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How to Implement Your Landscape Plan

Learn how to transform dreamy drawings into a property that's beautiful, enjoyable and adds value to your real estate.

1. Correct before cultivating. There's no point in adding pretty elements to a landscape that has unfavorable "pre-existing conditions" — you'll waste time and money. Before buying any plants, take care of any pH problems, poor drainage, fallen limbs or dead trees that could sabotage growing conditions.

2. Work out where you'll start. Of course you want it all right now, but the reality is that the average do-it-yourselfer cannot implement a landscape design in a couple of weekends. Instead, prioritize the order of tasks you'll take on.

It's tricky to decide whether to hardscape or plant trees, shrubs, perennials or annuals first. If you put in the walkways, walls and decks first, you won't have to trample an area you've planted. But if budget or time dictates that the hardscaping comes last, make sure to leave a little buffer zone unplanted around it to give yourself some extra work space. Keep in mind, you can always augment the landscape in progress with pots of annuals, container-grown vegetables or even potted shrubs like Norfolk pines — don't let a craving for color or "instant green" derail you from proceeding in the most practical sequence.

Last, understand that your best-laid plans may fall victim to a budget crunch or plants that simply aren't available in your area — or not yet. When that happens, revisit your priorities.

3. Adjust and accommodate. No landscape design is foolproof, so do plenty of double-checking on the listed trees, flowers and shrubs, making sure they're all cold-hardy and heat tolerant in your USDA hardiness zone.

The same goes for any substitutes you've arrived at on your own. Research them thoroughly so you know you'll be able to provide the climate, sun, shade and soil they need to survive — and note their growth rates and size at maturity so you're not creating cramped conditions. If you're a time-pressed gardener, make sure any plants you're including aren't pest-prone. And of course, always make sure that you won't be introducing an invasive species.

4. Buy with the best of them. It's way too easy to go hog-wild when you're buying trees, shrubs and other plants to implement your landscape design, but it's better to buy just the healthiest specimens at prices you can afford — and to avoid cutting corners with plants that are close to what the design dictates — but not close enough. If you forget the idea of instant gratification, you can save money by buying smaller versions (say, a one-gallon plant versus a five-gallon) that will thrive in your landscape design over time.

Even if you purchase all the components at once, be sure to shop at a place where an expert can answer your questions, and try to avoid plants that are already blooming or don't have a good, intact root system. And don't let appearances fool you. While those trees and shrubs may look like a yard of dead stick in the store, lots of them grow like the proverbial weed, so go by what you know of the species' mature size and buy only what's been laid out in the design plan.

5. Make your marks. There's a reason that landscape design has been drawn to scale, and you can give your plants their best start if you mark out the area according to the blueprint, using a measuring tape or yard stick and garden hose, a line of flour from a sifter or landscape marking paint.

Like you would any other building project, measure twice, plant once — and remember that the design should provide space so that people can move through the area easily and you should mark those areas, too.

6. Plant according to plan. Once you've mapped and marked the area, start digging! Any plant will need a hole at least two and a half times as wide as the root ball and you should never plant anything deeper than it was previously planted. In fact, leave it an inch or two above ground level and let mulch finish the rest.

And forget everything you know about container gardening when you plant a sapling. If you simply dig a big hole and add amended soil, the tree's roots will grow only to the edges of the hole and then start to girdle around the perimeter of the space. A better technique is to break up or cultivate the soil in a circular area around the location where the tree is to be planted.

Of course, if the surrounding soil is too hard or weak to support the sapling at all, amend the surrounding soil only as much as the tree needs to survive, and extend the amendment to an area several yards beyond the root ball. Another no-no: the old "volcano mulching," or mulching all the way up to the trunk, which diminishes a young tree's chance for survival.

7. Gain by maintaining. Most everybody would have a gorgeous landscape if you could just plant and wait for the sun, rain and chlorophyll to do the rest. But you will need to water, fertilize, maybe prune. How much and how often you water depends on the climate where you live, of course, but in general, younger plants need more water than established plants and all plants prefer thorough, infrequent watering. Watering too lightly makes their roots stay near the soil's surface, where they're susceptible to drought.
To find out what type of TLC is needed for plants in your area, it's always good to consult with the local extension agent, who should also be able to tell you about any water restrictions in your area.

8. Revisit your plan. The whole point of a landscape design is to minimize guesswork, but you'll still need to evaluate how well the plan is working for you. Every couple of months (and gardener's journals are great for this task), note which plants and spaces are succeeding and which are not — or which looked great in the planning stages but don't really reflect your preferences now that you see them in practice. It's okay to make replacements, as long as you research the new additions the same way you did at the start.

And keep in mind that just as the seasons change, your landscape design needs will require amendments over the years. Perhaps you'll develop a yen for an outdoor kitchen, for example, or decide you want some plantings for songbirds, or new kids or grandkids will require a grassy patch of lawn where before you were happy with hollies. When changes occur, it's back to the drawing board, but just for tweaks to your plan.

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