How to Landscape

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Inside: How to Landscape

When I watch landscaping shows on HGTV I am always amazed at how easy it looks. You get a few friends together, dig up the grass, lay down some pavers, add a pergola or water feature. Voila! A ho-um yard becomes spectacular.

The next thing you know, you’re off to the home improvement store buying supplies to create your own landscape sensation.

Well, before you burn through your life savings, I want to share How to Landscape with a few Landscaping Lessons for Beginners thrown in for good measure. So, let’s get started creating the most beautiful yard on the block.

Landscaping Tips for Beginners

How to Landscape

1. Read up on Landscape Design

One of the best ways to learn about a subject is by immersing yourself in the topic. This book is a great place to start:

Encyclopedia of Landscape Design: Planning, Building, and Planting Your Perfect Outdoor Space

How to Landscape

2. Set a Realistic Budget

I have helped design landscapes for a few friends and when I ask about their budget I always get the glassy stare. Most people will give me a figure that is in the $200-$500 range. I usually tell them to let me know when they have something in the $800 – $1000 range.

The reason: plants, mulch, rental equipment, hardscape material, etc. These things aren’t cheap and they add up fast. For instance a 15′ x 15′ bed will require about 15-20 bags of mulch. In the Austin area this will run you approximately $3-$4 per bag. When you do the math it is easy to see that your $200 isn’t going to buy you many plants.

Most people never attempt a new garden landscape because they don't know where to start. In this popular pin I have 8 Gardening Landscape Tips for Beginners that will teach you How to Landscape.

3. List Your Wants and Needs

Now that you have a budget, begin by making a list of things you want and need in your landscape. Think long and hard about how you will use the area?

Do you have children that want a playscape or trampoline? Do you have a large dog that needs space to run around? Do you want to have a covered seating area?

Are you dreaming of a large vegetable garden? Are there plans for one day adding a pool, outdoor kitchen, or fire pit? Don’t forget the paths. List all of these things.

Remember this picture. It is our original drawing for the backyard landscape. We spent a lot of time thinking about what we wanted and how we would use it. What we’ve created is similar, but we had to have a place to start.

Most people never attempt a new garden landscape because they don't know where to start. In this popular pin I have 8 Gardening Landscape Tips for Beginners that will teach you How to Landscape.

4. Study the Elements 

One of the biggest mistakes beginning landscapers make is not paying attention to things like the sun, wind, and rain. Since we live in an area with new houses I’m seeing a lot of landscaping that doesn’t respect the elements.

Placing a patio on the sunny side of your house can be pure misery in August. You also don’t want to place your grill or fire pit next to a windy corner. That pretty patio umbrella can become a missile if it’s placed in the wrong spot.

Before we started our backyard landscape we stood outside while it was raining and watched where the water drained ~ on a couple of occasions in the middle of the night with flash lights.

Most people never attempt a new garden landscape because they don't know where to start. In this popular pin I have 8 Gardening Landscape Tips for Beginners that will teach you How to Landscape.

Don’t be in a hurry, either. Make a few plans, create some sketches, and then step back and study your yard with these things in mind.

You may discover that one or two of your original ideas could be disastrous with the changing seasons. Once you understand how your property interacts with the elements then you can plan accordingly.

5. Start Small

I think I want to shout this one from the rooftops. Start small. Start small. Start small. Home improvement shows have huge crews with experts and that is why they can take a 1/4 acre lot and transform it into paradise in 30 minutes or less. It makes entertaining television, but it is unrealistic.

Instead, find a small spot that you know you can improve. Maybe you want to add a pop of color to your front yard. Create a bed around one or two trees, fill in with some annuals or grasses that are appropriate for your area, mulch, water, and enjoy.

Usually, a small project like this can be done in one or two weekends and will not break the bank. Then, sit back and observe your new landscape. Small successes are always rewarding. And, they will give you the confidence and experience to tackle larger projects.

I did this bed when I noticed an unused area next to the deck. We had the mulch and border on hand. I had a few plants that I moved and I bought the grasses. Starting small can net big results.

Most people never attempt a new garden landscape because they don't know where to start. In this popular pin I have 8 Gardening Landscape Tips for Beginners that will teach you How to Landscape.

6. Size and Scale Matter

This is one of the most common mistakes that landscaping newbies make. They underestimate or overestimate size and scale. This can happen with both plants and hardscapes. An oversized deck will swallow a small yard and look ridiculous. A large tree or shrub can overpower a landscape and make it dark and gloomy.

In our backyard there is a mature elm on the other side of the fence. We had to factor in the elm when deciding where to plant the crape myrtle. They are a good distance apart.

Since both are upright and the crape myrtle can take lots of pruning, they should provide both privacy and block the western sun. Because the elm will have its lower branches pruned sometime in the future to avoid damaging the fence, there will be good balance to the landscape.

Most people never attempt a new garden landscape because they don't know where to start. In this popular pin I have 8 Gardening Landscape Tips for Beginners that will teach you How to Landscape.

Over and over on small lots I see homeowners add two or three small live oak trees to a 55′ wide lot. Did they not read the part on the plant identifier that said the tree’s mature size was 30′ tall and 20′ wide? Do you know how much trimming needs to happen to these trees in five years? In 15 – 20 years two of those trees will need to be removed. #overscalenightmare

The other big mistake is creating undersized beds. If you have a large two-story home that is tall and majestic then a 3′ deep flower bed in the front isn’t going to cut it. It is too under scale for the size of your house and lot.

Bring that bed out away from the house at least 30% of the height of the wall. Fifty percent would be even better. Then add in larger scale plants that terrace away from the structure. My biggest landscaping pet peeve ~ large houses on 1 or 2 acre lots with puny beds and small plants. For heaven’s sake, add a grove of trees! #useyouracrewisely

7. Understand a Few of the Elements of Design

A great landscape will take into account several elements of good design. These include color, form, pattern, light, balance, contrast, rhythm, variety, and unity.

For my backyard landscape I have purposely chosen plants with a bluish-gray color and plants with yellow blooms. These textures and colors will create contrast that is sure to dominate my landscape. I’ve achieved form with stone around my beds and variety by having a hardwood tree, a flowering crape myrtle, grasses, and shrubs.

There is rhythm because I’ve placed identical plants in all of the different beds. You will see this rhythm repeated as you scan across my landscape. The nandina will bloom red berries in the winter and an olive tree will be covered in white blooms in the spring.

Most people never attempt a new garden landscape because they don't know where to start. In this popular pin I have 8 Gardening Landscape Tips for Beginners that will teach you How to Landscape.

These before and after shots are from a home we previously owned. In the Before picture notice the wall around the entire front of the house. When we bought the house every neighbor we met would ask what we thought of the wall.

Most people never attempt a new garden landscape because they don't know where to start. In this popular pin I have 8 Gardening Landscape Tips for Beginners that will teach you How to Landscape.

We removed the wall and created a small courtyard. Balance, rhythm, unity, and form. Below is another ‘before’ picture from a different angle.

We took the wall down, removed a dead-ish ash tree, and trimmed the trees. This created a lot more light both inside and outside.

Most people never attempt a new garden landscape because they don't know where to start. In this popular pin I have 8 Gardening Landscape Tips for Beginners that will teach you How to Landscape.
Most people never attempt a new garden landscape because they don't know where to start. In this popular pin I have 8 Gardening Landscape Tips for Beginners that will teach you How to Landscape.

You are the artist here and the landscape is your canvas. Think about where you want the eye to move.

8. Learn a Few Terms 

Understanding terms like annual, perennial, deciduous, espalier, hybrid, propagation, and rhizome will keep you from making costly mistakes. Here is a glossary of landscaping terms to get you started.

Do you want a deciduous tree over a swimming pool? I know I don’t. Does bamboo spread by rhizomes? Before planting bamboo you might want to know this. Is it possible to espalier certain varieties of pear or apple trees? YES, just not in Texas.

Most people never attempt a new garden landscape because they don't know where to start. In this popular pin I have 8 Gardening Landscape Tips for Beginners that will teach you How to Landscape.

9. Think Outside the Bed

Not every plant has to be inside the boundaries of a bed. I have plants both inside and outside of my beds. I think this works best in natural landscapes or along paths. Use your imagination.

Most people never attempt a new garden landscape because they don't know where to start. In this popular pin I have 8 Gardening Landscape Tips for Beginners that will teach you How to Landscape.

10. Avoid Hedge Mustaches

Did you know that a row of hedges up against a foundation looks a little like a mustache? Whatever you do, make sure those front hedges don’t add a mustache to the front of your house.

Most people never attempt a new garden landscape because they don't know where to start. In this popular pin I have 8 Gardening Landscape Tips for Beginners that will teach you How to Landscape.

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  1. Outstanding post. Truly valuable information to be read and reread to take it all in. I love how your landscaping style is so very different and yet so appropriate for the two different style homes you have owned. I love them both. The transformation of your previous home is incredible. Great “eye”. Obviously more water available at the previous home. Love your Austin home landscaping job with water flow and water conservation in mind. Great job. Again, thanks for a great tutorial.

  2. Thanks for sharing these very helpful tips! Tis the season to redo some yard things. But you hit the nail n the head when you say “Set a realistic Budget”! It’s so easy to get caught up in all these amazing ideas and looks. But when you start buying the materials…cha ching! I’m pinning this to our DIY Sunday Showcase talent board! Thanks for sharing with us!!


  3. For once – someone that doesn’t make it sound oh so “quick and easy.” We’ve been doing a “small” bit of yard work the last couple of weekends. It took oh 8 hours or so to replace one tree and move 3 bushes from the front to the back of the house. Silly landscaper for the developer put in a tree that has no business being planted in the south, and the bushes were not only going to be too big for the area they were planted but two of them were directly in front of sprinkler heads so the sprinkler’s themselves were ineffective. It really does pay to do your research, work out a plan, then double check the different variables to see if that plan will actually work. Now if only I could get the dog to stop digging holes in the back yard so I could actually institute some of my plans… 😉
    Great informative post.

  4. What an outstanding post! I’ve pinned it to my garden board. At the end of last summer, we had to knock down both our large and small bard in order to build a new medium size barn. City rules had changed over the years and we were no longer grandfathered in. While the medium barn went where the large barn was, we are now starting at this giant lot where the small barn used to be. We had a lot of materials and ‘treausres’ that were left behind and dug out of the barns. Over the weekend, we started to plan our ‘trash to treasure’ garden. I didn’t think about drawing out a plan, I just started moving things around. Since we will be putting this house up for sale by year end, I am using all reclaimed materials so the out of pocket costs is minimal. I think it will be a good send-off for the last year in this home.

  5. Amazingly informative post. Before we moved into our home a China Berry tree was planted out front. NIGHTMARE! It’s gorgeous when it blooms, but is such a brittle tree that we worry when we have big storms. And the berries. So awful.

    We live on the downward slope with a house high behind us and are considering our options for a “green fence” for more privacy.

    Thanks for the post.

  6. This is a fabulous post! So much information that I had no idea about! Thanks for linking up at Whatever Goes Wednesday. This was the most viewed link from last week, so we’ll be featuring it at tomorrow’s party. Stop by and party with us again if you get the chance!!

  7. This was very informative. Thank you for making a concise list w/such great information. I live in a large manufactured home w/a lovely landscaped yard from the previous owner. There are many aspects that I don’t like and am changing slowly. We have a fairly large pond w/fountain in the front yard but it seems to be out of place and a bugger to mow around. We will be taking it out since it wasn’t well thought out and built to begin with. I am making a water feature with old ceramic type lamp bases. They are painted now I need to get the water pump(s) required, fit the lamps with the tubing and see how it all works out. We need to remove the old black and white plastic ground cover and replace w/fabric and in the meantime get a handle on all the roses growing all over the place, especially where they aren’t wanted. Do you have a remedy for rose bushes that sprout up everywhere? They are very pretty when they are blooming, but hard to keep up with. These are the small pink flat roses not the large roses for vases…Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  8. Enjoyed your post! You mentioned an espalier apple or pear tree will not work in TX. I have a fig tree that I planned to espalier and I live north of San Antonio, TX. Should I espalier it or will this kill it? Thank you. I’ve read tons of info about espalier but your is the first that mentions it is not going to work in TX.

  9. Yep ! This is great. We moved into our home in July- with a newborn- so we did very little this season. I am ready to revamp our very blah yard. We moved to the south from southern Seattle so I know I have some research to do! Thanks for these great tips 🙂

    1. I’ve visited Seattle several times when my daughter lived there. Even though we have different climates, I found many of the same plants used in landscapes. If I lived in your area I would want to create at least one tiny spot that could be a moss garden. Plus, I would plant cherry trees, Japanese maples, and hydrangeas. So jealous of your yards future beauty!

  10. Oh my there is so much wonderful advice here! I’m totally clueless about landscaping but this Spring I’m hoping to finally make the empty beds in front of my house pretty. I’ll definitely be back to reference this post as soon as all the snow melts here in IL.

  11. Thank you so much! I just bookmarked this for the future. I’m really hoping to reclaim my yard a bit this year (have to take it slowly – not much money or energy). This will really help. I’m so glad I clicked on your link over at SITS. I’m also going to pop over to Pinterest and check out your stuff there.

    Thanks again. Happy Sharefest. And I hope you have a lovely weekend!

  12. Hey, stopping by from the DIY Sunday Showcase linkup!

    This March will be the start of our third year in our house and before we moved in the previous owners did nothing with landscaping. I’m not big on having to put too much effort into being outside with all the bugs when it gets warmer so I want something that looks nice but is easy to maintain. This post is so helpful so thanks for sharing! And I will do everything I can do avoid a “mustache”. 🙂

  13. Great post full of helpful tips! I’m slowly getting my flower beds in order after the previous owners neglected them. I’ll just do a little at a time because of the expense. I would love to have a large garden too, but I will need to purchase landscape timbers or stones, so for now I have a little area, and next year I will expand on it. Thanks for sharing these helpful tips!

    I like the courtyard better then the wall, looks so much better.

  14. This is totally awesome.Although variety of article on this topic,this article contains some of the precious points which were never be read in other articles.

  15. I really love to do landscape and this post is a big help for me since I am just a beginner.. Thanks and I will read more of your post starting today.

  16. This is totally helpful article to design a valuable garden. This article contains some of the precious points for landscaping the garden with easiest way.

  17. Thank you for sharing these great landscaping tips. When I moved into my new home last summer, I could tell that it was going to take a lot of work to make the yard look nice. We are just waiting for spring to arrive so that we can start the landscaping. I like you advice to start small. It would be a shame to start a huge project and not be able to finish it in time.

  18. Wow! Your post was so informative! I wish I had your eye for landscaping. We have a house on 1 acre and I have lots to do. Your input was very valuable and gave me a lot to consider. I like starting small, otherwise it would be too overwhelming to consider. Thank you for sharing it!

  19. You make a great point to ensure that if you plan on adding a pool to your yard in the future, you need to include that in your current landscaping plans. I would love to have my own pool one day since I train for triathlons. It can be important to plan your landscaping to compliment your pool so your yard doesn’t feel sectioned off. Thanks for the tips. I’ll keep them in mind when I build my pool one day.

  20. What great tips! I’m still struggling to make my landscape what I want, although it’s slowly coming along. I have one garden bed that is a complete mess, but I want to turn it into a small Japanese garden. This gives me so much to consider!

  21. Thanks for writing such a great post. I’m a complete beginner and don’t even know where to start. Most of the material I’ve found online has been recycled galleries of photos with very little information, but this post of yours was what I really needed: good information about how to approach my yard and how to re-imagine it, not just a pretty but unrealistic photo and a list of 10 generic plants that may not even be appropriate for my climate!

  22. This is a wonderful help, thank you! I am a total beginner here, so when i came across your blog on PINTEREST, I couldnt wait to dive in:) I have a silly question, i live in what we call a raised ranch its a single story with a high ceiling basement, so when you enter the front door you have to walk up 6 steps.. so tall-ish home. I completely agree with having beds be 30-50% of the height of the wall. however, my side yard, where Id like a bed is incredibly narrow, and i can tell you now i would be forbidden to plant something with height (like a tree) butted against the house. HELP. PS the area is totally bare, its connected to two neighbors back yards, no fences and no landscaping..

  23. This is an amazing post! I feel as if there are a lot of people who want to improve the aesthetics of their home through landscaping but they don’t know how to do it within their budget. This article offers some great tips on how to do just that. This has really given me some new ideas on improving my lawn without destroying my bank account. Thanks for the wonderful help and information!

  24. Great insight here!
    I am sure it’s going to be helpful to me and many others. Are there any additional sources for me to read further and to be able to dig a little deeper?

  25. I liked when you talked about setting up a budget when planning a landscaping project. I can see that doing this can help you find the best design that would add more to your house and avoid overspending your money. It makes sense that contacting a professional about this can help you find the best materials to get the job done right.

  26. Great explanation. Gardens can easily out grow the grow , making it look crowded and no appeal. love the information that you share in the blog.I can not tell how many times my company gets a call to come on out and remove a tree and or bush because it over grown is garden. simple planning and knowledge pf the type of species you are planting goes a long way. great read

  27. Now that it is spring you don’t see me in the house very much – we have a short growing season and a large acreage so i am interested in large beds etc. I like your landscape ideas and hope I can use some of them at our property. Thanks for sharing with all of us.

  28. Hi Leslie, I really enjoyed this post a lot. i just started a landscaping business and this is great info. I really like how you make it very simple to understand and break down every step into small details.

    I will be sure to pass this information on to my future clients because i really enjoyed how easy it is to follow what you are saying. Landscaping is tough especially when you want everything perfect and like you said can be very costly.

  29. I am a 70 year old beginner in landscaping issues. I live on a 1/2 acre treed corner lot in a home built in 1975 in Austin TX. Oak sprouts all over the yard. (Any ideas for how to get rid of them without killing the trees?) I had a landscape designer do a plan for the yard last year, but the $$$ scared me away from doing even one side of the yard. It’s getting too big for my husband to mow. We need changes that don’t break the bank.

    1. Those oak “pups” are a sign of a tree in distress. It’s not the tree that’s sick, it’s more likely the soil. Fix the soil, fix the tree. Your tree is trying to survive on poor nutrition and that’s why it’s sending up the “pups.” The best remedy is compost from a reliable source (check with The Natural Gardener in ATX).

  30. This has to be the best, most thought out post I’ve ever read. Thank you for this. My wife and I just purchased our first home and our landscaping is bare to say the least. Neither of us have any idea regarding landscaping design and our imagination is a lot bigger than our wallet. Thank you for putting things into perspective, I will start small, start small, start small. Thank you.

  31. I don’t understand what you mean by not creating a mustache in the front of your house. Could you please explain.

    1. When you have a row of hedges, such as boxwoods, they can sometimes look like a mustache on the front of a house.

  32. I will be sure to implement your suggestions about remembering the size and scale of the area when we start planning out our landscaping. We would love to completely redo our backyard. I am excited to see what a professional recommends as far as a tree to yard ratio. We want to plant some new trees in our backyard after leveling the ground, but don’t know exactly where to place them.

  33. It’s awesome that you talked about start small on your landscape projects. I have been trying to start a project for a landscape on my backyard but as much as I would like to do a great and impressive project, I do not know where to start. So I’m going to take your advice into consideration and start with a small project leaving some room for future ideas and improvements.

  34. Just found this past- great info! Question – you note that large houses should have beds come out at least 30% of the height of the house. Is that a general time of thumb? I like in a 1.5 storey house and I always thought the beds or front were too shallow. Could this be why? Thanks!

    1. Yes, this is a general rule of thumb. The 30% is just an estimate and it would depend on how deep or shallow your yard is, too. But the 3″ beds most builders install has to do with what was required for VA financed homes following WWII. So, scrap that all together and add balance and scale to your yard.

  35. Thank you for this post. I didn’t know where to begin until today. I want to update my front yard without a complete overhaul at once and your post provided the insight and resources I’ve needed. A few take-a-ways were proper budgeting, start with small projects, and the book.
    Thanks again.

    1. And with fall and winter on the horizon, you’ll be ready when spring rolls around. Also, you can always prepare beds during this time.

  36. Great advice. I have 5.5 acres and have been here for 20+ years and have made some of those mistakes that we’ve had to fix. One thing I’ve learned when using large rocks and boulders is to never lay them on top of your flower bed or yard. That makes them appear like a moon rock or asteroid fell into your yard. Always looks best if you bury them a little into the ground as they appear in nature.

  37. Wow, I never knew how much of a difference some rock formations could make to a landscape. Initially, I was just planning to have as many flowers and shrubs as possible for our yard, but this definitely looks a lot better since there isn’t too much noise and clutter. I’ll opt for something like this if I can find a landscaping service in the area that can help us out with getting some shrubs and rock formations.

  38. I agree that landscaping can be a lot of work, but it’s really easy to be overwhelmed. I definitely don’t have the resources to do a whole yard at once, so I always have to plan small sections at a time. Otherwise I’ll never get to it!

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