Some gardeners have a meticulous, well-thought-out plan. Columnist Tom Atwell is not one of them. p-jitti/Shutterstock

I occasionally read about people making and following a garden plan or taking an inventory of their garden as it exists today, even if they didn’t start from a plan. Plan or inventory in hand, they’ll be able to make plans for what plants to go buy and maybe where they’ll go in the garden.

It’s called organization.

We did that in the spring of 1976 for the first 11 plants placed in front of the home we’d had built the previous year. We went to O’Donal’s in Gorham, because my wife Nancy’s father was a construction supervisor who had worked with Royce O’Donal on some projects. We bought the plants the nursery recommended, six of which we still have.

Five were lilacs, two of which died in the last several years. Fortunately, the other three have spread enough to make up for the loss. We still have two yews that were part of that original purchase, although we have to shear them regularly or they’ll block our almost-never-used front door.

A supervisor at O’Donal’s drew out the plan for us. In the almost 50 years since, that is the only plan we ever had.

Although we don’t have a plan, we do have a method. There are three rows, which we label A, B and C – not really creative, but it does the trick. A is the back row, next to the house, a fence or the encroaching forest. C is the front row closest to the lawn or driveway. B is in the middle.


Tall plants are A, short plants are C and anything else is B.

If I truly wanted to plan a garden before I planted it, I would do what the O’Donal’s supervisor did: use graph paper and a pencil (so I could erase my mistakes). Then I would measure the intended garden area and lay out that area on the graph paper using, probably, one foot of land equals a quarter inch on the graph paper. I might need to tape pieces of graph paper together in order to layout the entire garden.

After that, I’d institute the A, B, C row plans and go from there. At our house, though, we call what we do “designing with shovel,” which means carrying any new plant and a shovel, finding a vacant spot with the right amount of sunlight, and planting the new addition.

When we moved into the house, we had two children, ages 5 and 2; a mortgage; and just one income. We didn’t have a lot of money to blow on something as frivolous as landscaping. Except for those first 11 plants, most of the plants we used to create our gardens came from friends and relatives, primarily Nancy’s grandmother. Our design resulted from our getting a plant and asking each other, “Where do you think this would look good?”

Now, this method has disadvantages.

Nancy and I were weeding and pruning through a section of garden between our raspberry bushes and a lot line recently, and we found a plant we didn’t recognize. Its leaves resembled those of a black cherry, but the still tiny green berries didn’t look like black cherries. (As I’ve said before, I am not a horticulturist. I’m a writer who likes to garden. There are many things I don’t know.)


Anyway, we guessed it was a nannyberry viburnum, which we remembered buying from Fedco a long time ago. Once the clusters of green berries become ripe, I’ll let you know for sure. (My editor points out, I could download an app on my phone that would identify this plant instantly. But I say, what’s the fun in that?)

Having a cellphone with a camera eliminates a lot of the need for a garden inventory. I love walking through the yard looking at new blossoms or other changes that have developed since the last time I passed through. I take pictures; I almost always show them to Nancy, and sometimes I post them on Facebook, too.

But the main purpose of the photos is so that the next time we get a new plant, I can scroll through my old pictures and I’ll know what a good spot for the new plant would be. Technology works wonders when it comes to garden design.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

Join the Conversation

Please sign into your Press Herald account to participate in conversations below. If you do not have an account, you can register or subscribe. Questions? Please see our FAQs.

filed under: