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Ground rules

Starting a garden from scratch is daunting even for the greenest of thumbs. Don't despair. Globe columnist MARJORIE HARRIS dishes the real dirt in this back-to-basics guide to creating your own Eden.

Saturday, May 11, 2002

So you've bought a new house, but your view is of the neighbour's jungle gym and your grass is a chemical green. Do not despair. We gardeners are optimistic, always, and it's possible to accomplish enough this year to give a great deal of pleasure and probably astound yourself and others with what loveliness you can create. The first requirements of building a garden are intelligent groundwork and a lot of good mulch.

Guide to Gardening
bulletGround rules
bulletThe sweaty secrets behind Britain's gardening fetish
bulletWhat you want
bulletThe tools
bulletRemembrance of seeds past bulletTen worst gardening mistakes

Though a garden takes two or three years to get properly established, the process is part of the fun, and will be that much easier if you make the right decisions now. The key is to build good bones, and let the little things take care of themselves. Here's a guide on how to get started, from the ground up.

The plan
Divine what you want your garden to do for you. Play space for children is quite different from a dense perennial garden. Think of your main goals - meditating? entertaining? dog run? - and try to accommodate them. Books, magazines and friends' gardens are all good sources for refining your vision. If you have the money to invest, a landscape architect or garden designer can create a plan to be realized in yearly increments.

An articulate plan should have some basic hardscaping (raised beds, water feature, sitting area) as well as suggestions for plants. The actual planting you can do yourself, adding more each year.

But be patient: If a fountain is a must, don't put it in immediately. Live with what you've got for a year, then save up for a really good one. Buy good pieces of furniture one at a time; don't worry about everything matching. It's like interior décor - mixing styles is chic.

The light
Gardening is about light. Unless you have southern exposure, the time of day when the sun hits your garden should control what you plant: Early morning means you've got shade; late afternoon means partial shade but hot. A south slope can get dead dry, a north-facing slope will be shady. Bear in mind that this early in the season the trees have yet to fill in, so if you have a large maple in a small yard, you will have shade no matter what.

Photo (above): An uncrushable straw hat keeps out the sun, $40 from Toronto's Dig This (416-483-4445). Organic cotton Ts in a rainbow of shades ($12) keeps you eco-friendly, and a trekking skirt ($44) makes for easy kneeling and dries quickly if you tangle with a garden hose, both at Mountain Equipment Co-op across Canada. The toile-pattern Gardener's Tool Belt comes with one pocket or two, $49.95 at Gardenscape Tools, Weall & Cullen, Longo's, Rittenhouse and Dig This or through Avoid hand fatigue with Foxgloves, made with Supplex and Lycra and available in a range of colours, $35 at Toronto's Gardenscape Tools (416-698-5339 and Biodegradable lime green garden clogs by Anywhere, $79.95 at Dig This, are guaranteed not to fade into the shrubbery.

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