Plant Your Dream Garden

Down and dirty advice for making yours come alive—in full color


A dream garden delights in the brilliant complements of buttery nasturtium, ripe orange squash, and dramatic sage ‘Tricolor’.

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• Design Plans: Plants For A Dream Garden

I believe in making dreams a reality—at least in the garden. I'm never afraid to tackle a project. I've taken a sledghammer to a sidewalk, dug up ancien concrete foundations for clothesline poles, stripped hundreds of yards of sod, spread thousands of pounds of compost and manure, and hauled tons of bricks and flagstones.

Adapt my plan however you like. You'll notice that here are no rows of plants in my garden. If you're used to planting your basil, eggplants, and lettuce in rows, give it up. Your like will be better.

Other people might accept a boring patch of lawn with some tiny flowerbeds surrounding it, but I say rip it up and create a real garden full of herbs, edibles, and ornamentals.

I’m dangerous. Friends should never ask for my help unless they mean it. When Susan and Ronda asked for my advice on what to do with the boring strip of grass in front of their house, little did they know that they were in for a complete change of life. They used to water and mow—now they garden. We turned that tired turf into an herbal paradise that endlessly fascinates the new gardeners and entertains visitors, neighbors, and passersby.

I’m out to do the same for you. Give me an inch, and I’ll take the rest of your yard. This plan is based on my own herb and edible garden. If you have an area as small as 10 by 10 feet, I challenge you to turn it into a brand-new garden. Susan and Ronda’s garden is about 12 by 30 feet, but any square or rectangular area can be adapted to my design.

Country gardeners don’t have to deal in straight lines and corners, but city dwellers live in a rectangular world. It’s that odd patch of scruffy grass on the side of your house or next to your garage that I’ve got my sights on. Aw, come on—just give me your whole backyard. You’ll find it relatively painless, and if your spouse objects—that’s what counselors are for.

First, Kill The Lawn

Keeping a lawn alive is difficult; killing it is a snap. On a hot, windless day when the lawn is actively growing, spray it with RoundUp or another glyphosate-based herbicide. Because it’s nonselective, cover any nearby plants that you want to spare. Gly­phos­ate kills by stopping photosynthesis so that the plants can no longer manufacture their food. They starve—and pretty quickly, too. If the grass doesn’t look dead within a few days, repeat the application. Glyphosate doesn’t persist in the soil, so you’ll be able to plant your new garden within a week of your lawn’s death.

You don’t have to strip the sod. Plant directly in the dead turf; it makes a great growing medium for most herbs.

I’ve drawn my dream garden with brick paths. If you prefer grass paths—I love them and so do my knees—lay out your new garden with stakes and string and kill only the grass in the beds. Edge the paths with steel or brick, or do what I do—use a plant spade to create a gutter about 6 inches deep between the grass and beds. Recut it once or twice a year to keep the grass in check.

Next, Plant

Adapt my plan however you like. You’ll notice that there are no rows of plants in my garden. If you’re used to planting your basil, eggplants, and lettuce in rows, give it up. Your life will be better.

I offer you four beds, each with a different theme. Do them all or choose the one(s) that you like best. One bed contains bronze foliage and deep, dramatic colors such as orange, crimson, and purple; a second is devoted to silver leaves and pastel colors; the third relies on the accents of chartreuse leaves and bright colors; and the fourth is chock-full of variegated leaves, my not-so-secret passion. I couldn’t squeeze every single plant I wanted into the design, so I’ve suggested others (right).

There's no such thing as planting a garden once and leave it alone.

And Plant Again

There’s no such thing as planting a garden once and leaving it alone. Besides perennial herbs and or­na­mentals, this garden contains annual herbs and ­vegetables. Plant the cold-tolerant kinds in early spring in the North and during fall and winter in the South and on the West Coast; replace them with heat-tolerant kinds in late spring in the North and in midspring in the South and on the West Coast. In some northern gardens, you may be able to squeeze in a fall crop of kale, spinach, lettuce, or other greens. The plants that self-sow such as dill, rue, mustard, fennel, and perilla will make design changes of their own. It’s your prerogative to accept them or not.

In my own garden, I include pots at the corners of the central diamond. They hold lavender-cotton now, but sometimes they’ve been home to clumps of perilla and scented pelargoniums. You might try plants with more dramatic foliage, such as New Zealand flax or Aloe vera. For color, tried-and-true mari­golds or geraniums would also make a splash.