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All About Landscaping

What do you need to know before starting a landscaping project? Read on for tips about gardening, structures, lighting and more.

Landscaping a yard iStock

If you have a freestanding home, even on a city lot, there’s probably dirt around it that benefits from plantings, lawns, or garden features. What you do with the space around your house depends not only on what you want, but also on your climate. You won’t get desert plants to grow in Seattle’s wet climate, and you won’t get tender southern varieties to thrive in New England.

It’s possible all your landscape needs in order to thrive is a good cleanup and some well-directed pruning. With a new home, you have a blank palette to plant however you wish. In both cases though, unless you’re an accomplished gardener, it’s a good idea to consult a designer or landscape architect to help you develop a plan.

You might also consider hiring a professional landscaper to do the work for you, or at least to take care of any parts of it that require expertise and equipment you may not have.

Planting or Using Native Plants and Trees

It’s not just a matter of which climate zone your house is in. You have to consider the existing conditions. Is the lot shady or does it get a lot of sun? The answer to that will determine the kind of plants you’ll be able to grow. Is your lot sloped or flat? Sloping lots can be difficult to mow, but they present great opportunities for terraced gardens. Some locations are more prone to damage than others—say under a roof edge that sees snow slides. Choose your plantings accordingly.

Existing native trees can be huge assets, so if you’re building new, think carefully about how much clearing you want to do. Also, take the opportunity to have pruning done to large trees while there’s access before the house is built. That will save money and headaches in the long run.

If you’re planting new trees, the bigger they are the more they cost, but the sooner they offer useful shade. Do be careful about placing young trees too close to the house, though. That small tree you plant today might become a forty-foot-tall problem in ten years.

Another consideration is water. If you’re lucky enough to have a stream or pond on your property, it can be a central feature for your entire landscape. If you don’t have naturally occurring water, you can still build a water feature using a pond liner and hidden pump.

Some sites are very dry, though. Irrigation may be an option, but in desert areas where water is at a premium, many people are turning to xeriscaping, which uses native plants that are adapted to the climate, thereby reducing the need for irrigation. In fact, wet or dry, native plantings are way of minimizing landscape maintenance.

If you live in an area that’s prone to wildfires, how you landscape can make the difference between your home surviving or burning to the ground. A variety of factors play into this, ranging from irrigation near the house, to cleaning out dead wood regularly, to avoiding plantings near the house entirely.

Are You a Gardener or a Party Host?

How you landscape depends largely on what you do. Do you like to have outdoor parties or relax by a pool? Then the focus might be on a patio with a shade structure and perhaps an outdoor kitchen, rather than on gardens. The plantings you do have might be more for privacy than for their own sake. Hedges are one example of privacy plantings.

Do you like to garden? Then by all means focus on ornamental plantings you’ll enjoy both looking at and working on. If kitchen gardening is your gig, then think about raised beds, fruit orchards, and berry bushes.

Do you have kids who’ll need space to run around? Then you might need a lawn big enough for a neighborhood soccer game, or a dedicated play structure. A fence to keep the kids (and pets) contained may also fit into your plans.

Planning for Gardening Structures

Classical gardens from around the world typically include structures, usually made of a rot-resistant wood, stone, or a concrete composite. An Asian garden might have a teahouse that’s set aside in a formal way, or a bridge that’s both a focus in its own right and a viewing platform for a special vignette.

European gardens often include shade structures such as pergolas, as well as benches situated at view points, and fountains that offer cool water on a hot day as well as a soothing sound effect.

If you have a pool, a pool house can be invaluable for storing cleaning equipment and water floats, as well as for providing a spot to change (perhaps with a bathroom), and maybe a place to plug in a beverage refrigerator. Also invaluable in most landscapes is a garden shed. By providing a home for mowers, trimmers, and other tools, a garden shed frees your garage for cars.

Walkways are integral structures in most landscapes. They can range from purely practical concrete sidewalks to a path of formal stone or pavers, patterned concrete, gravel, or stepping stones leading through the forest. All of these rely on proper installation and drainage to keep your feet out of the mud.

How to Choose Landscape Lighting

Landscape lighting formerly required much more work than it does today. Years ago, the only option was 120-volt fixtures, the wiring for which either had to be buried at least 18 inches down or run in conduit. Today’s low voltage lighting carries a significantly reduced risk of shock and is powered through wires that often don’t require burial. Solar powered lighting contains integral batteries and needs no wiring at all.

Lighting effects can be spectacular, and will make your landscape usable after dark, a great advantage for people who work 9-5. It’s a good idea to have lighting on a timer though, because all-night lighting can be tough on birds and animals, stressing reproductive cycles and confusing normal feeding times, as well as potentially annoying your neighbors.

Landscapes have a lot of potential components. If you keep in mind particular goals, you can blend all the parts into a harmonious whole.