Some helpful hints for planning a new back yard
Have you just moved into a new home? Are you beginning to think about landscaping your back yard - most new homes these days come with a basic front landscape. You may be tempted to purchase bare root trees, roses or perennials, which are a fantastic buy.
You will get much more for your investment by purchasing bare root, but wait - before you buy a single plant, develop a plan. Start by determining how much time you want to spend on maintenance and what your needs are - be practical - especially if you are a first-time homeowner. A solid foundation for your garden is as important as a solid foundation for your home; a good plan is the cement for that foundation.
I like to suggest buying a disposable panoramic camera. Take pictures from all angles; you can use these photos as a design tool to create a plan. A plan does not have to be elaborate nor does it have to require the services of a professional - many new homes have very small back yards and with a simple sketch or photos the homeowner can create a workable plan.
The plan should include hardscape, perimeter planting areas - areas where trees or shrubs will be planted and lawn areas. This basic design will be important when you plan the type of irrigation you will need. This is also a good time to evaluate your site - how much light does the area get?
Does your back yard face west? In our area that means full sun most of the afternoon during the summer. You might want to consider building a pergola or planting fast-growing trees for summer shade.
What about drainage? You will want to design your landscaping so that water flows away from the house. You may also want to consider vertical plantings to maximize your space; terraced raised planters are great for ornamentals and vegetables.
I repeat, start with the basic question - how much time do you want to spend on maintenance? If you want to invest an hour a week, don't install an English garden.
Perhaps the "mow and blow" style lawn, evergreen shrubs and trees would suit you best. There is also xeriscape - a stone patio or deck with built-in seating. There are wonderful products on the market, alternatives to cement and wood. Consider large paving-stones, stained or stamped concrete.
For an alternative to redwood decking look into Trex, a vinyl that looks like wood but requires minimal maintenance.
You can soften the look of an all-patio back yard with planters (everything from dwarf fruit trees to tomatoes can be grown in pots). A water feature and a fire pit can add interest to a "lawnless" area. Even with a simple plan you need to consider irrigation.
Take your plan/photos to an irrigation supply store; they will help you create an irrigation design that will work with your plan. I can't emphasize enough how important irrigation is, especially if you don't want to spend time watering by hand - installing a multistation irrigation system with automatic timers is well worth the expense and effort. If you are going to want planters on your deck, porch or patio, before you lay cement you can plumb for drippers to your pots - this is one of the best time-saving devices and one you will greatly appreciate when you go on vacation. At the same time you lay your irrigation pipes, think about outdoor lighting; you will want to install the underground wire prior to planting or building a structure.
If you decide on an all-lawn back yard you should plan to spend some time amending the soil. During new construction the soil gets very compacted from all the heavy equipment and many times the top soil is scraped off to create a level building site. You will want to till the ground and add compost or mulch, perhaps some gypsum to aid with percolation.
If your site has a lot of weeds you might want to till, water well and spray the weeds that germinate with Roundup. You may need to do this more than once, and then amend the soil. Don't rush this process, it is important to the success of your lawn. A common mistake in planning perimeter planting areas is not making them large enough. The minimum size should be 3 feet, but 4 feet would be ideal. This will give you plenty of room for trees and shrubs. It will also allow enough room for the addition of annual color. Don't overplant your planting beds - the garden will fill in - while it is growing you can fill in with yard art or pots overflowing with seasonal color.
While this may all seem very labor-intensive, it is well-worth the time and effort. Your landscaping will add greatly to the enjoyment of your new home and increase its value. If you plan correctly you will create an outdoor area that is both functional and easy to maintain.
All this planning does not mean you have to miss out on the great buys available during bare root season; make your bare root selections and pot them up temporarily.
Backyard Gardener runs Saturdays. Write to our local master gardeners in care of the Appeal-Democrat, P.O. Box 431, Marysville, CA 95901.