The trick with starting up in the spring is planning and timing. It actually works really well with the design of a garden (isn't Mother Nature convenient). If you want a nice garden, there are a few aspects you really do need.
- Woodies - You need something woody for the winter and for size, scale, and height. That can be a tree or two, an evergreen, or even a flowering shrub. Whatever it is, that's the first part of your garden and, conveniently, it can be planted earliest in the season even if it's cold at night. Without woodies, your garden is literally flat in the winter, and we sure do have a long winter.
- Repeaters - I call them repeaters, but I mean perennials. They come back year after year and have a predictable form every year. So planing daffodils with a rudbeckia would give early spring colour with the daffodils and then later colour in the season with the rudbeckia. Since they grow and bloom at different times, they don't compete much either. Perennials can be planted next in the season after your woodies. But beware where the perennial was grown - if it was grown in a warm heated greenhouse in the spring, you need to plant it later in the season. If it was grown cool and without heat, it can be planted earlier.
- BIG Colour - This is always the point when I get the biggest resistance and negative feedback, but hear me out. If you want low-maintenance all-season colour, you MUST plant an annual. Yes, if you stage perennials right you can get colour all season, but with annuals you don't need the complex planning, you don't have to cut-back, mulch, or maintain the plant annually. You're not trying to remember what perennial was were (and accidentally weed it out - been there, done that), or realize you need to rearrange your garden the next year because something is bigger than you expected. And you can change your colour scheme every year without any guilt. You simply work the soil to loosen it and remove old roots, plant your annuals, mulch (so you weed less), and you're pretty well done for the season. Nothing gives the big-bang colour impact of annuals in the garden and that's something I've been missing since the perennial craze started. Of course annuals can't be planted early because of the cold, but they fit perfectly into Mother Nature's timing schedule. Use them to fill gaps or holes between your shrubs or perennials when they're still young. Or put them in a planter and strategically place them in your bare spots. For more impact, make one big annual bed and change it up every year. Bang for buck, annuals rule.
Of course, this is the process when just planting your garden, not a full design. If you're looking for what we call "hardscaping", that is walkways, retaining walls, or the like, then you should start with that. It's pretty hard to not step on plants when you're lugging around loads of gravel or stones so start with the big stuff.