Garden Plans: How to Buy or Create a New Water-Wise Plant Design

Having a garden plan in hand is essential before starting any physical work. Garden plans are your blueprint to success. If it is a good one, and we will show you how to do this, To have a successful plant combination requires that you first determine your garden conditions which include things like climate, soil type, and location details. We provide guidelines below and a worksheet that you can use to help you track relevant information. Click here for the worksheet-g.a. Once you have this information, you will be able to quickly narrow down the plant design.

We recommend that you address one garden area at a time to keep the questions and answers tractable as you proceed with the worksheet. For example, address the front yard and the backyard using two copies of the worksheet. And if the front has two distinct sides, one more open and grassy, and the other under some Redwoods, then split them up as you go through the worksheet since the area under the trees is more shaded for example, and you will need a different plant design suited to the shade.

A tutorial walk-through of the guideline below to fill a worksheet for a sample garden is provided here as an example. (TBD)

Use this guideline as you fill out worksheet-G.a:

1. Decide the style of garden that you would like.
Like choosing a painting this is really a personal thing. You can decide by looking at pictures of gardens in books, on the web, and/or visiting some of the gardens that are landscaped with water-wise plants.

2. You need to know what climate zone you are in.
Start from our California Native Plants page if you want more information about what climate zones are, and browse to understand both the USDA plant hardiness zones as well the Sunset Climate Zones for California.

These zones will tell you what plants will grow in your garden. They will be listed on the plant description of the plants at various nurseries. If the plants are from the wrong zone, they will probably die within the year, or you would need to go to extraordinary lengths to keep them alive. And this defeats the purpose of replacing lawns with native plants, which should, if done correctly, reduce your maintenance effort by at least 50% overall.

There is also the question of micro-climate, if you know this, you can write it down. A micro-climate changes how this area experiences the normal weather in your zone. For example, does this area experience extra summer heat reflected from too many boulders, or windy drafts due to a tunneling effect, or stays frost-free all winter due to proximity to buildings, etc.

3. Know your garden soil.
Soil types are sand, loam, or clay. Choose plants that will do well with the type of drainage your soil allows. Santa Clara County tends to be clay.

Clay, for example, has poor drainage, but is rich in nutrients. If you want to use plants that need good drainage, and you live in clay, then you should create planting mounds, also called berms, to allow drainage away from the roots. But choosing plants for clay or any other type of soil is not really a problem if you stick with natives that have adapted to the soil type in your area.

If you live on the coast, then perhaps your soil is sandy. Sandy soil drains very quickly and plants here have adapted to lower water in the soil and obtain or ration water by other means. Fog on the coast could imply that these plants get more summer water from fog condensation on leaves that then drip into the soil.

Loam is between clay and sand in terms of drainage and is also rich in nutrients. These are often formed as silt from rivers and streams accumulate on valley floors and along river banks.

4. What sun/shade level are the planting areas.
You will need to choose plants that are in one of these sunlight categories:
Full Sun means at least 6 full hours of direct sunlight. Many full sun plants can take more than 6 hours per day, but they might need more water to cope with the heat.
Partial Sun / Partial Shade means 3 - 6 hours of sun each day, preferably in the morning and early afternoon. Partial sun means they should get at least that sun, partial shade, no more than 6 hours, and not intense late afternoon sun.
Full Shade is less than 3 hours of direct sunlight each day, with filtered sunlight during the rest of the day. Full shade does not usually mean zero sun. There aren't many plants, except mushrooms, that can survive in the dark.

If the area you are considering is under a tree, then it would be good to determine whether the tree is drought-tolerant or water-needy. Especially if you are changing over your irrigation system, and maybe will suddenly stop watering the tree in the summer. Some trees will do okay with this, but trees like birches and Redwoods in the hot interior do need some summer water to survive. If you know what type of tree you have, you can look up that type of tree’s water needs in a good book or online. A good resource is Canopy, a Palo Alto-based non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the urban forest. To search in Canopy’s database, click here.

5. Decide on the use patterns you have for your garden.
There are really a lot of questions to think about, but don’t worry, the answers usually reduce to some simple things in the worksheet.

• Are there areas you should hardscape? (See below)

• Do you have adequate paths/walkways?

• Do you want kids to be able to run between the plants?

• Would you have a problem including a plant that has some toxic parts like berries or leaves?

• Is this a walking area, so you want to avoid plants that may have spiny leaves or twigs?

• Are there areas where you are removing lawn which still needs to handle some foot-traffic?

• Do you want to cover a view or open one up?

• What colors would you like to include in this part of the garden?

• At what season would you like flowers to bloom?

• Would you like to include natives with edible berries or flowers among your plants?

• Would you like to attract butterflies and/or birds to this part of the garden?

6. Do you want to redesign or add hardscape in addition to re-doing the plants?
The word hardscape refers to features such as stone paths and patios, retaining walls, arbors, decks, pond, or other more permanent features in your garden. You can use landscaping software to help you with this task. Garden design software is available to home owners, just do a web search to find some of them. It is usually a good idea to complete the hardscaping work before you begin planting.

If you live in Southern California, Glen Hampton gardens designs has designed hundreds of residential gardens for many satisfied clients over the last three decades. Glen's garden design philosophy is based on the premise that each garden should be true to its site, while complimenting its architectural surroundings and serving each individual clients unique lifestyle. You can reach Glen at:

7. How much water will be available?
If you do not intend to provide any supplemental water in the dry months after the plants are established, then it is better to note this ahead of time so the chosen plants are sufficiently hardy. Sometimes an area could get some water from a neighbor’s sprinklers, or from a uphill spring or garden that is more regularly irrigated.

8. What is your preference for evergreen versus deciduous plants?
Evergreens typically have more modest blooms, while some of the most spectacular colors and flowers come from deciduous plants. A compromise is also to have a mix of evergreens to provide winter interest with some large-flowering deciduous shrubs. If you are looking to provide cover for a window view to the street, then you might prefer to have all evergreen tall shrubs.

Using the information in the worksheet makes it easier to narrow down on the best-fit plant design. Note that it might not be possible to satisfy all your criteria, so it would be necessary to know which ones you are willing to relax.

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