Planning Your Landscaping

To obtain an effective landscape, you must know your family's and your yard's needs. Begin by looking critically at what you've got. A year of surveying your situation for advantages and disadvantages has a built-in benefits. If you move too fast, you could destroy one of your yard's best advantages before you are even aware of it. Also compile a list of dislikes about your setting. Good landscaping can solve most, if not all, of your yard's shortcomings.

Have a Purpose in Mind

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. Additions to your landscape should have a specific purpose in mind -- whether it's to solve one of your yard's problems or to accent one of its best features.

Gathering Ideas

Observe the good and bad points of other yards. Notice colors and textures of flowers and foliage. Browse through books, magazines, and Internet sites. Much of your initial landscape planning will be in your head, but try to write down your observations, ideas, and expectations as they come to you. Check the building codes, deed restrictions, and setback and easement regulations early in your planning so you can keep them in mind.

The Whole Site

The elements of good design are largely common sense. Visualize the changes you plan as they will look immediately, in five years, and in 20 years. 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.

Drawing a Plan

Because some decisions will firm up more quickly than others, the sooner you move to the actual planning, the better. Measure and sketch your yard. Then draw a map to scale on graph paper. Over this, lay tracing paper and sketch various arrangements. With respect to costs, estimates are easy to obtain and are vital before your plans become definite. Because landscaping can be expensive, it's often done in stages. Keep in mind your willingness and resources when it comes to yard maintenance. Avoid complicated landscaping features if you won't be able to maintain it.

Professional Help

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. Although landscape architects do mostly commercial work, many will consult with homeowners on an hourly basis and some will oversee entire residential jobs. Landscaping designers often do much the same work as landscape architects, but they have less training and usually are more plant oriented. 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 be able to complete the work yourself.

Trees and Topsoil

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.