Assess Your Landscaping Needs

To obtain an effective landscape, you must know your family's and your yard's needs.

Some landscaping ideas are born full-grown. New homeowners have been known to put in a pool before they unpack their boxes. But most plans take longer to gain shape. And so they should, because the process of assessing your family's and your yard's needs -- and figuring out the best solutions -- is essential to creating an effective landscape.

The Present

Begin by looking critically at what you've got. As you live in your house through the next cycle of seasons, compile a list of small and large blessings already in place: the shade, bloom, or fruit of a special tree, or the view at sunset or when the winter trees are bare. At the end of 12 months you may be pleasantly surprised at just how long your list is.

A year of surveying your situation may seem excessively long, but taking your time has a built-in advantage: If you move too fast, you could destroy one of your yard's present pluses before you are even aware of it.

During the year also compile a list of dislikes about your setting: lack of privacy or outdoor living space, for instance, or too much wind or too little light. Good landscaping can solve most, if not all, of your yard's shortcomings.

Figure out what seasonal tasks are required come autumn.

Design with Purpose

Next, weigh your family's needs. All landscape improvements -- from the planting of a single shrub to the building of a deck and patio system -- should add to the ease, comfort, and delight of your everyday living. And this can be true for all members of the family, from indoor grandparents, who appreciate easy entrances and grand views of the grandkids, to children, who play in every inch of yard from the sandbox to the treetops.

Add nothing to your landscape without having a specific purpose in mind -- whether it's to solve one of your yard's problems or to accent one of its best features.

We'd like to offer ready-made, detailed plans to solve each reader's landscaping needs. But the combination of site, climate, and family desires makes each yard one of a kind. And even the best-planned yard will change slightly from season to season and year to year as family wants and hobbies change.

No one knows as well as you what your family might require or enjoy. And you will know that much more clearly and completely after some exciting and interesting consideration of the many possibilities.

Gather Ideas

To get started gathering ideas, observe the good and bad points of other yards. Drive slowly and carefully; or better yet, ride a bike or walk. You soon will notice details: colors and textures of flowers and foliage, moods of promise and mystery evoked by a winding path or a charming gate, or the way an entrance planting distinguishes one house from the others around it.

Move your search for landscaping ideas indoors by browsing through books, magazines, and Internet sites. Skim over the pictures and plans the way a clever clothes maker looks at a pattern book, ruling out the completed look of many outfits as unfit, but choosing a collar here, a sleeve there.

Similarly, you can combine a front entry from one plan with a back patio from another; add a certain curve or zigzag border or walk from still another; and choose a grouping of trees for spring bloom, fall fruit, or a woodland feeling from yet another.

You will do much of your initial landscape planning in your head. But to put all that power to work most efficiently, write down your observations, ideas, and expectations as they come to you. This can be done in any form and is mostly for your own use, so don't let formality stop the flow of ideas.

Plan Ahead

Check the building codes, deed restrictions, and setback and easement regulations early in your planning so you can keep them in mind. Otherwise, don't worry if your landscaping ideas seem muddled at first. The details emerge in time. Don't let expense and labor stifle your dreams, either. Planning often makes the impossible possible.

Perhaps you won't wind up with a forest, but you can have a corner where a path and some trees, shrubs, ground covers, and wildflowers make you feel as if you do. And though you can't stretch a small lot into a wide plain, a section of fence along the rim of a slope can visually extend your backyard.

See the Big Picture

As the details develop, think of your yard as a whole. Everything should go together with harmony. You don't have to be an artist or know much about the aesthetic principles of line, scale, texture, and balance. These elements of good design are largely common sense. An inner eye will tell you if they are present or not.

Visualize the changes you plan as they will look immediately, in five years, and in 20 years. Remember that plans are flat on paper but three-dimensional in reality. Trees and shrubs grow up as well as out. Look up and be sure no electric or phone wires already are in the space where you are thinking of oak branches.

One of the most common landscaping mistakes is planting too close or using plants that will outgrow their allotted space. To avoid the empty look for the present, fill in with temporary plantings -- flowers, quick-growing trees or shrubs, vegetables -- that you can remove as the choice trees and shrubs grow. Keep scale in mind at all times.

Also, keep the same theme throughout the entire yard, whether that be natural, formal, English cottage, Japanese, modern, or any other desired look.

Record the heights, colors, and times of bloom or color interest of all plants, and be sure they complement one another and the structures. If your house is white or gray, you can plant any good combination. But if it is orange or red, you will need to pay careful heed to enhancing and not fighting the existing colors.

Do the same analysis for all structural materials you consider using in your landscape. Wood, concrete, brick, stone, and natural materials all have characteristics that make them fit better in some situations than in others.

Consider, too, as much as you can, your future landscaping needs. You won't be able to do this with crystal-ball clarity, but having the forethought to leave your options open can reap rewards later on. Installation of a swimming pool years later, for example, will be easier if you don't plant any large trees or shrubs now that will block the access of machinery.

Don't worry if you're having trouble visualizing your entire yard. When you put your plans down on paper, you'll be better able to see and rearrange the parts for the most convenient and beautiful whole.

Put it on Paper

Because some decisions will firm up more quickly than others, the sooner you move from your lists and dreams to the actual planning, the better. The day you buy the house, you can begin planting flowers, cover crops, vegetables, small shrubs, and trees that you could remove or move if necessary. These activities, in fact, will help you form and appreciate your plans. But you cannot afford to do anything expensive or permanent until you have an overall plan.

So while all of the ideas are settling, get busy and measure and sketch your yard. Then draw a map to scale on graph paper. Over this, lay tracing paper and sketch various arrangements. Try options on the tracing paper just as you would try on clothes, to see what is right for you.

If putting an idea on paper shows that it won't work, the process may bring to mind another idea that will. Then select the ideas that will best fit your plan and your family's way of life.

At some point, of course, you'll have to start worrying about what your various landscaping ideas might cost. Estimates are easy to obtain, and are vital before your plans become definite.

Because landscaping can be expensive, it's often done in stages. A driveway and a few trees will probably be needed right away. But you can just as well continue and pay for the entryway one year, the back patio or deck the next, the side yard another.

Also as you sift through ideas, you'll want to keep in mind your willingness to work in your yard. Although installation is only done once, maintenance goes on forever. Few people appreciate that a lawn takes more time, expense, and natural resources (such as water) than any other landscaping option. Cut your lawn down to a workable size with areas of ground covers or mulches around trees and shrubs.

Put in a rose garden if you love to work at that, or a vegetable patch or an orchard. But avoid such landscaping features if you just don't have the time.

Patios, decks, walks, and permanent plantings require little work and expense after the initial construction. In return, they give plenty of outdoor living enjoyment for each dollar spent.

Consider Hiring Professionals

Throughout the process, consider whether you want to consult a landscape professional for help. This can come from three groups: landscape architects, landscape designers, and landscape contractors.

The landscape architect is the planning expert and is comparable to a building architect in training and the time frame when he or she can most help you: while the property is being designed. Although landscape architects do mostly commercial work, many will consult with homeowners on an hourly basis and some will oversee entire residential jobs. Because of their expertise, landscape architects tend to be the most expensive landscaping professionals.

Landscaping designers often do much the same work as landscape architects, but they have less training and usually are more plant oriented. The fees of landscape designers employed by nurseries are often absorbed if you buy enough plants from the nurseries.

Landscape contractors do or hire out the actual work. If you work with a landscape contractor, be sure to talk about what materials you must provide and ask for samples of any materials the contractor will supply.

Before choosing a landscaping professional, ask the owners of yards you admire for recommendations. Or go to the phone book, call four or five landscapers listed, and ask for addresses that show their work. Then go out for a look. Keep doing this until you've found at least three professionals who do high-quality work, then ask them for bids on your job.

Depending on your own time and expertise, and on your site's complexity, you may not need a professional. But the money spent to consult an expert -- especially concerning such problems as difficult grading, sliding hillsides, or high walls and decks -- is often saved many times over in the final satisfying and safe result.

Remember, however, that no professional can know your needs and dreams like you do. That's why good planning becomes even more important when you are putting the results into the hands of a highly paid person.

Trees and Topsoil

A final note: Be especially careful with existing trees and topsoil when planning and working on your landscape. Both, once lost, take many years to replace.

During construction, protect your trees from machinery, soil compaction, and changes in soil level. Transplant small, choice shrubs and trees that stand in the way.

Before building or making major changes in grade, scrape the topsoil and pile it separately so you can respread it over the finished surface.

Make the Most of Your Landscaping Project

Landscaping projects are a big task. Learn what you need to think about before you start.


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