Swansons' Autumn Project, Part One: The Planning Stages

Swansons' Autumn Project

September is Autumn Project Month at Swansons Nursery and we know that early autumn is the best time to tackle those planting projects you've been meaning to do. The air and soil are still warm but the rains are coming - a perfect balance for new and transplanted plants to grow, become established before winter, and thrive next year and beyond. We've been busy helping you with your autumn projects and now we're doing one of our own.

The parking strip in front of our store (along 15th Avenue NW) was looking a little tired, so this past spring we made a clean sweep. Our fabulous maintenance crew pulled everything out of the bed except for eight mature dogwood trees and rebuilt part of the retaining wall.

We decided to leave the bed empty while we thought about what to do with it (okay, I admit there was also a fair amount of procrastination involved). But now's the time to plant and plant.

Many gardeners have been daunted by this type of challenge. You have a huge area with basically nothing in it but dirt. Where do you start?! It can be easy to become overwhelmed by the possibilities, especially in a mild climate like Seattle where you can grow nearly anything. But there are some basic principles to planning a project like this that can take the terror out of acres of empty dirt.

Here's how we went about our autumn project, using 3 steps that can make any project manageable and successful.

Step One: Evaluate the Space

Until you know what you've got, it's hard to decide what to do. Ask yourself a few questions about the area you're planting:

  • Are there boundaries or restrictions? For us, the boundaries are pretty clear. We have a five foot wide planting strip between a busy sidewalk and an even busier street. That rules out a lot of things (no giant sequoias, no thickets of spiny cactus).

  • Are there existing plants or structures? We have eight mature kousa dogwoods in the bed that we like very much. That means designing our plan around them, and not planting so close that we damage their roots.

  • What kind of sun exposure does the area get? Our parking strip gets lots of sun all morning and into mid afternoon, but it is protected from late afternoon sun (the hottest of the day) by a vine-covered fence near the sidewalk. However, the asphalt and concrete all around heat things up a bit.

  • What are the soil conditions and availability of water? We're pretty fortunate with this project; our soil is good and we have sprinklers already installed on timers to keep it watered for us.

  • How much maintenance are you able/willing to provide? Swansons is a five acre property with numerous planting beds. That's a lot to maintain. We like plants that require little pruning, grooming, or training. And we're big fans of automated watering systems.

Step Two: Make a Plan

This is the fun part. Maybe you already have a vision for what you want your finished project to look like. If not, this is your opportunity to imagine the possibilities. Here are some good questions to ask:

  • What function or purpose do you want the space to serve? For Swansons' project, this planting bed is right out in front of our store. We want it to look great, to be a credit to the neighborhood, and to inspire our customers.

  • Is there a theme or 'look' you want to achieve? Is your personal sense of style more 'hiking in the Cascades' or 'Louis XIV'? Do you want a private sanctuary or a place to gather with friends? Swansons is open every month of the year, so we wanted to emphasize year-round interest. And we wanted a way to showcase some of our favorite plants, the ones we recommend to our customers every day.

  • Do you have a budget? Your budget can help you focus on the priorities. If you can only accomplish part of your project this year, consider starting with these:

    • Improve your soil. Amend poor drainage or tired soil with compost and add mulch to keep down the weeds, retain moisture, and warm the soil. Anything you do to improve your soil now will make the later stages of your project easier and more successful.

    • Build scaffolding. Adding trees, shrubs, or hardscaping elements like pavers can quickly fill in space and add structure to your garden. This gives you something to build off of when you're ready to continue planting later.

    • Reward yourself! Don't forget to save a little room in the budget for some instant gratification. Even if you don't have much in your project area yet, a bit of seasonal color can go a long ways toward making it look finished. And it can give you the inspiration and encouragement you need to see the project through.

Next... let the planting begin!