By The Old House Web

Fitting ornamental plants into your home's landscape

Careful landscape planning can increase your family's enjoyment of your property and add significantly to the value of your home.

Far too often homeowners begin landscaping without a plan. They plant a few shade trees here and there and evergreen shrubs around the house's foundation. This haphazard approach rarely looks good, often does not fit in with the family's activities, and can cost as much as a well planned landscape. Most important, an unorganized planting can increase the time and money needed to maintain the plantings.

Consider your landscape an outdoor extension of your home. Be sure to look at the view from the windows in each room in your home.

Walk over the property and note both good and bad features of the landscape. Consider the location of walks, drives, utilities and existing plants. Look for good views you wish to keep, as well as bad views you would prefer to hide. Examine how the sun and wind strike the house and decide whether you wish to modify these. Look for ways to increase privacy in certain areas of your landscape.

Once you have identified the major features of the yard, you are ready to put your ideas on paper by making a plan.

Developing a Plan

To place ornamental plants properly, you need some sort of plan. A scale drawing provides a bird's-eye view of your property and should accurately locate the major features of the landscape. Measure as accurately as possible using graph paper. If a surveyor's plan is available, it might be a helpful reference. Some of the items that should be part of the plan are:

  • Property lines.
  • The house, drives, walks and fences.
  • Utility poles, lines and meters.
  • Underground utilities, pipes or the septic system.
  • Compass directions.
  • The roof overhang, water spigots, windows and doors.

All existing features should be located and recorded.

Site Inventory and Analysis

Once you have a scale drawing, analyze the environmental features of your property. This can be done most easily by laying a clean sheet of paper over your plan and tracing onto it.

Look at the way the sun moves across your property. Mark very shady areas where shade-tolerant plants can be used. If the sun shines on the house too much during the summer, mark spots to plant deciduous trees. These trees will shade the house in summer but allow the sun to shine on the house in winter when they drop their leaves.

Do you need to protect the house from winter winds? Mark the direction of the prevailing winter wind. Keep in mind a windbreak must be at least 1 1/2 times its height away from the object to be protected. Make a note of areas where snow drifts onto walks and drives. A planting of shrubs may be able to act as a living snow fence.

What are the soils like? Many times poor subsoil is left on the surface of the site after construction. Such soil is not very good for growing plants. Have the soil tested to determine its pH and possible fertilizer needs.

Areas where water collects need to be marked so that plants intolerant of poor drainage will not be planted there. If possible, correct drainage problems before planting.

Mark good views to be saved and poor views to be blocked out. Note sources of noise that may be muffled with a planting of dense trees or shrubs.

Are there areas where unwanted traffic is killing the lawn or compacting the soil? Perhaps a planting of low shrubs or a ground cover can direct traffic to walks.

Assessing the Family Needs and Wants

How you use your yard will determine much of the planting scheme. A few items to consider are listed below:

  • Is an open, grassy play area needed for games?
  • Are any family members allergic to specific plants, bees, odors or pollen?
  • Do you wish to have flower beds?
  • Do you wish to have a vegetable garden?
  • How much maintenance do you want to perform for your landscape?
  • Do you want an outdoor entertainment area such as a patio?
  • Does there need to be an area for pets?
  • Will there be outdoor storage of firewood, a boat or a camper?
  • Will there be any future construction on the site?

Identifying Use Areas

Landscapes can be divided into areas according to their use.

The public area is the part of your property that will be seen by passers-by and guests. This area is usually where cars are parked and guests enter the property. Trees should frame the house and a pleasing foundation planting should be developed.

Walks should not be obstructed by spreading or low- branched trees or shrubs. Plantings should not interfere with outdoor lighting and should not obscure the house and number.

The foundation planting has several objectives. It needs to accent the space next to the main entrance but not contain several elements that compete for attention. The planting should help attain a visual balance by complementing the architectural style of the house. Avoid a congested and overgrown look by using plants that are in proper scale with the house. The use of low-maintenance plants will cut down on the amount of work necessary to keep the planting looking good.

The main entrance can be accented by using plants with interesting and eye-catching color, shape or foliage texture in the planting space next to the main entrance. The same eye-catching plants, used elsewhere in the landscape, will draw attention away from the main entrance.

The plants used in the foundation planting need to be in scale with the house. One-story homes with long, low roof lines look best with dwarf evergreens or other small plants. Two-story homes can accommodate larger plants. The foundation plants should be one-third to one-half the height from the ground to the bottom of the roof.

A continuous planting provides a more unifying effect than individual plants scattered along the foundation.

The use of pest-resistant plants will reduce the amount of maintenance required. Using dwarf or slow-growing shrubs reduces the amount of pruning needed.

The private area provides privacy, pleasant views and small garden spaces. These can be achieved through the use of screens, hedges or fences.

Medium or large shrubs are needed for screens or hedges. If a hedge is to be installed, the plants used must be tolerant of shearing. Screens are usually not sheared.

The private area often includes an open lawn or play area. The ornamental plants surrounding this area must be selected with care. Most lawn grasses will not grow in dense shade. Planting large shade trees where they will eventually shade the lawn completely will make growing grass difficult to impossible.

The same is true of vegetable gardens. These need to be located in areas where they will be exposed to full sun.

The service area may include such necessary objects as trash cans, air conditioners and clotheslines that need to be screened from view. This can be done with shrub plantings. Plantings should not obstruct access to the service area. Do not use plants with attention-getting characteristics in or near the service area.

Developing a Planting Plan

Once the plan is complete, it is time to select the plants. Select plants for the characteristics you need to meet the goals of your plan. Ornamental characteristics should be secondary to function. Make sure the plants selected fit the environmental conditions you have identified as existing on the site. Trees should not interfere with overhead or underground utilities, and all plants should be planted where they'll have adequate space to develop.

When designing the foundation planting, be sure to consider the overhang of the house. Plants growing under the overhang may not get the benefit of every rain and hence are often growing in excessively dry soil. On the other hand, avoid planting directly in front of a downspout -- during rainy weather, the plants may suffer root injury from soggy soil.

Use plants with thorns judiciously. They make excellent barrier plants but are unpleasant to prune. Plants with fruits can be ornamental, but place them carefully so they won't drop fruits onto walks, patios or driveways or into swimming pools.

A continuous bed planting of shrubs will be easier to establish and maintain than plants scattered about the lawn. Shrubs in individual holes are usually surrounded by grass that must be mowed or trimmed by hand. The shrub bed can be mulched for weed control and plants can be more easily fertilized.

Consider the seasonal effect of the planting. A row of shrubs along walks or the driveway may cause snow to drift and increase snow removal problems. Such plantings may be injured when snow is shoveled or blown onto them.

Establish Priorities

Completing a landscape may take several years. Finish all land leveling and necessary grade changes first. Then, correct drainage problems. Install all hard-surfaced areas before planting -- this will minimize damage to plants by heavy equipment.

Establish a lawn to reduce dust and mud problems. Plant shade trees first. Be sure to budget some time to water these trees. Then, plant the shrubs beds, followed by the ground covers.

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