There comes a point in many a homeowner's landscaping journey when they look out onto their own patch of the American dream and unwittingly throw in the towel, declaring “When I have more time this yard will really be something!” Eventually, the yard becomes more of a burry, overwhelming, weedy backdrop to everyday life, a nuisance that needs to be continuously whacked back from creeping into the crawlspace or up the siding.
Landscaping is one of the more intimidating home improvement projects as it’s the only one where some form of life is on the line. But by looking at a few components of what makes a good landscape, you can get out of decision gridlock and finally get those hands dirty creating the outdoor oasis you can feel confident will survive.
The first thing you should do before even thinking about what to install or plant is take an inventory of site conditions. Look at each section of the yard on all sides of the house and note how much sun exposure they get, what type of soil is present, the nearest water spigots, and if there’s any existing vegetation what kind and how does it look. These factors combined tell you what kind of plants are likely to do best in each of the sections.
For example, if the front of the house gets shade in the morning but a lot of sun in the afternoon you’ll want plants that can tolerate full or partial sun exposure. If the soil is heavy clay (difficult to dig in and holds a lot of water), you’ll likely want to avoid plants like lavender since they require good drainage. Instead opt for plants with thick roots and crowns like echinacea, sedum, hosta, or iris.
After getting to know your site conditions, a great place to start in the design process is with your movements through the landscape. Where you move is generally the space you’ll use, and the space you’re using is where you’re going to be able to keep things maintained the best. So when you’re outside, make note of the spaces you spend the most time in, like a patio or deck, and then from there notice when you’re walking from the house to anywhere around the yard.
Pay attention if there is a particular route you tend to take when you walk to a shed or another outbuilding. Perhaps the trail is well-traveled, and you can see the established path you regularly take. Now, imagine putting in a stone or gravel walkway bordered by garden beds on either side. Because the path is already where you naturally step, the hard part of figuring out where to put anything more permanent is already done.
If you don’t have an outbuilding you’re accessing regularly, think about whether there may be one in the future and where you’d ideally want to put it, then walk to the spot as if it was already there. Let yourself meander until you find a path that feels comfortable. Parts of the yard that you don’t visit often can still be incorporated into the design, but planted with low-maintenance vegetation.
If you never find yourself outside because there’s legitimately nothing there (that’s the problem, isn’t it?), notice what windows you’re looking out of regularly to observe the nothingness. Use them as a (literal) frame of reference. What could be placed within the scene to make the view more compelling? A tree with leaves that change in the fall, flowers that bloom in the spring, or an evergreen with a unique form that attracts attention year-round could be the focal point of the landscape. The rest can be filled in around it.
After you determine a layout for the yard, it’s time to think about piecing everything together to create a coherent design. With hardscaping materials, be consistent with the type of material used around the landscape. For example, if you’re using flagstone for a front yard walkway, don’t use red brick for one in the backyard. Similarly, what plants you choose can also follow this idea, even if each site condition around the house is vastly different from one another.
Plants that can tolerate a wide range of conditions include ornamental grasses like carex or Japanese forest grass, hostas, coral bells, daylilies, ferns, rhododendrons, and azaleas. Using a few plants as a sort of anchor throughout the landscape will bring each space together.
Native plants are especially good at fitting in wherever you need them. They should be your go-to if you’re looking for a low-maintenance landscape, but also ideal if you live underneath fir and cedar trees which are notoriously difficult to plant gardens around. Mixing natives in with commonly cultivated plants is also a great way to seamlessly blend the borders between wild and domesticated landscapes.
No matter where you’re at on your landscaping journey, know that great gardens aren’t built in a day. It can take a few seasons before the pieces start fitting together just right. And that’s how you want it anyway. Mature landscapes are difficult to edit. So don’t wait until the time is just right or you know exactly what to do. Your yard is knocking, and it wants you to come out and play.
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