How do I start a perennial garden?

Take stock. Find out what climate zone you’re in by visiting planthardiness.ars.usda.govBuy a test kit (available online or from your local agricultural extension center) to learn whether your soil is sandy or dense, acidic or basic. Note whether your site is damp or dry, and whether it gets full sun, half sun and half shade, or full shade.

Make a plan. Impulse garden buying is costly, so peruse the web, local nurseries, and catalogs and make lists of plants you like that thrive in the conditions you have. Sketch out your future garden on graph paper. Keep your lists and your sketch with you as you shop.

Think like a designer. Start with, say, three to five small shrubs of the same variety and five to seven each of two types of perennials, one that blooms early and one late. Consider how foliage and shapes look together. Use odd-numbered groupings of plants, arranging them in clumps or triangles, not rows.

Be patient. Shrubs and perennials can take five years to reach full size. Keep them watered, apply one to three inches of mulch for moisture retention and weed control, fertilize annually, and wait. Fill empty spaces with annuals if you must.

Cathy Breen, J87, is a home gardener and state senator from Falmouth, Maine.

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