DIY - Landscape Design

After moving into a new home surrounded by bare dirt, it may be a daunting task to do much more than visualize your dream landscaping.

Take heart though; the end results of proper landscape design will be well worth the effort.

Too much sun, wind, lack of view or too much view of a neighboring property are all problems that effective landscape design can help you overcome. Even better, attractive landscaping can add as much as 17 percent to the value of your property; a $300,000 home could gain $50,000 when you go to sell it.

Landscaping consists both of hardscapes, the paved and permanent elements, and greenscapes, plants, trees and shrubs. Landscape themes such as Natural, English, Formal, Japanese, and Modern identify not only your property but also your tastes and preferences. Color, form, line, scale, and texture are primary landscape design elements.

Natural looking block designs that effectively incorporate planters and appealing water elements provide charming focus points.

Landscaping projects may be as big as a country estate or as small as a backyard cactus garden. Whether large or small, your landscaping will add beauty, utility and value to your home.

Professional assistance is a crucial part of landscape design.

Since landscape construction can be expensive, look to landscape architects, designers and contractors to help you get the most for your money. Professional fees are a surprisingly small amount of the total cost of landscaping, so it is money well spent.

Where should you start? Well, first, don’t rush into your project. It takes some time to visually consider your property’s environment. Take a few months to observe seasonal weather patterns, sunlight, wind and rain, and the native shrubs and trees around you. When winter comes, notice how leafless trees appear; when spring hits, compare shade and sun exposure differences.

Before you make plans for building a fence or planting shrubs and trees, take time to note how close neighbors are, how sounds and traffic might affect you. Also, take time to consider your family’s outdoor lifestyle; does it include active kids or active retirement?

Landscape design plans should consider the future, from use of your outdoor space to where power lines run to avoid damage from tree branches and roots as they grow. Where trees might deprive a deck of sun, shorter varieties should be considered. Remember, too, that it is better to spend a bit more on rock or concrete materials that will last than pay less for those that tend to break down quickly. Also, avoid extreme trends; a radical design that may seem avant-garde may have questionable appeal after a few years.

Before you set out, make sure you are not reinventing the wheel. If you have a current landscape that already suits many of your needs, perhaps just a few tweaks will help you achieve your goals. Wherever possible, build a landscape plan that weaves native plants into your surroundings for the obvious reasons that they "fit" well and will naturally do better.

Drive around the surrounding neighborhoods for comparison purposes and design ideas. Talk to landscape professionals and view model homes and recently completed commercial buildings with green spaces that are aesthetically pleasing. Keep in mind that plants are dynamic and changing. You cannot always accurately predict how plants will fill in and affect the visual impact of your yard and property.

Here is a checklist of ideas to keep in mind when planning your landscaping:

Theme and purpose

Although landscape design serves two goals, making your property more accessible and more physically or visually appealing, when you go to create the perfect landscape plan you should think about what you really want. Your property is finite, so your landscape design should fit your needs, not someone else’s. Avoid the temptation to install something just because a neighbor may have it. Each landscaping element should have a specific purpose.

Talk with your landscape professional about your priorities, hobbies, health concerns, preferences, and free time so he or she can customize a landscape master plan that takes these into account.

Consider where you’ll be in five to ten years; prestige elements may serve your long-term goals, but if you plan to retire elsewhere, create a landscape plan that maximizes resale appeal while minimizing cost.

Talk with your spouse and family members about what they want most; a play-yard, hot tub and lap pool are popular landscape elements, but you and your family may be tennis or volleyball fans. Pick amenities you already enjoy or would really use. If you provide day care, safety, accessibility, and seating around play areas might be your first priorities. If elderly family members may be moving in or spending extended stays, you will want to include plans to make what you do accessible for them as well.

Remember that because outdoor environments change seasonally you want to consider landscape elements that can serve you throughout the year.

Sources for ideas

Internet sites such as this one and library books are good places to get landscaping ideas, as are trade shows, garden clubs and showcased homes. Home and building centers usually provide free flyers with general ideas and tips, but the best place to get ideas is the world around you.

Bicycle or walk through your neighborhood and take in the details around you. You’ll see which trees do best, which types of concrete façade and pavement ideas particularly complement a particular style of home or landscape. Note which plants bloom at given times in the year, so you can plant shrubs and trees with staggering flowering periods.


Allergy prone? Watery eyes and sneezing are signs that you may have encountered a source of pollen or other irritant. As you walk or bicycle, find out what kinds of trees and plants prevail in your area and ask your allergist what kinds of local allergens create the most problems. Avoid planting trees, flowers or shrubs that are known to trigger allergies in many people.

Some kinds of landscape and hardscape elements can trigger allergies because they encourage the growth of certain types of mold and mildew, and some people can be allergic to pine shavings, used in walkways and as plant bedding.

‘Street legal’ issues

Certain landscape and hardscape elements may be restricted in your city or neighborhood so check building codes and planning regulations as well as homeowner association requirements and deed restrictions. A community may be trying to return to native plants and want to discourage or actively prevent planting so-called exotic trees and shrubs.


Consider the time and energy you personally want to devote to your landscaping and select plants and themes that fit. Are you a rose grower or hands-on gardener? Then leave "blank" space with proper drainage and irrigation for flowers and food crops you will enjoy growing. A trellis or arbor for instance might do double-duty as a blackberry support; a barbecue area could be effectively set off with raised planters you might use for growing lettuce and tomatoes.

If, on the other hand, you consider landscaping on the same level as elephants—enjoyable to view but an upkeep nightmare—consider low maintenance elements that might include automated irrigation, patios, rock gardens, ornamental trees and shrubs, and no-mow ground cover plants. 

The bird’s eye view

In helping you visualize "the big picture," landscape professionals often use terms like "focalization" and "framing" to create landscaping that is balanced and in harmony with surroundings. It is usually better to build a master plan than to try to integrate separate elements so that each element will effectively harmonize with your home, your existing landscape, your region, and your sense of style. This is especially where a professional landscape architect’s sense of aesthetic balance and texture can prove invaluable. Your mind’s eye can help you bring together all the elements, but keep in mind that a particular theme may be quite different than you may expect. A sketch or design software package can also help you visualize your landscape plan, but your best source of assistance is your landscape designer, architect or contractor.

Cost considerations

Admittedly, landscaping done well does not come cheaply, so care in selecting landscape professionals will go along way in bringing you value for your dollars. Here are some general tips:

  • Plan landscaping in more affordable stages; add new elements as budgets permit.
  • Plant lower priced ground cover and flowers before tackling the costlier elements; you should consider walkways before you build, say a gazebo.
  • Even if you cannot afford everything right now, spend money up front on a professional landscape plan you can refer to as you go.
  • Get professional bids and compare projects.
  • Select lower-maintenance elements; they will save you future upkeep and replacement costs.
  • Plan to do some of the work yourself; you’ll save money and get a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.

Professional design assistance

Professional assistance can come on various levels and include architects, designers and contractors, who specialize in areas like masonry, plants, hardscape, decking, and irrigation.

Although landscape architects usually handle commercial projects, they also work for homeowners. Typical minimum fees for home landscape design run in the range of $1,000 to $2,000. This fee usually covers a report, sketches or a computerized rendering, and cost estimates for materials and labor.

A qualified landscape architect is usually a good idea if your budget is $20,000 or more, and the results could well last for generations.

Landscape designers may have less formal training and their expertise leans toward greenscapes. Some landscape designers work for nurseries and garden companies and the cost of their services may be rolled into large purchases of trees and plants.

If you are planning extensive hardscapes, like sidewalks, decks, walls and gazebos, you will usually need to contact a landscape contractor.

Landscape contractors handle the actual construction in a landscape project. A masonry specialist will handle block walls and paver installation, while a concrete contractor would normally handle jobs like walkways and patios. A plumber or landscape irrigation contractor can install and set up sprinklers and timers, while a landscape maintenance contractor can handle not only the regular job of pruning and mowing, but also replace simple items like broken sprinklers and plants.

Be sure to check references and get the addresses of projects completed by a contractor. Be sure you and/or your contractor consult with an engineer if you expect to have slope and drainage challenges on your property.

The ‘native’ advantage

Landscape design was once an extension of America’s sense of exploration and settlement; bold and transforming. Often, English and European landscape ideas were pressed upon the new continent and even in recent generations, new home development projects re-sculpted the land, eschewing native plants and trees.

As landscape professionals began to realize that traditionalism didn’t always fit America’s contemporary personality, they began putting new design ideas into practice, protecting natural surroundings and weaving them into landscape master plans.

The following practices tend to create landscapes that better harmonize your natural surroundings...

Retain native trees and plants; existing foliage is best suited to your weather and growing conditions. Mature trees are a source of shade and beauty, while adding value to your property. So, take steps to care for native plants and soil during home and landscape construction. Have small trees and bushes transplanted instead of destroying them; similarly, you should make sure to have native soils on your property protected by removing and stockpiling them for later reuse.

Whether planning desert xeriscaping or avoiding materials that will deteriorate in wet climates, your landscape professional’s design should not only address your dreams but also allow for plants that thrive in the areas and climates in which they are placed.