Home & Garden

Think of Your Yard Like a Room in Your House

For some of us, the snow and ice of winter were a convenient mask, hiding our drab, overgrown or just not terribly useful landscapes.

There’s a lot you can do to make your property more functional, beautiful and a place you want to be. Budget-conscious homeowners and big spenders can all get in on the action. The time to start acting, though, is now.

Getting Started

Like almost everything in life, obtaining the landscape that works for you takes some planning. First, think about your needs and your style. Do you have kids or dogs that need big spaces for running and playing? Are you a vegetable junkie who wants lots of fresh produce every summer? Do you like a lot of garden decorations, or would you rather just have leafy plants, flowers and shrubs? Will you do a lot of entertaining in your yard, or would you rather have a beautiful refuge all to yourself?

Think of your yard as another room in the house, one that would suit your lifestyle perfectly, said Vermont master gardener and gardening coach Charlie Nardozzi. That mindset will inform what you buy, and how you alter your property to make it distinctive.

Next, think about how you want to proceed. Are you a do-it-yourselfer? Even if you don’t know the difference between a peony and a daffodil, there are lots of places to learn how to create a stand-out yard, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort.

A good place to start is the University of Vermont Extension Service Master Gardener, which has a wealth of information and a help line to call.

One important thing gardeners and landscapers should do is submit a soil sample to the UVM Extension Service. That will tell you what kinds of additives and changes you’ll need to make to your soil to make your plants grow well. They’ll recommend the right compost or fertilizer to make your plants grow the best they can in your yard’s soil.

Vermont, for all its tough weather, is something of a gardening and landscaping mecca. Scores of local nurseries, such as Claussen’s Florist & Greenhouse in Colchester or Horsford Gardens & Nursery in Charlotte, are great resources, as is Gardeners Supply, a Vermont-based retailer of garden and landscape tools and supplies. Gardeners Supply’s website has pages of tips to help get the do-it-yourself landscaper get started. The National Gardening Association is also headquartered in Vermont.

Hiring Someone

Maybe the thought of redesigning your yard is too daunting. Or you don’t have time or energy to do all that work. That’s when it’s time to call in a landscape architect or designer. It’s best to interview a few, and get estimates from them as well.

A landscape architect will design a wholesale makeover of your property. But if you want something smaller scale, perhaps some well-thought out flower beds, go with a landscape designer.

Interview a few of them, and make sure they tour your property so everyone understands what’s at stake. Make sure they are insured. Also, if the project is major, you might need permits from your municipality. The landscape designer or architect usually obtains the permits for you. Make sure they do, if such permits are required.

Also, get as detailed a cost estimate as you can before any work begins. Most landscape architects and designers will do free estimates for you.

The cost of a full master plan by a designer can cost anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to $1,500 depending upon the size and ambition of the project, said Sarah Stradtner, a landscape designer at Distinctive Landscaping at Horsford Garden & Nursery.

Having the designer come in and install the landscape design can cost another few thousand dollars for an elaborate set-up, Stradtner said.

The investment may be worth it, though.

Virginia Tech horticulturist Alex X. Niemiera has said his research shows a well-landscaped yard can add 5.5 to 12.7 percent value to a residential property. He said that could mean adding as much as $38,000 in value to a $300,000 home.

What to Plant

If you’ve decided to go with a landscape designer, they’ll know which plants work best where in your yard.

Once you decide the basic design of your landscape, select your plants carefully, or work with your landscape designer to do so. There are lots of things to consider. Is the climate right for the plants? Are you planting in a shady or sunny area? Is the spot where you’re planting well drained? Are the plants fragile, or do you need something that can withstand blows from errant kids or dogs?

That’s actually easier and less complicated than it sounds. People who have been gardening for awhile can offer easy recommendations. “Talk to your neighbors, friends and family,” Nardozzi said. Sometimes, if a few of their plants need thinning, they might give some cuttings to you to plant.

Also, think about the seasonal progression of flowering plants so there is color from early spring into the fall. Again, plant nurseries can help you select plants that bloom at about the time of year you want them to.

Think about mixing and matching color, and textures, too. In general, put taller plants toward the back of a garden bed and shorter ones to the front. But vary the arrangement, as a too-uniform look can seem too boring.

The Family Landscape

Nardozzi suggests that if you need wide open spaces as a backyard play area, that doesn’t mean you can’t have luxurious plants and interesting features in the yard. The “We can’t have nice things” speech too often heard in active families doesn’t necessarily apply to landscaping.

Just be judicious about what you plant. You can border your play areas with durable perennials. Try bee balm and phlox around the edges of the play area to add some color. More tender perennials, such as peonies, might not be as good an option, Nardozzi said.

You can also fence off areas you worry about being trampled when the kids, grandkids or the dog chase a ball.

Shade trees are nice refuges for an active family as well. Varieties such as maples can spread a beautiful leafy canopy where the family can gather for a lemonade break.

It’s also nice to have some edibles at the ready for an active family. Elderberries are a good choice. They attract wildlife, they create a nice hedge and you can eat the berries, Stradtner said. You can also put in some blueberry and raspberry bushes for easy summertime garden snacking, she noted.

Don’t forget vegetable gardens. As in flowering landscapes, vegetable gardens can be as elaborate or simple, large or small as you want, Nardozzi said. You can stick to the basics for veggies, or you can try exotic varieties. There are even cultivated varieties of dandelion greens that are marvelous additions to salads, Nardozzi said.

Making it Easy and Year-Round

Perennials are in general easier for a homeowner to manage than annuals, Nardozzi said. After all, they come up on their own every season. They’re a great option if you don’t have the time or the funds to buy annuals every spring.

Be ready to treat gardens against pests and diseases, such as grubs, Japanese beetles and powdery mold, which can damage the looks of the landscape. Gardening stores have a variety of products to combat these problems. Many of the products are organic or largely so, minimizing or eliminating the risks to children and pets.

The nice thing about landscaping is that nothing has to be permanent — if an idea didn’t work, the plants don’t look great where they are, or they’ve just gotten too unruly in that spot, just remove or transplant them.

It’s never too late to start thinking about next winter, either. There are ways to make the garden and landscape look interesting even on below zero days.

Decorative features, stones and walls can add nice wintertime touches and patterns to the landscape. “There are all kinds of things that will give your yard bones,” Nardozzi said, referring to basics that set a year round tone and style for a landscape

Try planting contrasting colors, such as some evergreens, with some shrubs that retain red or other colorful berries though much of the winter. Also try shrubs that have a peeling bark, or ornamental grasses to help give a winter garden some texture, Nardozzi suggested.

Landscapes are almost always works in progress. Many homeowners find as they get more experienced in the garden, they get bolder and try new things.

You might find yourself becoming the top horticulturist on the block.

This article was contributed by Matt Sutkoski.

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