Landscaping 101

What New Homeowners Need to Know & Do

Brown house with wooden pillar balcony has artistically designed chairs arranged in its front.

A timber trellis defines this brick patio as white flowers spill from an over-sized planter. The Siena new home community by Irvine Pacific. Orange County, CA.

There’s a relationship between your home and your landscape—the house exists in reference to its surroundings. The relationship can be good; it can be less so; it can land anywhere on the continuum between the two.

Ideally the scale of your new home and its landscape will mesh well initially and over time—one will not dwarf the other. Other considerations as you think about a longer-term landscape plan for your new home are style, function and longevity.

The very best house-landscape relationships are thought through before either is designed and built. Where possible, especially if you're building a custom home, develop plans for your house and garden together, so that the designs for each work well together. If you're working with a higher-volume builder (perhaps in a new home community) and your home comes with an initial landscaping package, you can use that as your starting point. 

In either case, as a homeowner, you'll have the opportunity to add to your home's landscaping thoughtfully as soon as you move in, and also over the years. As you get started with your landscaping plan, here are some basics to consider. 

Save the trees

Are there mature trees or hedges already on the property? If so, retain them wherever possible, as they add character to the design and establish a significant sense of place.

If your lot does not offer mature trees, all is not lost. There are landscape nurseries that specialize in mature plants, and while these farms are few and few between, they do deliver, even from out of state.

One such nursery, Acorn Farm, carries full-grown espalier, specimen trees, boxwood hedges, and much, much more. Their website is the stuff of a plant-lovers dream. If it’s three-story magnolia your heart desires, you’ll find it here. While these plants come with a hefty price tag, two or three well-placed choices will transform your lot, making not just the landscape but the home look and feel more established than it is. 

Select a plant palette

Even if you’re going to be working with a landscaper, go into that dialogue with some knowledge under your belt. The most important opinion to be armed with is which plants you want to have, otherwise you might end up with run-of-the-mill plants that everyone has, or worse yet, plants that are not indigenous to your locale. 
Growing plants that are native means that you won’t have to work as hard to keep them alive, because they have evolved to thrive in the environment without special treatment.

And by using native plants, you won't have to worry that you’ve planted their opposite, invasive plants that will take over your yard and squeeze the life out of your other plants with the demands they place on the soil and their constant search for water. Another bonus? Native plants actually look better, because they naturally blend with the surrounding area. Who wants a New England landscape in Texas -- or vice versa? Not I. 

The best resource for plant information is your local cooperative extension office. What exactly is that? As a service to the public and agriculture businesses, state universities throughout the U.S. run research and education centers staffed with plant experts who are happy to help you choose the plants that are best in your area, teach you how to plant and grow them, and give you advice if you have any trouble with pests, irrigation or plant diseases. I’ve always found extension agents to be friendly and willing to go the extra mile to get me going in the right direction.

Another great way to choose plants is to drive around town looking at what other people have planted. Take pictures of the plants you like most, and if you don’t know what they’re named, an extension agent or nursery worker can help you identify them. Once you have your list of “must-haves,” you’ll feel more prepared to meet with a landscaper.

Consider your use of space

You know what plants you want, but how should they be arranged? What kind of outdoor spaces will define your landscape? Talk with your partner and/or family about how each of you wants to use the landscape. The checklist below will help facilitate those conversations:

  • Are there certain activities you do outside, like dining, entertaining or swimming? These activities will determine whether you should allocate space for a table, pool, spa or patio.
  • New trendsare on the rise: outdoor bathing, movie viewing and even sleeping under the stars. Research trends in outdoor living to see if there’s an idea out there that you want to incorporate into your lifestyle.
  • Are you an accomplished home chef? An outdoor pizza oven or even a fullyoutfitted outdoor kitchencould be in your near future. Have you always wanted a vegetable garden? You’re planning a brand-new landscape, so now is the time. The pleasures of home-grown edibles are endless, fueling your passion for cooking, and supporting your quest for good health. Consider how much room you’d like to delegate to growing veggies, and what kinds you’d like to grow.
  • Are there certain views you want to take advantage of? Walk around your lot and see if there is a focal point in the distance (or even close by) that you want to frame with your new landscape.

Meet with a landscaper

You’ve done a lot of legwork to prepare for your new relationship with a landscape designer. During your initial meetings, you’ll look at their portfolio, show them the plant lists and other notes and ideas you’ve already collected, and visit the site where you’re future landscape will live.

The best resource for finding the right landscaper for you is the website for the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, which has an easy “Find a Designer” tool. Why does it matter that your landscaper is a certified professional with a good track record? Because you’ll not just end up with a more beautiful landscape than you would otherwise, you’ll get one that’s more sustainable, too. The professionals who belong to the APLD are trained in the principles of ecology and design, and understand the connection between the two.

Having taken the steps above, you'll be off to a good start designing a landscape to surround your new home that's as appealing and as thoughtful as the interior spaces of your new home. 

Sarah Kinbar is a freelance writer and editor for leading print and online publications. Formerly editor in chief of Garden Design, she has also written and edited for Cottage Living, Modern magazine and Orlando Arts. You can find her on Google+.

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