My idea of fun

Ten steps to a garden the Jones’ can’t keep up with

After all the planning, designing and moving of dirt, these plants are ready for Brian Burgart’s new low-water garden.

After all the planning, designing and moving of dirt, these plants are ready for Brian Burgart’s new low-water garden.

Photo By Nick Higman

I’ve always been a gardener. Always. My mom made me do the digging for her bare-root roses long before my dad considered me coordinated enough to operate a power mower. But here’s what’s changed: When I was 36, there is no way you’d ever hear the words come out of my mouth, “No, I don’t believe I’ll have another beer. I want to get up early to stir my compost.” And that’s not even a euphemism for something sexual—I actually want to go out and turn the rotting vegetative matter in my compost heap. But it’s not just stirring; sometimes I want to pull weeds, other times I want to put plants in the ground or drizzle fish emulsion all over my babies. Mmm, smells like fecundity. I’m 46, and often, I would honestly rather be in my garden than perched on a bar stool. I’m a little ashamed to admit all that.

That’s why I finally decided my 12-feet-by-12-feet vegetable garden, the against-the-house garden, my side yard garden, and the dozen or so big pots weren’t enough to satisfy me. I decided I was going to have more garden than I ever imagined having … and then, I’ll have a beer.

So, here are the steps I took to build my new garden. I made two, but since I used the same plan for both gardens, I’ll write as though they’re one. As of last night, I achieved Step 9. I think these principles will translate to your home. If not, give me a call, we can go have a cocktail and discuss it. And by the way, I’ll be honest here: Some of this stuff is “do as I say, not as I do.” I don’t have any trouble remembering the placement of sprinkler heads, so I don’t put them on every map.

Plan to make a plan. It’s difficult to plan a garden in winter when all the leaves are off the trees, and you and your neighbors are not using the sprinklers. How are you going to know where the shade is or where the damp or dry areas are? It’s best to do your planning in summer. But don’t let your partner use this as an excuse to make you wait a year, a smart person can logic this stuff out. You also want to think about things like what you want out of the garden: Is it going to be something you look at from the kitchen, or is it going to be a place where you drink coffee or play Frisbee?

Chart the course: Graph paper. Buy it. Buy the big kind, bigger than 8.5-by-11 sheets, because you are going to be drawing some very small things and some very large things. I have a different chart of my front yard and backyard, although I suppose a garden planner could do both on one, so he or she could look for areas of nasty repetition. Now, on this graph paper, draw the house, big rocks, sculptures and fountains, heavy traffic areas, paths, sprinklers, existing trees and shady areas, shrubs and gardens, and where utilities are located—everything. Indicate windows, you don’t want a big bush right in your window—unless you hate your neighbor or walk around the house naked a lot.

Determine the amount of sunlight/shade. I think some inventor is missing a bet by not coming up with a light-sensitive piece of paper that could be put out one night and picked up the next to determine how many hours of direct sunlight a particular spot of land gets. I’ve tried to estimate this based on my remembered observations, and I’ve never even come close. Anyway, take your little chart, and mark the hours of straight, unshaded sunlight each spot gets. Highlighter markers over pencil marks on your chart can be real pretty. I’ve seen garden charts that could be hung on walls as decorations.

Remove sod where necessary. Some new houses don’t have lawns. Some old houses don’t have lawns. In some cases, garden planners will be removing someone else’s abortive attempt at landscaping (usually a bunch of rocks). Anyway, make the area nice and clean so you can see what’s going on. It’s much less difficult to tell where the existing sprinklers are watering on dirt than grass. That blank canvas will inspire your mind and help with visualization. Recently, a friend and I went in together to rent a sod cutter. I cut and rolled the sod, and she took enough to do her new yard. It’s a win-win, baby.

Determine water use and sources/ wet and dry areas. This is important, particularly if you’re going to incorporate a drip system onto an existing broadcast sprinkler system. The places you have lawn (on a two-type system) will likely determine the time the drip system will run. Mostly likely, you’ll attempt to find a happy medium between the two, and when you get home from your shock treatments, you’ll change the shape of your garden to incorporate the reality. The driest part of my new garden is actually in the spot that also gets the least sun in the day. Hmm. I’ll need a plant that likes full shade and low water. I don’t know one off the top of my head, so it’s likely my drip system will have an emitter near the dry spot.

Install irrigation systems. I could write a whole article on installing sprinkler systems. They’re easy. A moron could do them, as I’ve proven many times. Converting a broadcast sprinkler head to a drip system is also extremely easy. The best thing to do is go to one of the big box stores or over to one of the smaller hardware stores, like Shelly’s True Value on Greenbrae in Sparks, and they’ll be able to teach you how to do a retrofit in about 30 seconds. It’s like this: Remove the existing sprinkler head, screw on a water-pressure reducer, screw on the little dealie that goes from a three-quarter inch water-pressure reducer to a half-inch drip system; stick the half-inch hose in, drag the hose around the yard to where you want it, and add the quarter-inch hose with emitters—basically, 12 emitters per zone, depending on a few factors like water pressure, distance and amount of water needed.

Create borders. There are professionals at this garden-design stuff—like the folks at Interpretive Gardens or Dry Creek Garden Co.—whom you can pay to help you design a garden. I’m sure most of them can tell you the exact psychological, scientific and aesthetic purposes to borders. Borders can be made with a lot of things: plastic, concrete, plants, tiles, stepping stones, railroad ties. I like borders because my eye follows them. They give a garden a sense of motion, much like negative space can guide your eye on an abstract sculpture. Here’s the thing: Some types of borders can be expensive—like a stepping stone path meandering through the garden. The borders don’t have to be done first, but they have to be planned first because you don’t want to plant your beautiful Burning Bush six inches from where you plan to put borders of big stepping stones or tiny plants.

Choose plants. This is the fun part, but it’s also the hardest part. I know certain plants are going to have a place in almost any garden I design: Russian sage, for example. Certain plants will never get their feet on my property: Plums, for example. (Cheese and rice, this town over-uses plum trees. Blech.) Simplicity, balance, color, transitions, line, proportion and repetition are all concepts that must be incorporated into your garden design. Google “garden design principles” if you need some help with the definitions. I like to choose one plant at a time, but I usually have five or six plants working in my head that I know will be incorporated somewhere. If I’m flush, I’ll buy them and carefully maintain them in their pots, moving the pots to and fro to find the place they look happiest. Think of the obvious stuff—you don’t want the foxglove next to the puppy run or where Junior can nibble on it. You want to plan your plants so some will be pretty in spring, some in summer, some in autumn, some in winter (those red-branched dogwoods are eerie and cool in the winter). And cripes sake, plant for when the plant reaches its full size—how many 60-foot trees have you seen planted five feet from the house? You can fill in the blank spots with annuals.

Install plants. I’m not even going to try to tell you anything about planting. If you’ve gotten this far, you know how to gently pull a flower or a shrub from a pot. I would like to say, compost is better for plants and soil in the long run than Miracle Gro. But that’s just me.

Adjust, prune and enjoy. This is what gardening is all about. Every year, you’ll see things that change, plants that get diseased, plants that grew bigger than you were expecting. Sometime, you’ll have one with an unexpected hue that knocks off your whole color pallet. A friend put a red-themed garden in a brick planter without thinking what the flowers would look like against the brick background. The whole thing had to change. Kill what you need to kill. Do it quickly and without remorse. Move what you need to move. Sometimes plants are mislabeled, but they belong where they landed, and you’ll have to think hard about how much its not-quite-right color requires adjustment of the rest of your little world.