By Katie Elzer-Peters
Landscaping the Backyard
Landscaping the backyard can turn a formerly barren piece of property into a pleasant oasis for relaxation and fun. Before landscaping the back yard, consider the following factors that will influence your landscape design:
• How the family uses the yard
• Landscaping elements already in the yard
• New landscape elements desired
• Areas that need to be screened or hidden
• Acceptable level of maintenance after completion
• Growing conditions
Examining and addressing each of the factors will help you design and install landscaping to enhance your family’s experience and enjoyment of your backyard.
Use of the Backyard
Some families use their yard to play games-volleyball, soccer, or bocce. Others have young children and the associated swing sets, sand boxes and outdoor toys associated with them. Some backyards are largely filled with a swimming pool, deck or porch. Pets have an entirely different set of needs. Before planning your new backyard landscaping, think about how you use the yard, or would use it if the conditions were right. Do you wish you had a vegetable garden? Trees to climb? Less turf to mow? Factor in your current and desired use while planning.
Existing Landscaping Elements in the Yard
Elements currently part of the landscape will influence any new additions. Large trees cast shadows and create shady areas where some plants will grow and flourish, but others will not. Are there any fences, sheds or other features that you need to plan around? You don’t have to start from a blank slate in order to have a beautiful landscape. Sometimes, existing trees or features will give you ideas or inspiration.
Here are some ideas for working around existing features:
• If you have a tool shed that you want to hide, add a trellis along the side and grow vines, climbing roses or other plants that need to be staked. If you are really ambitious, you can espalier an apple tree or pear tree along the side of the building.
• If you have a pool in your back yard that has no landscaping around it, consider digging beds around the corners of the deck. Incorporate taller perennials, tropicals or trees to add height, and a sense of enclosure from the overall back yard.
• Children’s play areas can be spruced up and delineated with a landscape bed border containing an alphabet garden, an outer-space garden, a pizza or spaghetti garden. In addition to a swing set, or other playground equipment, consider planting a special children’s garden for your little ones. A sunflower house, tunnel of beans, and a little, child-safe water feature will make the back yard much more interesting to kids.
• Border your vegetable garden with perennial and herb landscape beds. These flowering plants will attract pollinators to the vegetables, resulting in bigger yields.
• Hide the compost pile with a mixed border of perennials, annuals and small trees. Make sure that you don’t shade the area too much, because the compost still needs to heat up in order to break down. If you can’t screen the compost heap, consider buying a compost bin. They’re inexpensive, and blend into the landscaping.
• Screen the view of your neighbor’s yard with a row of edibles or a border vegetable garden. Plant blueberries, or raspberries in the backyard along your property line. Apple trees on dwarf rootstocks are also fun, and will stay relatively small. Other good screening plants include arborvitae, viburnum, tea olive, boxwood, camellias, and other evergreen shrubs.
New Landscape Elements Desired
If you are re-landscaping your back yard, or landscaping a new yard, before you begin is the time to plan. Even if you can’t install the entire landscape plan at one time, you can still forecast your needs and have a “mini-master plan” for your own back yard. Parks and large public gardens work off of many-page master plans as they grow and increase in size. There’s no reason why homeowners can’t use the same technique to ensure that additions to their backyard landscape are consistent.
How to Think Your Way Through a Design
Step 1. Write down all of the features that you wish you had as part of your landscape and can actually see yourself adding. (You could write down every thing you might ever possibly want, but if you don’t think you will actually build a pool or a tree house, leave it off the plan.) Consider the following additions:
• Play house
• Swing set
• Screened-in porch
• Paved patio
• Vegetable garden
• Addition to the house
• Storage shed
• Extra parking
• Sports areas
• Turf areas (do you want to increase or decrease the size of turf areas?)
Step 2. Assess the growing conditions of the area of the yard where you would like to add landscaping. Is is sunny or shady? Does the soil drain fast, or is there an area that is always wet? Do you have acidic (low pH) soil, or alkaline (high pH soil)? Do you have an irrigation system? Are you comfortable doing a lot of maintenance, or do you want plants that are easier to care for? Do any areas need an addition of mulch, compost, topsoil or other amendments? Should any of the existing plants/trees need to be pruned or removed?
Thinking over these factors will let you develop a list of conditions for plants, for instance:
Backyard- need plants that like full sun, well-drained, dry soil.
Front yard- need plants that like morning sun, afternoon shade and wet soil
Those characteristics will narrow down your list of potential plants quickly.
Step 3. Make a drawing of the areas you would like to address. Your drawing doesn’t have to look like a landscape architect’s. It is important to determine the types of plants, numbers and spacing so that you will purchase the correct amount of plants and order the right amount of soil or mulch. Sketch out existing features, and then think add new plants. For most people, drawing in “plan view” is easier than “elevation view.” Plan view drawings show what an area would look like if you were looking straight down on it.
Start with large plants like trees and shrubs. Then, add perennials, annuals and bulbs. You can be as fancy and specific or as vague as you like. If you want to make sure that there is something blooming in a specific bed during every season, you can use different colored pencils to indicate where spring blooming plants are in relation to summer blooming plants.
If it helps you to figure out spacing, get a one-gallon container, a ten-gallon bucket and a four inch pot and go out to the areas you want to landscape and estimate the number of plants you will need and the space between them. When you are finished with your drawing, make a shopping list!
Step 4. Prepare your landscape beds, tilling, adding compost, and any other preparation before you purchase your plants and bring them home. The faster the plants go from the garden center to the ground, the better.
After You Install the New Landscaping
It is important to care for your new plants. Water them frequently until they are well-established. (One way you can determine this is by giving a gentle tug. If the plant is resistant to being pulled out of the ground, it has started to grow roots!) Try to keep kids and pets out of newly landscaped areas for two or three weeks.
After the hard work of landscaping the back yard is done, it is time to relax and enjoy!
Katie Elzer-Peters is a freelance writer living in Wilmington, NC. Her writing and PR business, The Garden of Words, L.L.C. serves clients all over the world. In her free time, Katie bicycles, surfs, reads books, and, of course, gardens.