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How to Design Your Landscape: A Guide for the Novice

Updated on June 24, 2014
Bloodgood variety of the Japanese maple
Bloodgood variety of the Japanese maple

Landscaping serves several purposes for you and your home. It can increase resale value by up to 10%. It also can be used to hide utility devices like air conditioners or meters that do not add to the beauty of your home. Things to keep in mind when deciding on vegetation are:

  • Climate
  • Soil type of your yard
  • Area you have to work with
  • Buried utilities

The first step is mapping out your land. This includes mapping out property lines, your home, driveways, sidewalks, existing trees and shrubs, underground and above ground utility lines, etc. Mapping these out to scale will allow you to get a better picture of what you have to work with. For full scale landscaping of your property, it's even more important that you take the extra time up front and create a to-scale map of the property.

The next step after making your map is doing an analysis of how much sun or shade different areas get. It's also important to know how much airflow there is in different regions of your prospective landscaping area. This is because some plants, like roses, require good air movement to avoid disease. Sun or shade will partially dictate what can be grown in that particular spot. Soil type, however, can be altered unlike the other two. Poor soil doesn't have to dictate what you plant in your landscape. It can be amended physically and chemically to make it suitable for what ever you may want to plant.

The third step is assessing what you need from the property. Things like space for children to play, space for future land improvements, and storage needs must be factored into your plan. Failing to take any of these into accounts can lead to wasted money in the long run. If you have children, you may want space in your yard for activities, which means more space needs to be left to allow for this. If you're planning on putting in a patio as part of your landscape, make sure that is marked in your map to avoid causing complications down the road.

The fourth step is to decide what you are trying to accomplish with your landscape design.

Are you trying to create privacy? You can plant evergreens like yews or arborvitaes that grow to be tall to create natural fences or borders.

Conserve energy? Tree lines can decrease how much wind and sunlight affect the house, decreasing energy costs.

One common goal of landscaping is to create beauty by accentuating the land you are working with. This can be done by grouping plants together and the use of construction materials like landscaping blocks, railroad ties, or landscaping timbers. This is where you decide what plants to put together and in what order. Also, this is where you may consider designs for a patio, arbor, or other structures/land improvements that will be built into the landscape.

Using different colors and sizes of plants can be used to create focal points. Structures like bench swings, bird baths, or arbors can also be used. It is from these focal points that you will develop your landscaping. To be aesthetically pleasing, and therefor successful, they should incorporate contrasting sizes, colors, and shapes. Also, using plants that bloom at different times of year will help you avoid having a landscape that becomes dull at one point or another during the year.

For example, as a focal point you may plant a Japanese maple tree. It is a shade loving dwarf tree that is a unique looking tree in the maple family. To layer sizes around it, you may plant smaller shrubs or flowers around it like hostas, hydrangeas, rhododendrons, or azaleas. These will also provide different sizes and shapes as well as different colors. It is important to note as well that using too many layers can look bad (sometimes called too "busy"). By the same token, having plants planted too densely or having too many colors can make your landscape look too cluttered or "busy".

If you're building a structure as a focal point. Be sure to take into account the colors of the blooms and foliage of what you're growing around it, as it may clash with the color of different structures like colored landscaping blocks. Using different heights can give you a layered look while also giving you some privacy from patios or decks.

The selection of plants and materials will have a lot to do with a theme or style you are going with. This is also affected by the design/style of your home. The type of plants used will also be affected by your usable space and what you have beneath the soil. For example, if you have a septic system in your yard, you will not want to plant too many trees. Trees can grow into the pipes and cause back ups or even break the pipes themselves. Planting large plants in tight areas will mean having to cut them back later on, which can leave the plant looking deformed or otherwise unattractive to onlookers. Researching varieties of plants as well as the characteristics is important. Characteristics like whether or not they like shade, color of the foliage and blooms, and physical size of the mature plant are important things to understand. Knowing what types of soils the plants you pick out grow best in will decide what soil amendments, if any, are needed when you start.

Personal preference will be a prevailing qualification for a lot of the things you decide to incorporate into your landscape. Ultimately, it's your home, it's your landscaping project, and you are the one that will have to live with the decisions you make. Take your time on the research, mapping, and design and you'll build your perfect landscape.


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