How to Landscape Like You Kind of Know What You’re Doing

landscape your first home

You’ve purchased your first home. You’re all moved in. You have a backyard now. It’s time to start landscaping, right?

Before you go throwing down hundreds or even thousands of dollars at your local garden center, review these quick tips.

Plant a $1 Tree in a $10 Hole

It’s all about the soil. During construction, developers will often clear the land, scrape off the topsoil, build the house and then, if you’re lucky, put a couple of inches of soil back in the landscape before selling you the house. If you purchased a home in a new development, this is very likely the situation you will find.

Find Your Home on

Go out in your backyard and try to stick a shovel in the soil. Do it in a few different places so you know what you’re up against. If you immediately hit hardpan soil or glacial till, you will need to invest in soil before planting anything. You see, plants have these things called roots, and if you want to make anything grow, you’re going to need a soil depth of more than a couple of inches.

Buy some topsoil, and while you’re at it amend it with some organic compost.

Those Little Darlings Sure Do Grow Up

This is a landscaping tip for the first-time homebuyer (or any homeowner) that should not be ignored. Take note: Plants grow.

They might look all cute when you buy them in the nursery, but some plants get really big. Read the label or do a little research before you go shopping. If the mature size of the plant you are buying is not on the label, ask the garden center staff to help you. Furthermore, as tempting as it might be to take that little bugger home and plant it right next to the house, plan for the space it will need at maturity. Otherwise, you could find yourself with tree branches growing uncomfortably close to your house.

Don’t Shrub Up the Edges

Take a walk in nature. Observe how plants occur in the wild. Are they in rows? Not so much. Do they occur alone or in groups? They are usually in groups. Take this new-found knowledge back to your garden and apply it. Move away from the edges; form groupings and create planting beds to break your landscape up into garden “rooms.”

Drop the Chainsaw and Nobody Gets Hurt

Chainsaws are for home improvement projects, not pruning. Now, to be fair, perhaps you purchased a property that is overgrown and in need of some serious pruning. Hire some goats. Don’t fire up the chainsaw. A chainsaw is not the answer unless you’re taking down big trees, meaning, removing them completely.

The danger with chainsaws in the landscape is not so much the potential for accidentally lopping off a limb, but the tendency to shape every shrub into a something resembling a grandmother’s poodle. You know you’ve seen landscapes like this — with all of the shrubs sheared into perfectly round orbs. There is a time and place for this. Some plants, like ilex and boxwood, can take consistent shearing and, in fact, can act as focal points or borders to accent garden beds. However, when every shrub in a planting bed receives a buzz cut, it’s another story.

Chainsaws, and even hedge trimmers to some degree, do a lot of damage to branches. Ragged, splintered cuts invite garden pathogens.

To make matters worse, there are landscape maintenance companies that do nothing but go around buzz-cutting everything. In the industry, it’s known as “mow, blow and go.” They’ll mow your lawn, zip over your shrubs with a hedge trimmer, blow the debris from your walkways with a blower, get in their trucks and go.

There are three things to take away from this section. First, a planting bed filled with sheared, orbed shrubs looks a little formal compared to the naturally occurring growth characteristics plants are supposed to have. Second, pruning stimulates growth, and that buzz-cutting landscape maintenance company knows it. You’ll need to hire someone to come back when all of those shrubs start sending out new branches, and they’re counting on your money. And finally, in general, chainsaws, and even hedge trimmers to some degree, do a lot of damage to branches. Ragged, splintered cuts invite garden pathogens. Bacteria, fungi, viruses and insects can enter damaged wood more easily than branches that have been cut cleanly. If you need to prune, use a serrated pruning saw, loppers or clippers with bypass blades. Don’t use a chainsaw.

Know When to Call in the Big Guns

Let’s face it. We can’t all be good at everything. You might be an amazing surgeon, but you don’t have a creative bone in your body. Maybe you’re a brilliant musician, but landscape design is just not your strong suit. Know when to call in reinforcements. Sometimes it makes sense to call in a professional. Whether they design and construct your whole garden or simply draw up a plan so you can do DIY gardening projects on the weekends, sometimes it will save you money in the long run to get some professional advice.