Leaves are getting ready to change colors, flowers will die back and grass will go dormant and brown. It's the perfect time to start thinking about spring.
"The best time for planning almost everything is in the fall, because the roughest time for any plant is the first summer," said Sid Mullis, the director for the University of Georgia Extension Service office in Richmond County. "Nothing happens above ground, but the below-ground growing season is year-round."
Planning a garden can be as daunting as planning a house, but the process can be a lot less agonizing if you stick to a few basic rules. Whether you have a postage-stamp-size lawn or several acres, the first step is to make a long-term plan.
"Look for drainage patterns and things like how much sun or shade are the plants going to get. You don't want sun-loving plant in an area where there's going to be shade," Mr. Mullis said. "What soil type do you have there? It varies tremendously because Richmond County is sandy and Columbia County is mostly clay."
If you really want to do things right, Mr. Mullis said to try to think like a meteorologist. What direction does the sun shine on the plot of land? Will a plant that likes morning sunshine also thrive in the afternoon light? Don't forget to note wind patterns, too. The same plant that's sheltered might not fare as well if it's exposed when winter gusts start whipping around. Above all, remember that all of this will change over time.
"Even if it takes you years to finish the plan, at least you have that plan," Mr. Mullis said. "I'm still doing that with mine, and it's been about five years."
Jane Waldrop, the owner of the landscape-design business The Greensmith, said that, before even considering plant varieties, homeowners should designate spaces for children, entertaining, a flower garden and any future additions, such as a swimming pool, gazebos or a shed. Then look for plants you like.
"Go to the nursery, read the labels and find out things like how tall does it get, is it fragrant; does it have stickers," she said.
Ms. Waldrop has her own preferences for specific plants but said homeowners shouldn't get caught up between choosing day lilies, marigolds, impatiens and chrysanthemums. Plant choice is completely subjective.
"What's more important is to give balance; if your windows are three feet off the ground, you have to use the small and the miniature shrubs. That's the biggest mistake I run into," she said. "Obviously, you'll want to go tall in the back and small in the front, layer them, create a screening. But also know what it's going to do in five years and what it's going to do in 10 years."
Overplanting is the biggest problem Ms. Waldrop encounters. One plant that both she and Mr. Mullis said to avoid was the Bradford pear tree, which is popular because of its foliage.
"You see them everywhere. People plant them too close together, they grow too close together and then they die," Ms. Waldrop said.
Jeff Tilden, the owner of J. Scott Gardens, urges homeowners to focus on a specific area of their yard instead of spreading their resources all over.
"America has this thought where landscaping equals foundation planting; but it has no atmosphere, and adds nothing to the way the house feels," he said. "Most of them don't need their base hidden, and I would rather take that money and make a sense of place somewhere else."
The same planning can be applied to yard borders.
"People often try to get something on the perimeter to disguise. I like to think about where I'll be looking at it; maybe I'll be bring it in closer," Mr. Tilden said. "If it's 60 feet away, it's going to take a massive plant to do that. I'd rather bring something closer to where I'm sitting; you can get away with a lot less plant and get a better feeling of sanctuary."
Reach Patrick Verel at (706) 823-3332 or firstname.lastname@example.org.