By National Gardening Association Editors

We wish we could tell you that creating a landscape was a sure-fire proposition, as easy as "one-two-three." The truth is that home landscaping that really works and pleases its owners is the product of a fair amount of time and attention. Mind you, it's work of the most pleasant sort, but it will take some effort on your part. Over the years, we've come to the conclusion that the more specific you can be with your landscaping likes and dislikes, and the more concrete you can be in describing your dreams and desires, the more likely you'll end up with a successful landscape. This is the best way to ensure that your landscape turns out the way you want it to be.

Your Landscaping Scrapbook

In an effort to be as specific and concrete as possible, the first step into your new landscape is a purely imaginary one--a scrapbook filled with specific images that appeal to you. Here are the supplies you'll need to assemble: a binder, approximately 200 sheets of binder paper, scissors, several sharp pencils with good erasers, tape, ruler, and a few sheets of standard graph paper.

With these materials--combined with an armful of home and garden magazines--the object is to create your own personal garden design scrapbook. The scrapbook will be invaluable on trips to the nursery, hardware store, or lumberyard, and it will help you avoid disappointments when you deal with contractors, carpenters, bricklayers, concrete masons, and landscapers.

If you take the time to create a binder filled with the specifics of what you like in a garden, you'll go a long way in answering questions decisively. Instead of waving your hands in the air and hoping for the best, your landscaping binder will allow you to point to the exact thing you want: "I want this pattern picket for the fence, with this type of finial on the posts, the whole thing painted white, with a gate exactly like this, with this--right here--this set of hinges and that type of latch." In their defense, contractors and tradespeople are put in a difficult position when they are expected to make real what they think is in the client's mind. So do everyone a favor: Assemble your own landscaping scrapbook before the first shovelful of earth is turned.

Each time you see something appealing in a photograph or illustration, cut the picture out of the magazine and tape it to a piece of binder paper. Be sure to make notations on the paper as to what it is, specifically, that you like. Three months later, in an entirely different frame of mind, you may find yourself wondering what it was in the photograph that caught your eye.

Three-Dimensional Thinking

Once you've collected your early memories and your present-day ideas, it's time to make use of that graph paper--as long as you heed a couple of important warnings.

The most creative people can become robots when faced with a sheet of graph paper. Just because there are little blue squares all over the page in a perfect grid pattern doesn't mean you aren't allowed to draw a curve, or draw a line in-between two of the printed lines. Remember, you are the one determining the plans, not the graph paper.

While virtually every book ever written on the subject of home landscaping stresses the importance of committing a plan to paper, the abstract, precise nature of the process presents some hazards to creativity. Yes, it is important for you to know the dimensions of the lot, which direction the prevailing winds blow, what the exposure of the yard is (morning or afternoon sun or shade), the location of water spigots, electrical outlets, etc., etc. But there's something in putting these hard-and-fast facts down on paper that makes it possible to design the life and spirit right out of the project.

If you think you may be subject to the tyranny of graph paper, neutralize its effect by starting the composition of the plan outdoors. To do this, take your landscaping scrapbook to the yard, along with a few dozen 12-inch wooden stakes, a half-dozen 6-foot, 2-by-2 wooden stakes (available at any lumberyard), a spool of heavy cotton string or twine (500 feet should do), a couple of long garden hoses, two handfuls of clothespins, and a few old bed sheets. An odd list of equipment, to be sure, but it works.

Put your equipment aside for a moment, and take a good look at your scrapbook. What have you got? You may have some ideas for fences, a play area for the kids, a deck or patio, perhaps a gazebo or an arbor, a really great tree house, an outside eating and cooking area, an expanse of grass laid out with lawn games in mind, or even a fountain, swimming pool, or spa. Your challenge is to arrange the elements you want in the space available. To successfully meet this challenge, you should know every corner of your yard intimately. You may think you know it already, but you'd be surprised at how many people are locked into only one viewing position, usually about 6 feet away from the back door!

Getting to Know Your Yard

Get acquainted with your yard by walking its perimeter all the way to the edges of the property. While you walk, keep looking back at your house. Is there a spot, somewhere toward the rear or to the side of the yard, where the view of your house is particularly pleasant? Would this be the best place for a small, freestanding deck or patio, just right for a couple of chairs? Or is there a spot beneath a group of mature trees at the back of the yard that you discover to be delightfully shady?

Conventional wisdom has it that outdoor eating areas should be located as close to the house as possible, but a big picnic table under that far-off leafy canopy just might be the nicest place to enjoy a meal. It's worth considering.

The next step is putting mock-ups of the various elements into position using the stakes, string, and sheets. Any rectilinear feature, such as a deck, patio, swimming pool, or sandbox, can be outlined using the stakes and string. Simply pound the stakes a few inches into the ground, and tie the string around the stake to show the outline. Curved areas, such as lawns and planting beds, are easily outlined using a long garden hose (or several hoses connected together). Adjust the curves in the hose until the shape is pleasing from all angles, including from the window inside the house where it will most often be viewed.

To a person with little or no involvement in your landscaping design process, this mocked-up backyard may appear a motley mess. Where someone else sees only a sheet hanging from a line, you see a brick and latticework fence. That garden hose, lying in a curve on the ground, isn't just lying there, it's marking the boundaries of a lush green lawn. And with the help of a little more imagination, those four stakes over there in the shade of the tree are easily transformed into a sandbox where a child contentedly plays. The best part of this exercise is the three-dimensional quality it gives your emerging plan, something almost impossible to achieve with only pencil and paper, which happens to be the next step.

Committing the Plan to Paper

Leave the stakes, sheets, and hoses in place for a couple of days, or weeks, if necessary. See how the arrangement looks at different times of the day and in different weather conditions. Once you're comfortable with the layout, get out the tape measure, pencils, and paper.

Make a rough drawing of the shape of your lot and house--and please note the word rough. Even those who feel that they simply can't draw anything should go ahead and rough in this preliminary drawing, because it has to make sense to only one person--you--at this point. Use this rough plan to note the actual measurements.

Here are the measurements you'll need:

  • Measure the outside perimeter of your lot.
  • Measure in from the lot lines to the outside walls of your house to establish the house's position on the lot.
  • Measure the outlines of your intended deck, patio, play area, pool, sandbox, or whatever it is you're considering. To correctly position everything on the plan, you'll need to measure in from the lot line, just as you did with your house.

And yes, now is the time to indicate the location of the water spigots, electrical outlets, and whatever else you think should be taken into consideration.

Once you have the measurements on the rough plan, transfer them to the graph paper and make a nice, tidy drawing--one that you can show with pride to any landscaper, architect, or contractor. Alternately, if you doubt your ability to draw, ask someone who can draw to do it for you, with you sitting there explaining what all of those strange lines and squiggles mean. If a single sheet of graph paper is too confining, tape several sheets together to make a bigger drawing.

By the time you have the finished plan on paper, you should be confident that you have a design based in reality, rather than an abstract, two-dimensional drawing pulled together on your kitchen table. This, combined with your garden scrapbook, will hold you in good stead as you go about making your plans and dreams come to life.

It All Comes to Life

Now's the time for you to face another kind of reality--the fiscal kind. Putting cost estimates together can be a very time-consuming job, and you may decide to leave it to a professional. This, of course, depends on whether you intend to do the work yourself or hire someone else to do it for you. Although this is largely a personal decision, it should be pointed out that most yard construction (with the exception of pools, spas, fountains, and sophisticated electrical work) is well within the ability of a person with average mechanical aptitude. If you enjoy these kinds of projects, by all means, have at it; you'll save considerable labor charges and experience a great deal of pride once the landscaping project is completed.

If, however, you decide you have neither the time nor the inclination to do the landscaping yourself, a variety of professionals and semiprofessionals are available. The type of help you choose depends both on the complexity of your plans and on any personal contacts you have in the field. You may be better off using someone with whom you have a relationship that goes beyond a mere contract. The vagaries of contracting any type of work to a person completely unknown to you are well documented. An already established personal relationship with any contractor could be your best insurance for the successful completion of your project.

You have many choices for outside help. They are presented here in traditional order of "professionalism" (that is, from the least to most amount of training and licensing required to use the title): nursery or garden center design/construction service, landscape designer, landscape contractor, and landscape architect. On the straight construction side (in the same order), there are handy people, such as carpenters, building designers, construction contractors, and architects. Some of these titles may differ from one part of the country to the other, but, regardless of the title, you'll be able to find someone at each level of skill and experience no matter where you live.

Once the construction of your backyard actually begins, an odd thing happens. As soon as the first section of fence is hammered into place, or your future lawn starts to fill in with the delicate shades of new blades of grass, your imagination takes over and completes the project in your mind's eye. That's why ground-breaking ceremonies attract so much attention. A landscaping project that you may have discussed for years is finally on the way to becoming reality. You may not be erecting a 40-story skyscraper, but as the creator of your own garden for outdoor living, you'll experience plenty of excitement as you take the first concrete steps beyond those vaporous ideas and paper plans. Here's to your own private ground-breaking ceremony!

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