounding soil.
For balled-and-burlapped trees or shrubs first place the intact root ball (still in its burlap) in the hole. Next cut the burlap and wire basket away from the sides of the root ball. However it is all right to leave a little burlap and even parts of the basket wire at the bottom of the hole.
If you are planting a tree, locate the root flare, which is the place where the trunk widens as it connects into the root system. It is critical that, after planting, the root flare will be at — or even slightly above — ground level. If necessary you can add soil under the ball to raise it up in the hole.
Finally, check the root flare area for any signs of roots that are growing in a circle around the trunk — these are known as girdling roots and they will eventually strangle the tree as it grows. If you find any girdling roots carefully cut them off right at the trunk.
Water thoroughly
Diligent watering all through the first season will ensue your new plants get off to a good start.
At planting time, after each plant is in its hole, add some of the soil; then add enough water to completely fill the hole. Wait for the water to soak in, and then fill the hole with the remaining soil, gently tamping it around the root ball.
Now make a depression in the soil all around the outside of the plant, which will help to hold the water close to roots of your new plant every time you water.
And, unless it rains heavily, be sure to water all your new plants thoroughly every week throughout the summer.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and garden writer. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at www.northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at www.northcountryimpressions.com.

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