Calgary Horticultural Society: Some Smart Tips: Before You Plant, Start With a Plan



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When it comes to landscaping, the theme of your garden should reflect your personal style. Go outside and take a good look at your property. Mark the boundaries if they are unclear. Use a compass to get the orientation of the house. Check which parts of the yard get sunny at different times of the day. Remember where the snow has accumulated during the winter. Take photos. Review the needs of your specific garden (s). Is the vegetable garden in the sunniest place? Is your water supply accessible? Stand with your favorite garden view and make a wish list.


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Successful gardening revolves around the use of space, not the use of plants. Good design primarily concerns garden users. Plan and design according to your needs and let the garden grow around you.

Hardscape and softscape

The landscaping elements must manage traffic and provide comfortable recreational spaces. The hard landscaping defines the garden with distinct lines and includes all of the non-organic design elements such as patios, fences, and walkways. Always install the hardscape before the softscape, even if you can’t afford it right away. For example, lay gravel and sand until you can afford the slabs or concrete for the patio.

Softscape comes next. This includes all plant material that softens and complements the landscaping. The gentle landscaping continues to grow and change the shape of the yard. Calgary is known for its microclimates, which are mini climate zones in your backyard that differ from the surrounding area. Take the opportunity to choose and position your plants. Proximity to water may cool the room temperature or add moisture. Near the house, more heat is retained, allowing tender plants to thrive. And on a southern slope, the plants will thrive in a hot, bright sun.


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Avoid the pitfalls of softscaping: making your flower beds too small and growing more plants than you want to maintain. Landscapes that “intimidate” you by requiring constant pruning, mowing, fertilizing and watering need to be replaced or modified.

Wide beds with ample curves.  Courtesy of Winston Goretsky
Wide beds with ample curves. Courtesy of Winston Goretsky Calgary

Create new beds

Flower beds should be at least two feet wide to give the plants enough space to spread naturally. Lay a pipe to indicate where you would like your new beds, or use flour dripping from a bottle of wine. (Drink the wine first, to celebrate gardening!) Be generous with the curves – the ample curves give a feeling of infinity, while the small curves give a bed a bumpy look. Raise the beds at least 10 cm above the ground, with a low height towards the middle. Remove the sod with an edging tool, shovel or machine. Start by cutting along the pipe or around the flour, working your way into the new bed. Cut the grass about six cm deep into long horizontal strips spaced about eight inches apart. Then cut each long strip into small “bricks” that you can lift easily. Use the bricks to amend other parts of the lawn or stack them upside down to break them down into compost. Amend the new bed with 10 to 15 cm of topsoil. If you cut down your lawn a lot, you can suffocate the grass by covering it with thick layers of newspaper and watering it thoroughly to keep it from blowing up. Place the soil on the newspaper, then cut the newspaper as you plant.


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Build your soil

Digging, plowing and even stepping on it damages the soil structure, reducing drainage. It can take years for the soil to regain its structure. It is better to buy a few cubic meters of good quality topsoil and lay it on it. Then dig only where you are planting. Let nature and earthworms integrate the layers. Plowing and even hoeing can tear apart the delicate maze of fungi that “mine” the soil for water and nutrients and pass them on to plant roots. Plants served by fungi have better root formation, less root disease, require less water and fertilizer, and exhibit increased salt tolerance.

Before buying any plants, check your soil type. Is it light and sandy, or heavy with clay? Many plants do better with one type than the other. Clay soil is the bane of the Calgary gardener. It contains more nutrients but is difficult to work with, and too much clay results in poor drainage. In general, a good soil balance is made up of 35 percent mineral residues (clay, sand and silt), 15 percent organic matter, 25 percent air and 25 percent water, as well as abundance of microorganisms to feed on organic matter. material, breaks it down and releases nutrients into the soil.

In our next episode, we are growing!

Sandra Pinto is a fellow of the Calgary Horticultural Society, which publishes weekly columns in the gardening pages of the Herald.



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