How to Landscape

how to landscape e1469545938295


I have some thoughts on How to Landscape and where to begin. When I watch landscaping shows on HGTV, I am always amazed at how easy it looks. You get a few friends together, dig up the grass, lay down some pavers, add a pergola or water feature. Voila! A ho-um yard becomes spectacular. The next thing you know, you’re off to the home improvement store buying supplies to create your own landscape sensation.

Well, before you burn through your life savings, I want to share How to Landscape with a few Landscaping Lessons for Beginners thrown in for good measure. So, let’s get started creating the most beautiful yard on the block.

Set a Realistic Budget

I have helped design landscapes for a few friends and when I ask about their budget I always get the glassy stare. Most people will give me a figure that is in the $200-$500 range. I usually tell them to let me know when they have something in the $800 – $1000 range. The reason ~ plants, mulch, rental equipment, hardscape material, etc. These things aren’t cheap and they add up fast. For instance, a 15′ x 15′ bed will require about 15-20 bags of mulch. In the Austin area, this will run you approximately $3-$4 per bag. When you do the math it is easy to see that your $200 isn’t going to buy you many plants.

List Your Wants and Needs

Now that you have a budget, begin by making a list of things you want and need in your landscape. Think long and hard about how you will use the area? Do you have children that want a playscape or trampoline? Do you have a large dog that needs space to run around? Do you want to have a covered seating area? Are you dreaming of a large vegetable garden? Are there plans for one day adding a pool, outdoor kitchen, or fire pit? Don’t forget the paths. List all of these things.

Remember this picture. It is our original drawing for the backyard landscape. We spent a lot of time thinking about what we wanted and how we would use it.  What we’ve created is similar, but we had to have a place to start.

Study the Elements

One of the biggest mistakes beginning landscapers make is not paying attention to things like the sun, wind, and rain. Since we live in an area with new houses I’m seeing a lot of landscaping that doesn’t respect the elements.

Placing a patio on the sunny side of your house can be pure misery in August. You also don’t want to place your grill or fire pit next to a windy corner. That pretty patio umbrella can become a missile if it’s placed in the wrong spot. Before we started our backyard landscape we stood outside while it was raining and watched where the water drained ~ on a couple of occasions in the middle of the night with flash lights.

Don’t be in a hurry, either. Make a few plans, create some sketches, and then step back and study your yard with these things in mind. You may discover that one or two of your original ideas could be disastrous with the changing seasons. Once you understand how your property interacts with the elements then you can plan accordingly.

Start Small

I think I want to shout this one from the rooftops. Start small. Start small. Start small. Home improvement shows have huge crews with experts and that is why they can take a 1/4 acre lot and transform it into paradise in 30 minutes or less. It makes entertaining television, but it is unrealistic.

Instead, find a small spot that you know you can improve. Maybe you want to add a pop of color to your front yard. Create a bed around one or two trees, fill in with some annuals or grasses {that are appropriate for your area}, mulch, water, and enjoy. Usually, a small project like this can be done in one or two weekends and will not break the bank. Then, sit back and observe your new landscape. Small successes are always rewarding. And, they will give you the confidence and experience to tackle larger projects.

I did this bed when I noticed an unused area next to the deck. We had the mulch and border on hand. I had a few plants that I moved and I bought the grasses. Starting small can net big results.

Size and Scale Matter

This is one of the most common mistakes that landscaping newbies make. They underestimate or overestimate size and scale. This can happen with both plants and hardscapes. An oversized deck will swallow a small yard and look ridiculous. A large tree or shrub can overpower a landscape and make it dark and gloomy.

In our backyard, there is a mature elm on the other side of the fence. We had to factor in the elm when deciding where to plant the crape myrtle. They are a good distance apart. Since both are upright and the crape myrtle can take lots of pruning, they should provide both privacy and block the western sun. Because the elm will have its lower branches pruned sometime in the future to avoid damaging the fence, there will be good balance to the landscape.

Over and over on small lots, I see homeowners add two or three small live oak trees to a 55′ wide lot. Did they not read the part on the plant identifier that said the tree’s mature size was 30′ tall and 20′ wide? Do you know how much trimming needs to happen to these trees in five years? In 15 – 20 years two of those trees will need to be removed. #overscalenightmare

The other big mistake is creating undersized beds. If you have a large two-story home that is tall and majestic then a 3′ deep flower bed in the front isn’t going to cut it. It is too under scale for the size of your house and lot. Bring that bed out away from the house at least 30% of the height of the wall. Fifty percent would be even better. Then add in larger scale plants that terrace away from the structure. My biggest landscaping pet peeve ~ large houses on 1 or 2 acre lots with puny beds and small plants. For heaven’s sake, add a grove of trees! #useyouracrewisely

Understand a Few of the Elements of Design

A great landscape will take into account several elements of good design. These include color, form, pattern, light, balance, contrast, rhythm, variety, and unity. For my backyard landscape, I have purposely chosen plants with a bluish-gray color and plants with yellow blooms. These textures and colors will create contrast that is sure to dominate my landscape. I’ve achieved form with stone around my beds and variety by having a hardwood tree, a flowering crape myrtle, grasses, and shrubs. There is rhythm because I’ve placed identical plants in all of the different beds ~ you will see this rhythm repeated as you scan across my landscape. The nandina will bloom red berries in the winter and an olive tree will be covered in white blooms in the spring.

These before and after shots are from a home we previously owned.  In the Before picture notice the wall around the entire front of the house. When we bought the house every neighbor we met would ask what we thought of the wall.

We removed the wall and created a small courtyard. Balance, rhythm, unity, and form. Below is another ‘before’ picture from a different angle. We took the wall down, removed a dead-ish ash tree, and trimmed the trees. This created a lot more light both inside and outside.

You are the artist here and the landscape is your canvas. Think about where you want the eye to move.

Learn a Few Terms

Understanding terms like annual, perennial, deciduous, espalier, hybrid, propagation, and rhizome will keep you from making costly mistakes. Here is a glossary of landscaping terms to get you started. Do you want a deciduous tree over a swimming pool? I know I don’t. Does bamboo spread by rhizomes? Before planting bamboo you might want to know this. Is it possible to espalier certain varieties of pear or apple trees? YES, just not in Texas.

Think Outside the Bed

Not every plant has to be inside the boundaries of a bed. I have plants both inside and outside of my beds. I think this works best in natural landscapes or along paths. Use your imagination.

And, whatever you do, make sure those front hedges don’t add a mustache to the front of your house.

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