5 Tips to Grow the Perfect Garden


The “perfect garden” is simple. It’s the garden you imagine with vegetables or flowers or a mix of both. It’s the garden in a size and location and design that suits your needs and wants.

In reality, the perfect garden is where, how and when you want it – because there is no right or wrong way to garden. There is only your way.

There are, however, ways to make it more perfect in terms of success so your time, energy and money are put to good use.

Here are 5 tips for the “perfect garden,” all gleaned from my decades of successes and failures and training as a Virginia Master Gardener and horticulture student. For more specific tips about vegetable gardening, read How to Start a Victory Garden 2.0.


shade garden features ferns, hostas and astilbe
Kathy Van Mullekom’s woodland garden is created with shade-loving plants such as astilbe, ferns and hostas. Photo courtesy of Kathy Van Mullekom.

Tips for a Perfect Garden

Perfect Garden Tip 1: Know your zone.

When I first started gardening in southeastern Virginia, I lived in USDA cold hardiness Zone 7. Tender plants were likely to freeze and die in a typical winter that often dipped below 32 degrees.  Oh, my, how that has changed over the years. Southeastern Virginia is now a mild and balmy Zone 8, where temperate palm trees, ferns and other tropical treats flourish with little worry. On the other hand, if you live in Tennessee or are thinking of purchasing Tennessee land, the USDA cold hardiness ranges from 5a to 8a depending on the specific location.

No matter where you live, you can determine your own cold hardiness zone with the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map at  https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/


Tip 2: Know your soil.

Horticulturists will tell you: What goes on beneath the soil is more important than what happens above ground. There’s a lot of truth in those words. Strong roots are the key to healthy, vigorous plants.

With that in mind, keep your soil rich and fertile with organic compost such as aged manures or shredded mulches. In the vegetable garden, spread a top layer of organic compost in late fall. Then, let it sit during the winter and work it into the soil before spring planting. Winter crops like clover also add nitrogen to soil.

A layer of compost 1-2 inches deep spread across ornamental beds helps rejuvenate soil around shrubs and trees. If you have no access to compost, look for fertilizers that lean on the organic side.

perfect garden can be a woodland shade garden
Photo courtesy of Kathy Van Mullekom.

Perfect Garden Tip 3: Know your light.

How sun and shade come and go in your yard is critical to your plants’ survival. You may love azaleas, but they won’t like a baking-hot, full-sun yard. Instead, they tolerate morning sun and prefer dappled shade/sun. You may want to plant tomatoes under your backyard trees, but they will wimp out without at least six hours of full sun.

Before you design and dig beds and shop for plants, observe where the sun rises and sets. Master Gardeners will tell you “right plant, right place” is the best gardening guide you can follow.


Tip 4: Know your plants. 

It’s exciting to get caught up in the world of plants because there’s always something new and different to try. Go for it! But know what you are buying and know where each plant will go before you take it home. Are you taking home an evergreen that will grow to 5 feet wide—but you have only a 2-foot-wide space for it? Will that one-gallon-pot rose mature to 5-feet tall and cover your front window?

When shopping for plants, read the plant labels that list light, soil and water needs. Pay attention to how big the plant will be when it reaches maturity. Plant catalogs also list these facts, as well as a plant’s USDA growing zones.

Keep plant labels and catalog descriptions for future reference. Put them in a notebook to create a garden journal where you can write notes about your plants’ progress and maintenance needs. Make sure to document when you pruned and when you fertilized each plant.

a frog statue makes a nice focal point in this perfect garden in the shade
Photo courtesy of Kathy Van Mullekom.

Perfect Garden Tip 5: Know your garden preferences.

What you ultimately want in a perfect garden or landscape may not be something you know when you begin your garden. Gardening is an ongoing process of successes and failures, and joys and frustrations. It’s a learning process that ebbs and flows. So, don’t despair if one day you look at the garden with dismay and another day you are thrilled with what you see.

A garden is a living ecosystem that thrives on routine attention. As you experiment, work the soil and get to know the plants, your garden will respond to your loving care with seasons of splendor. After all, who can resist the sight and scent of a fragrant rose or gardenia and the taste of a juicy tomato or strawberry?

And, never forget, there is no right or wrong way to garden. There is only your way.

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