Sunday, April 6, 2014

Landscape Plan: Lessons Learned, Pitfalls to Avoid

In a related post, "Landscaping: Plan Your Garden, Garden Your Plan", I talked all about how my husband and I began our landscape garden with an exterior renovation project in 2004.  In case you're jumping into a landscape project this spring, or planning one sometime in the future, these two posts may be quite helpful to you, especially if you want to do the work yourself.  This post is a look at our garden now, ten years after the initial planting, along with a summary of lessons learned and pitfalls to avoid from the project.

Just to recap:  The house and garden lots, combined, are approximately 100' wide, and 100' deep; the main garden is about half of that total space, or 50' x 100'.

Below is a photo of the mature landscape from within the brick wall, looking from the farthest back corner of the yard, 2013:
And here is the view from that same corner of the yard, just after planting in 2004:
The front corner of the landscape, looking toward the next door neighbor's house, with azaleas and snowflake viburnum in bloom, spring 2013:
The aerial view of that same corner, spring 2005, just six months after the initial planting:
One of our specimen plants, the weeping cedar atlas, fall, 2013 (supports are for training the branches and all perennial underplantings had been cut down and cleaned out):
During winter 2014....
And the weeping cedar, just after planting, spring of 2005:
Our magnolia, summer 2013:
The magnolia, spring 2005, following initial planting (not even as tall as the trellis next to it):
As I mentioned in the post prior, the main lesson learned in planting a garden is to plan your garden and then garden the plan you settle on.  In other words, make a plan, lay it out on paper and/or the dirt.  Below are more of our top lessons learned and pitfalls to avoid that may save you money.
  1. Make a budget and know how much you want to spend on landscaping.  Landscaping is not for the faint of heart - it requires work, so either plan on doing the work yourself, or plan for landscaping service in your budget.  Don't forget to plan the maintenance - it is time-consuming, and time is money; therefore, plan to spend one or both.  Even container planting can be expensive, so plan accordingly. Also, landscaping maintenance is ongoing, so while the initial planting is a one-time expense, the maintenance is recurring.
  2. Save any dirt you dig (unless your earth is full of rock, but, seriously, even consider the rocks for landscaping also)!  We had a lot of dirt turned over for the very first time, and it was rich, river bottom soil.  We made a HUGE mistake of letting much of it be hauled away once excavated (because it was inconveniently in the way of construction), only to have to pay for dirt to be hauled back in once landscaping was finished.  It was not the same rich dirt.
    Footers dug, with excavated dirt positioned for re-use
  3. Do some research, either your own or by paying someone (landscaper) to do it for you.  We did both - we hired a landscaper, and I did a lot of research on ideas I had and on those suggested by the landscaper.  Read magazines, search the internet, visit nurseries - either big box or small businesses - you can get a lot of information by engaging in conversation with managers / employees. You need to know how big a plant is expected to grow in its maturity in order to optimize your land and your budget.  
  4. Learn which plants thrive in your conditions, and 'think green' by selecting plants that are native to your growing region.  Learn your USDA hardiness planting region, your landscape's sun exposure (shady, part sun, full sun), and learn your soil type (see #6). This knowledge is power, and will save you money in the long-run by making smart selections.
  5. Google "master gardening ____", wherein _____ is your state, and you should see resources for university extension offices (with .edu as the suffix of the resource), an extremely valuable resource. For example: http://mastergardeners.ext.wvu.edu/ .  Within this resource page, depending on how your state is structured, there may links to local offices near you (for me, it's a county extension office).  These agencies offer more information than you could ever need as a casual gardener, but also offer programs for certification to become a master gardener.  I became a certified master gardener a couple years after my garden was established, in order to better understand my own garden, but could have used the information sooner.
  6. Have your soil tested before planting.  Your local extension office (see #5) will typically do this service free of charge, and it can save you a LOT of money before investing in plants that simply won't thrive in your garden.  It is best to take several samples from all around the yard to have tested, as soil composition can vary greatly around the landscape.
  7. Plan for utilities in your landscape before you plant.  Does your current set up take into account planned lighting and water needs? We mitigated this issue by extending our utilities throughout the property, both water supply and electrical. One of the smartest things we did was to run the utilities under our road, across the street, to reach our river property, in the event we wanted to build a dock or gazebo in the future, or for immediate, general maintenance.
    Underground utility conduit, run under the road, from main property to riverbank, for future development
  8. You don't have to plant everything at once; your garden can be installed in phases.  Phasing in your landscape not only helps in budgeting, but allows the opportunity to test the experience to see if it's worth your investment. Adjustments to the plan can be made more easily with a phased approach. Do you want more hardscape such as rock paths or walls, benches or chairs, a trellis, gazebo or pergola and less plantings, or vice versa?  
  9. Once your garden is planted, be aware that changes are inevitable.  For us, our region was rezoned eight years after initial planting from zone 6 to zone 7 (more moderate to more southern & tropical)! Our biggest and most costly pitfall here was in losing three white birch trees in our landscape.  They were marginally rated for our area before the rezoning, we took a chance, and eventually all three succumbed to birch bore.  Not only did we lose established shade growth in the landscape, but we lost specimens with year-round interest (the bark is beautiful all year). But when you have lemons, you make lemonade, so the cut birch logs are now part of my indoor decor.  The point is to go with the flow of nature (while paying attention to point #4, above). 
    Interesting, paper bark of white birch tree amidst a massing of white anemones
  10. Sometimes you'll get more than you bargain for with your plants - sometimes planned, other times not planned. Good examples of planned bargain are with liriope (commonly referred to as monkey grass), and several other perennial plants such as the anemones pictured above.  These plants multiply naturally in the garden, so if you want to exercise patience and a phased approach, you can divide your plants and replant in other areas of your garden (liriope), or you can let them reseed themselves (anemones).  Just remember, when you do plant, you want a careful balance in making a visible impact versus overplanting.  You want enough plants so that they are visible (massing), but you don't want to plant so many that they fight to survive, choking themselves out in competition for nutrients. Blooming eventually suffers and plants die when overplanted or crowded from years of growth or multiplying without division. An example of getting more than bargained (unplanned) is in choosing a hybrid plant variety. The maple tree variety pictured below was selected for the specific purpose of camouflaging the utility pole behind it (at the back of our property along the alleyway).   
    Maple tree viewed from inside yard, camouflaging utility pole outside center of brick wall in alleyway 
    The hybrid we selected was supposed to mature at about half of the typical 35-50' height of so many maples, but because hybrids don't always turn out to be what you think you've bought, you end up with something else (such as something closer to the root on which the hybrid variety was grafted to grow; in this case, a taller variety) - it happens.  Our pitfall in this hybrid selection is the added maintenance of having to trim the tree more often to avoid the power lines.  Continuous pruning may eventually hurt the tree's natural growth to where it could die and need to be replaced.
    Maple tree viewed from alleyway, outside of brick wall, with utility pole directly behind
  11. Gardening grows the spirit, and it also grows friendships. Once you start gardening, it becomes a springboard for conversation with neighbors and passersby.  Exchanging plants or gifting some of those divided plants is a sure way to befriend a neighbor, and you can also donate your divided plants to your local school or extension office for their fundraisers.  You can even sell your divided plants at your own yard sale to recoup some of your investment.  The overall reward and satisfaction of getting in the dirt, getting dirty, finding my happy place, and relaxing in the calm of the job well done is something words can't even adequately describe for me; it just is.
    Lilies purchased for tabletop decor, later transplanted into the garden for future flourishing
    Heirloom irises, divided by a friend, transplanted into my garden
  12. A mature and well-maintained landscape garden can up your curb appeal and increase your property value by up to 10% of comparable properties otherwise, according to web research.  Conversely, a poorly maintained garden can decrease your home's value, so know what you're getting into before embarking on landscaping your property, and be willing to commit to it.  
    First blooms of spring, front lawn
  13. Good fences make good neighbors - it's true.  If you don't live in city limits or a developed subdivision, this may not apply to you, but within city limits, it's nice to have a clear division between properties. While we value neighbors, we value our privacy, too. Landscaping can provide a fence itself, but the actual hardscape of a fence can keep out unwanted critters of various kinds.  Fences can also provide a sort of micro-climate within a landscape, helping to ward off damaging winds and extreme temperatures, acting as a shield around plantings.
  14. Journaling your garden is a great way to document the changes over the years to better understand fluctuations in the success & failure of plants.  Besides keeping the design plan, the tags from plants installed, and research on my plants, I even keep a monthly printout from the weather.com website that shows the actual temperatures and waterfall recorded at month's end.  The garden also makes for beautiful subject matter in photography, which complements the journaling.
    Garden in winter
  15. Be mindful that no matter how much time and money you invest in your landscape, stuff still happens. Plants get diseased, critters manage to interfere, and things do change. The good news is that the garden is ever-changing.  The lesson learned:  let the garden be.  It's a trial and error process.
    Lingering days of fall in the garden
I hope there's a takeaway or two for those of you reading this, along with the previous post, on landscape gardening. My intent was to share our plan design (just one of thousands), the experience, the lessons learned and the pitfalls to avoid, in the hopes that you'll save some time and/or money with your own plan. Your feedback is always welcome.

If you'd like to see more of my garden, here are a few other related posts from the past year with many more photos, all previously published:
Gardening Grows the Spirit 2012
Collected Cast of Characters in My Garden
Here's What's Blooming in My Garden Now
A Walk in the Garden Today
Plan Now! Annual Flower Container Ideas
I also invite you to follow My Garden Board on Pinterest, which has a fairly good following, if you prefer that method of media interaction.

(Thank you to Dwellingsthe Dedicated House and Creative Country Mom for featuring this post!)

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