Before You Dig In

This is the time to dream big—you can rein in your wildest ideas later, if need be. Start by making a list of everything you want in your outdoor space, even if the list is a mile long. Then use the following key considerations to separate the musts from the maybes.


How do you want to live in your outdoor space? What kinds of activities would you like to indulge in? Do you want an outdoor dining room with seating for eight? A fire pit to extend fall evenings beyond dusk? Write it all down. Then prioritize the list.


How do you want your landscape to look and how do you want to feel in it? Gather images of garden spaces you love, with an eye to style, colors, materials, plants, and furniture. Websites are an ideal place to start. Take note—or better yet, photos—of gardens you admire in your neighborhood or on your travels. Leaf through design magazines and books. Put together a physical binder of images as well as an online file on Pinterest. As you do so, you’re bound to see certain styles or themes emerge. Perhaps you’re drawn to English country gardens drenched in green, or modern landscapes with simple lines. Is there a lot of stonework in the gardens you like, or particular color schemes or types of plants? After you have a clear direction, take stock of the images and delete any that don’t fit.


Decide on a “not to exceed” dollar amount. If you’re working with a landscape architect or designer, give him or her a clear idea of your budget at the start, so the project can be designed within your parameters. See how much of your wish list can be included in the master plan; you can always scale back. Or use the master plan as a goal to work toward in phases.
Budgets matter on more than one level. You want to be realistic about how much you can spend, and you also want to get the best value for your money in terms of cost and quality. According to the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, spending 5 to 10 percent of your home’s value on a basic, well-designed landscape can reap as much as 200 percent in return. If your house is worth $500,000, for example, this translates into spending $25,000 to $50,000 to see its value increase an average of $50,000 to $100,000. Basic and well designed are the key words here; the numbers vary widely depending on the scale and scope of your project. Splurge-worthy items such as mature trees, stonework, or an outdoor kitchen will increase the cost but could add even more to the property value in the end.


If an environmentally friendly landscape is a priority (as it should be), put that at the top of your wish list. It will influence everything from building materials and plant selection to irrigation and maintenance.


Keeping a garden in good shape requires time and money. Be realistic about how much of both you’re willing to spend. Are you an avid gardener or do you prefer to just mow and occasionally weed? Are you planning to hire a gardener for seasonal planting and pruning, or do you want a team to come by every week? If low maintenance is a must, lean toward an easygoing landscape that requires minimal care. Your design team can let you know up front if the items on your list are in line with the maintenance level you want.


Take cues from the siting and architectural style of your house. First, consider the physical characteristics of your site. Is it flat or sloped? Which areas get sun and which are shady? These considerations affect the design and the cost. Tip: Working with the natural lay of the land almost always has a lower price tag.
If your home’s style is traditional, try complementing it with clean, modern garden lines. If the house is contemporary, soften it with curving beds and pathways. Look at the axis from your front or back door or a favorite window and see where your eye falls. Load that point with something special—an amazing tree or garden ornament. Pick up on the house’s exterior materials, such as stone or brick, and repeat them somewhere in the landscape.


Obviously, the climate where you live will determine which plants you can grow. Check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map online to find out your climate zone. The map is based on the average annual extreme minimum temperature, and it will give you an idea of which plants can thrive in your area. Jasmine and citrus trees won’t survive freezing winters, for example, while tulips struggle to make a yearly comeback in temperate climates. If you have four seasons, design for year-round interest—spring and summer blooms, fall color, winter silhouettes. If you live in the desert, consider well-placed containers that can take up the slack when plants go dormant.


Find out the type of soil native to where you live and determine its condition in different parts of your garden. (Landscape architects and designers usually include soil testing in the scope of their work.) Soil conditions will influence plant selection and tell you how much drainage work needs to be done.


Depending on the scope of your project, you may need to apply for building approval or permits. A new deck or arbor, a retaining wall over a certain height, and grading that affects drainage patterns are just a few of the items that can require approvals or permits. Estimate the time it will take to get them and add that to your schedule. (Unless you’re going it alone, your design team or contractor will likely obtain these for you.)


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