Have you always wanted a beautiful garden but just don’t know where to start? It can be a little intimidating starting from scratch, but once you understand a few basic terms, concepts, and practices, you’ll be ready to tackle whatever your garden can throw at you!

Understanding the Lingo

Herbaceous: Used to describe a plant with soft, pliable stems that die back to the ground every winter. Typically applies to annuals, and perennials.

Woody: Used to describe a plant with hard, woody stems that remain above the ground in the winter. Typically applies to shrubs and trees.

Annual: Herbaceous plants that complete their whole life cycle in one year, and die over the winter.

Biennial: Herbaceous plants that complete their life cycle in two years, but die back to the ground during the winter. Typically, they only produce flowers in their second year.

Perennial: Herbaceous plants that die back to the ground every winter, and grow back in the spring. They live three or more years.

Deciduous: Woody plants that drop their leaves or needles over winter.

Evergreen: Woody plants that retain their leaves or needles over winter.

Shrubs: Woody plants that retain their stems over winter. The leaves may or may not fall off based on whether they are evergreen or deciduous.

Trees: Woody plants that retain their stems over winter (most often with a single trunk) and grow to a significant size. The leaves may or may not fall off based on whether they are evergreen or deciduous.


Understanding the amount of light that you have in your garden is one of the basic starting points that will lead to picking a successful plant. It is important to know that different types of plants have different preferences for the duration and intensity of light that they prefer. The intensity of light varies throughout the day, with the strongest sun between the hours of 11am and 4pm. To best categorize outdoor light, it is easily divided into 3 categories:


Full Sun: Plants that prefer more than 6-8 hours or more of direct sunlight per day. This location is typically found on the south or west side of a building, with minimal to no surrounding structures or trees.


Part Sun & Part Shade: Plants that prefer 4-6 hours of direct sunlight per day, preferably the morning sun over the intense, afternoon sun. This location is typically found on the east side of a building.


Full Shade: Plants that prefer 4 hours or less of direct sunlight per day, and never intense, afternoon sun. This location is typically found on the north side of a building or under trees or shrubs.


Water is essential to the survival of every plant, though some prefer more than others. The key is to water deeply at the base of the plant in order to encourage root growth; watering of the leaves is not necessary and can actually encourage pests and diseases. There are external factors to consider that affect the frequency that the plant needs to be watered, including the time of year, the temperature, the amount of rain that is occurring, and how recently the plant was planted.


Until they are established, all perennials, trees and shrubs need to be watered daily or twice a day on the hottest days. When summer turns into fall, the frequency of watering can decrease to every other day up to every three days. Annuals also fall into this watering schedule. In all cases, make sure you are drenching the root ball of the plant (roughly the size of the pot that you bought it in). Once they are established, watering can vary based on the preferences of each plant. Perennials are considered established after 1 complete year in the ground, while trees, and shrubs take 2-3 years to establish.


Good gardens begin with soil. Healthy soil is teeming with living organisms and is full of both organic and inorganic material, so investing in soil amendments and improvements will help encourage growth of everything in your garden. There are three components in soil which occur naturally in different ratios in different areas: sand, loam, and clay. As a general rule, Durham Region tends to have soil with a high amount of heavy clay, which leads to water pooling and lack of airflow in the soil. This can impact the size and health of the root system of your plant, so it is best to amend it yearly with a compost of some sort. The exact type can vary, but this will add organic material back into the soil to feed your plants and encourage growth, as well as loosen up dense clay.

Picking the Right Plant

Now that you understand the basics of light and water, you can go about picking the right plant for your space. This is the fun part! There are two approaches you can take when it comes to selecting plants:


1) Figure out a spot in your garden that you need to fill, evaluate the amount of light and water it will receive there, and the amount of space that you have in order to determine the maximum mature size. Once you have that information, look for plant options that suit those requirements!


2) Hit the garden centre to find a plant you like, then try to find a spot in your garden that will work for it.


Most of the time people try to go with the first option, but it turns into the second option pretty quickly when they spot a fun plant in the garden centre. Either way, take your time and pick things you like!

There is one more aspect of plant characteristics that you need to understand before you buy: hardiness zones. All hardy plants are labelled with a USDA zone number that matches a map dividing the country; this number identifies where it is hardy enough to survive the winter. Zones are affected by temperature, nearby bodies of water, snowfall accumulation and more. Zones range from 1 to 10, with the coldest zone being 1 and the warmest being 10. Here in Ajax, we are zone 5b, but if you live in another town it is best to double check your zone before you buy.

How to Plant Correctly

Planting your plant correctly can be the make it or break it of successful gardening. By following these steps, you’ll give your plant the best chance to establish itself in its new home!


1) Dig a hole twice the size of the pot you are planting.


2) Apply a transplant fertilizer to the bottom of the hole to encourage root growth. The rate of application should be as directed by the package.


3) Place the plant in the hole and backfill with triple mix. Be sure to keep the plant level with the surface of the ground, just like it was when planted in the pot.


4) Water the base of your plant immediately after planting. Be sure to soak the soil entirely where the root ball is.