Landscaping and Landscape Design Basics: A Beginner DIY Guide

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The concept of landscape design can be a little overwhelming, even for those with landscaping experience. It's one thing to know how to plant something and help it grow, but it's something entirely different to design exactly what you want out of a small area or an entire backyard. With so many ideas and choices available, it's important to come up with a landscape design plan that fits your imagination while taking into account the conditions and environment of your space.

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Landscape Design Goals and Ideas

The first step to a successful landscape design is to determine your goals along with the requirements of the area, such as shade, soil, etc. It's important to have a clear idea of what you are trying to accomplish with the landscape design of your outdoor space and have an idea of what focal points you're trying to draw the eye toward.

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Are you thinking of a colorful flower garden or the landscape near a deck or patio area where you can enjoy your morning coffee or entertain friends and family? Or maybe you are hoping to grow your own food with a vegetable garden or have a combination of flowers and edible plants. Or perhaps you're trying to add some curb appeal to your front yard before you sell your home.

There are so many options that it can quickly become overwhelming, so you'll want to do some research and come up with a solid plan rather than taking on your design haphazardly, planting things sporadically and not having an overall goal. Sources of ideas for your outdoor space are plentiful, including online resources such as Pinterest and gardening websites. Other options include taking a look at examples of beautiful landscape in your neighborhood, going on garden tours and looking through books and magazines that you can most likely find at your local library. Your local Cooperative Extension Service is also an invaluable resource, offering free publications about landscape design and giving recommendations for plants that grow well in your area.

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Consider Your Landscape

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Deciding what you want is one important step when designing your landscape. Deciding where you want it is another. Once you choose the area you'd like to landscape, study the natural conditions. Is it level or sloped? Does it get full sunlight, or is it shaded for a large portion of the day? If you are planning to build a patio or deck, you'll probably want some shade, and the amount of sunlight will determine what types of plants will grow best in the area.

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Other things for which to look include the soil, as a sandy area will make it difficult for many plants to thrive. Having a soil analysis done, which is something your local Cooperative Extension Service can perform at a nominal fee, will help you decide which plants will grow best in a given location. Wind direction and drainage issues are also important. Some plants will thrive in a wet area, while others do well with less water.

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You'll also want to take where you live into account. A home in New England will experience very different weather than one located in the South. The conditions will determine what outdoor areas will work and will help you choose the plants that will grow best in your landscaped area.

If possible, try to obtain a property plot plan to give you a bird's-eye view of the size and shape of your property, including driveways, fences and outdoor buildings like sheds. Viewing your property in this way will give you a whole new perspective on the best area for your landscape design project and will help you decide on the right size and shape for your design. If you can't find an official plot plan, you can make your own property drawings with graph paper and use them to create bubble diagrams to explore your ideas on paper.

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Landscape Design Elements

Landscape design is part creativity and part science. The creativity requires only your imagination and an eagerness to expand your artistic side, but the science part requires a little bit of learning. Much like children study sentence structure when learning to read and write, a DIY landscape designer will be far more successful at creating an attractive space if he learns the five basic elements of landscape design.

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The five elements of landscape design are:

  1. Color
  2. Form
  3. Line
  4. Texture
  5. Scale.

Here's how to incorporate these elements in your landscape design.

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  • Use complementary colors in your landscape to create the perfect look and feel for a given area.
  • Incorporate form by using different shapes and sizes of trees, leaves and shrubs to create an overall attractive pattern that doesn't clash.
  • Consider line in your landscape design, which is the way plants and borders are arranged to create lineal patterns that draw a viewer's eyes to different areas of the landscape. Determine focal points.
  • Texture is how the different textures on leaves and flowers can add interest and variety to your outdoor space. Incorporate different textures into your landscape when deciding on a design.
  • Think about scale, which is the size and shape of your landscaped area and its individual pieces and how they relate to each other and their surroundings. Everything should be in balance. Examples of scale problems would be a small garden bed in a very large area or a monstrous oak tree next to a small house.

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Sketch Your Landscape Ideas

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While you can probably picture in your head the way you want your landscape to look when you are finished, putting it down on paper is always a good idea before making any major design decisions or breaking ground. Viewing your ideas on paper can help you see any flaws in your design that may not have occurred to you before, and it can also trigger your imagination and creativity during the design process. While drawing, you may even decide to develop both a short-term and long-term design plan for your area.

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The drawing doesn't need to be fancy. Sketching it can be exactly that — a sketch of the area. If you are a talented artist or just someone who likes to draw or color, this can be a fun project using graph paper and a pencil or colored pencils. If drawing isn't your thing, there are many landscape design software programs available. Some of these programs are more expensive than others, but with so many available, it won't be difficult to find one with which you are comfortable at a price you can afford. There are also a handful of free landscape design tools that meet many homeowners' needs.

Selecting Plants and Materials for Landscape Design

The basic steps of landscape design are:

  1. Determine your goals.
  2. Identify areas for changes and upgrades.
  3. Study your landscape to determine what will work best in each location or microclimate.
  4. Select plants and other supplies to complete the landscape design.

You can start a lot of the research on plants online or with gardening books and magazines, where you can find the size of the plants in which you are interested, the best location and conditions for a plant and how big it can be expected to grow.

The best way to choose your plants is to visit a nursery. Viewing something in person is different than seeing it on a page or screen and can give you a clearer idea of the size and texture of each flower and shrub. Remember to consider the mature size of plants for their eventual scale and proportion in the landscape (width as well as height) instead of the scaled-down versions sold in nursery containers. Colors look different in person too. A local nursery can also tell you what plants are available in your area in case you need to make slight changes to your design and also what plants grow best for the specific climate and conditions of your area.

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