Planning Your Gorgeous Garden

Summer is in full bloom, and with it, countless gorgeous gardens. But what do you do if your perennial plantings aren’t as pretty as you had hoped? Not to worry! There is always another summer ahead, and it’s never too early to take stock of your current setup and start planning next year’s perfect plot. The following tips can help make sure that the garden of your dreams is only a few months away!

Consider Your Climate

When picking new plants, your first step should be an excellent free tool from the federal government: the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Covering the entire United States, the map is divided into color-coded regions based on the lowest temperature typically reached in that area during winter.

Each region has its own number-and-letter pair, where numbers between 1 and 13 are followed by either the letter “a” or the letter “b.” Every number covers a ten-degree range of minimum temperatures, in which lower numbers mean colder weather in that region, and the letters split each numerical region into halves, with the “a” half of a numerical region being colder than the “b” half.

So for example: Harrisburg, PA is in Zone 7a, which indicates a typical minimum temperature of between 0 and 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, Virginia Beach, VA is in Zone 8a, where the low temperature is typically between 10 and 15 degrees Fahrenheit.

Plants that will survive a balmy Virginia Beach winter might freeze and die beneath the snow in central Pennsylvania, so when choosing plants, you need to pick ones for a hardiness zone equal to or colder than the zone of your region.

To find the Hardiness Zone of your personal garden with the USDA’s interactive map, either type your ZIP code into the “Locate” link or drag and zoom the map to your area and then click on your location. Once you know your local Hardiness Zone, check the info on any seeds or plants you purchase to make sure that they can thrive where you live.

Manage Microclimates

Weather-related considerations don’t stop with your Hardiness Zone, however – the unique geography of your garden and the position of its elements can create microclimates that have an enormous impact on anything planted in them. Important factors include the locations of sunny and shady areas, the amount of wind, and the distribution of walls and hardscaped areas.

  • Areas in the sun will receive more light and heat than ones shaded by overhanging trees, keeping the plants in those spots warmer than the average for your garden.
  • Walls and paved paths absorb sunlight and retain heat, which is distributed into the ground beside those areas over an extended period of time.
  • Wind extracts both moisture and heat from the areas where it blows, and strong gusts can damage tender plants.

To get the most out of your garden’s microclimates, draw up a map before your shovel hits the dirt, to ensure that everything you want has a suitable location available. Plastic sheeting can warm and dry soil, and plants that are on the borderline for your hardiness zone can benefit from a location beside a sun-facing wall that will keep them nice and toasty all day long. Walls can also serve as windbreaks, as can mid-sized shrubs or hedges, shielding your fragile specimens.

Don’t forget that an indoor environment is the most-controlled microclimate of all. If there are out-of-zone plants you can’t live without, portable container plantings can be a good alternative, letting you bring your hothouse flowers in from the cold when the weather turns in the fall.

Study Soil pH

Soil pH is another significant factor that can separate success from failure when planning a home garden. A garden is only as good as its dirt, and if the soil in your beds is too acidic or alkaline, that can prevent your plants from properly absorbing the nutrients they need to thrive.

Lower pH numbers tell you that you have acidic soil, while higher ones indicate the reverse. Soil pH typically ranges between 3 and 10, and most plants enjoy very slightly acidic soil, so a pH of 6.5 is often a good overall target for your garden.

There are some exceptions on both ends of the spectrum, however. Blue hydrangeas and rhododendrons are two common plants that require more acidic soil, while clematises prefer an alkaline environment, so when planning your beds, keep species’ specific requirements in mind before you group them together.

An inexpensive soil-testing kit purchased from your local garden center is a good way to measure soil pH. If the results come back outside of the desired range, you can adjust it by adding various substances. Agricultural lime (powdered limestone) and dolomitic lime will raise the pH of acidic soil, while ammonium sulfate and elemental sulfur will lower soil pH.

  • WARNING: Lime dust can cause skin, lung, and eye irritation, so be sure to read your product’s safety instructions before using.

Go Native!

For particularly difficult yards, native plants can be a great option. You know up-front that they will be well-suited for your climate, and by observing them in the wild, you can get a good feel for their optimal levels of water and shade. They also typically require less fertilizer than non-native species and may have some degree of resistance to diseases and parasites, and in the case of wildflowers, will help maintain local populations of bees and other valuable pollinators. Best of all, they’re a perfect way to demonstrate hometown pride!

The perfect garden isn’t perfect without a home to match. If you’d like some help finding the home of your dreams, visit for the best listings in your area and information on how Howard Hanna’s one-stop shopping can make the buying process smooth and stress-free.

One thought on “Planning Your Gorgeous Garden

  1. MSD on

    THANK YOU very much for the USDA Harvest Map! This article is great! I planted Potato plants, which is actually a hardy hanging vine that has a beautiful NEON GREEN to them… however, beautiful beetles and other small “lively” insects are having a “field” day – pun intended. At least they still look Neon Green, that’s the positive note. Will definitely use the USDA Plant Harvest Map you provided and “thanks again”. 🙂

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