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The Secrets to Landscaping from the pros
This article is for the new homeowner who has decided to try their hand at landscaping their new home. There are thousands of books on landscaping covering everything from soil types, when and where to plant, flower types, and just about everything else that goes in the ground.
The point of this article is to get you started with the right tools, the easiest things to plant, and have grown and in a short time for you to see some of the results of your work without spending a fortune.
Get the Right Landscaping Tools
A visit to your local hardware or box store will give you an idea of what is available in landscaping tools. There are literally hundreds of different types, styles, and sizes. You need some basic tools to start and as time goes by you can add to your collection a piece at a time. Some basic tools you will need:
Shovels – You will need a long handled pointed shovel if you like your back. Do not scrimp on this shovel. Get a good one. Wood and fiberglass handles are both acceptable and many shovels today come with a shock pad built into the handle. A good shovel will last you a lifetime.
A cheap shovel means you will have to replace it quite often due to broken handles or a cracked metal shovel blade. Get a good one.
A good idea is to also get a square edged edging shovel. They are short-handled, have a narrow blade (4-6”), and are used for cutting the sod at the edge of your new landscaping and to maintain your existing ones.
A firm push with your foot easily slices down into the sod leaving a nice clean edge for your new landscaping bed. A short handle, the square shovel is nice to have for cleanup and should be added when money permits, it also is used when leaving an area, undercutting sod and other tasks.
Best Rakes for Landscaping – Two rakes are needed for most landscaping work. A leaf or lawn rake with a good wood or fiberglass handle and metal tines. Stay away from the cutesy plastic rakes, folding rakes, and other gimmicks. They break, rust, and generally give poor service.
The second rake is a flat steel rake commonly called an asphalt or bow rake. These also come with wood or fiberglass handles and have a steel rake part that is shaped like a hair comb. This rake is used for moving heavy soils, gravel, or mulch. It is used to shape mounds; level large areas within the garden remove rocks and used upside down, the straight back piece can help provide a very nice flat area.
Hammers – Yes you will need a hammer or two when landscaping. When setting edging or placing layout stakes, a good 2-pound lump hammer makes this easy work. Your carpenter’s hammer will work, but a lump hammer is a right tool for the job.
You will also want to add a 12-pound sledgehammer to your list. When breaking away an unwanted rock or driving the ground anchor for your new gazebo, (did your wife forget to tell you about the gazebo?) a large hammer will save both your back and your fingers. LET THE HAMMER DO WORK! Keep your fingers, hands, and legs clear of the arc of the hammer when you swing it.
A missed hit can easily cause crushed hands or even break your leg! Make sure you have a firm footing and a good grip when swing.
The Right Landscaping Pick – Generally only one pick is required for most work. A pick that has a point on one end and a flat tip on the other will suffice for almost all-garden work. A buried rock can easily be pried free by driving the pick under it and gently prying upwards. If you cannot lift the rock and feel you are going to break the handle, STOP and dig around it a little more and then try again.
Hard soil removal is made a lot easier as well by using the flat tip to loosen the soil and removing it with your shovel. Good garden picks come with wood or fiberglass handles.
Wheelbarrows – There has to be at least a dozen different styles, colors, and sizes available today. A good wheelbarrow will have oak handles (not pine), a wheel with an air-filled tire (not solid), and a 3 cubic foot hopper. There is much debate over the longevity of metal versus plastic (poly) hoppers.
I have a poly wheelbarrow that I have had for years and it is still in perfect condition. Grease the wheel bearing every so often, keep the tub clean and it will last a good long time. Generally speaking these sell for around $100 but are well worth the investment. The handles are replaceable. Stay away from the $29.95 light gauge metal handled wheelbarrows they won’t last!
Landscaping Brooms – What do I need a broom for you ask? When you are landscaping around your sidewalks and have left dirt, mulch or leaves on them, your wife will be unhappy if you steal her kitchen broom to sweep up. A good old-fashioned corn broom is inexpensive and does a great job.
A good use tip with a corn broom is to roll it over in your hands as you use it so you use both sides of the broom. This avoids making the bristles curve in one direction. A stiff street broom can come in handy but it gets little use unless you have a paved driveway. Store it upright to avoid making the bristles slump over in one direction.
Watering Can Hoses – Purchase a good watering can with a detachable nozzle. Plastic is a lightweight galvanized metal that lasts longer. Get at least a one-gallon type. Purchase at least enough landscaping hose to reach all areas of your yard. 5/8 or ¾ inch hose is the best and provides good water flow. ½ inch is cheaper but kinks easier and water flow is poor.
There are dozens of hose accessories available today. You will need at least one good spray nozzle and sprinkler. You can add to your assortment as time goes by and you will. A hose reel is handy but at least a simple hose hanger is really necessary. Keep your hoses rolled up to prevent foot or mower damage when not in use.
What You Need to Know About Landscaping
OK let’s get started. The simplest landscaping to plant is a flower garden. Flowers in most cases, like plenty of sunshine but many are a shade or partial shade tolerant. Check the tags or package before planting. Pick an area that will get sun most of the day. A simple technique for laying out a new garden is to use your garden hose.
Simply lay it out on the ground in a shape you think you would like. Move it, as many times as you want until you get the shape you finally think is best. Now with some garden or lawn lime-mark out the shape on the grass or soil. It won’t hurt the hose and you can simply wash it off.
This area depending on whether it is a lawn or exposed soil must be prepared for the new flowers. If the area is sod, begin removing the sod including the root system. There is a hand tool made of sod removing but unless you are going to do a great deal of it, your short handled flat shovel will suffice. Slide the shovel along holding the flat part flat to the ground, cutting the roots as you go. Work the sod in small pieces. They get heavy very quickly. Now is the time if you have another area that needs lawn or repair work, to re-use the sod you have removed.
Try to keep the sod in uniform shapes as much as possible that you can handle. Simply re-lay the sod where you need it and water well. If you have a lawn roller, roll it to keep it flat and in good contact with the earth below. MAKE SURE YOU KEEP IT WELL WATERED. You cut the root system and until the sod develops new roots, you are its water supply.
Very quickly the sod will take root and presto, you have a new lawn.
Soils can have either a positive or negative PH factor and a very inexpensive test kit available at garden stores can tell you what your soil is like. Depending on the test result you may have to add lime or another additive to bring the sol to a positive or negative PH number that your flowers will like.
If your soil has high clay content, you may add vermiculite, sand, or other materials to lighten the soil, make it more workable, and provide better drainage. Mix your soils thoroughly to assure a nice even mixture.
A flower garden can be all one type of your favorite flower or my favorite is a garden that has flowers that bloom one after the other. This keeps the garden in constant color. In much northern area, when spring first arrives, the first flowers that poke through the soil are called crocus.
Crocus is usually our first spring flower and often pokes its head up through the snow to the delight of everyone that spring is finally here. Crocus comes in many, many colors and can make a beautiful early color garden.
They can also be planted as under plants as they die off before other plants mature and bloom. If used with daffodils in mass plantings the effects are really great to see.
Landscaping Planning – Take a little time now to plan your flower garden. Make a simple sketch of what is going to go where. There are two major types of plants. Annuals and perennials. Annuals you plant every year, perennials last year after year. Planning your planting will help avoid having a three-foot flower in front of an 8 in flower.
Annuals – You can mix crocus, daffodils, tulips, impatiens all in the same garden as well as hundreds of other types. Pick what types you like. Some people like a “formal” look and others like a more natural look. If you like formal beds, plant all of one kind of flower in that bed but remember that when that type finishes blooming you will either have to replant something else for summer or live with a “dead” bed area.
Tulips for example cannot be planted over, as they need the summer season to grow their bulbs before removal for storage in the fall in colder climates. I prefer a mixed bed of flowers. Perhaps a 2’ x 2’ area of each kind is a nice size plot to start with.
Try to plant colors close together that compliment each other. Two reds do not work but red and white or yellow and blue can really work well next to each other. Landscaping vs gardening is the question. Check your bloom times for each plant. When and how long are important. The U.S. is divided into different planting zones so check your zone for the best time to plant each type of flower.
In the warmer climates, impatiens last all year long, in the colder areas they do not and are considered an annual.
Bulb Planting – I have found the easiest way to plant bulbs is to excavate the planting bed to the depth required for the bulbs. With the bed level lowered to the correct depth, place your bulbs in a pattern that you would see when they grow and bloom keeping the packages required spacing between bulbs. Place all your bulbs and then cover with soil.
This way there is no guessing where the bulbs ended up which occurs with planting one bulb at a time. Tulips bulbs work especially well this way and allow color inter-mixing for really interesting color patterns. Many, many types of flowers are available in bulb types.
Tulips, irises, daffodils, hyacinth, windflower, and the like are just a few available today. Follow the packages directions by carefully planting bulbs upside down does not work and yes they have a “directions” to plant. Hundreds of different types of bulbs are available today at the landscaping stores. Some come boxed in mixed varieties.
Perennials – There are as many perennial types of flower plants for landscaping as there are annuals. These however generally cost more to purchase (they only get to sell them once) so caution must be made in your choice. Prices and types vary throughout the world so I will not try here to cover all of them but stick to the basics.
There are basically two types of sun-loving and shade plants. There are a few that tolerate partial shade but be careful where you place them. Early morning sun is far weaker than midday sun so a plant that requires partial shade may burn in the mid-day sun.
Roses require full sun as where Hostas (yes they are flowers) require shaded areas, I have found that plants that require full sun may tolerate a partial sun condition during part of the day but still require that most of the day they be in full sun to bloom.
Perennials differ from annuals in that they last year after year with some extra care during their dormant seasons. Some roses require they be bent over and buried under mulch for the winter; others can be surrounded by garden burlap to protect from the cold winter winds.
All areas are different and each area has its own requirements. Forsythia or yellow bells by its common name require almost no care at all when planted as a wild background or hedge.
Many times it is planted as a formal hedge and can be shaped by trimming. This is a plant that blooms with pretty yellow flowers before it gets its leaves. In fact, as soon as the stems turn slightly yellow/ green they can be brought inside for an early spring bouquet. They bloom well indoors. Leaves come after the flowers fall off and stay green until late fall in the northern cold climates.
Evergreen Shrubs – Here again. There are hundreds if not thousands of types of evergreen plants available. A visit to your local nursery will show what is available in your area. Whether you’re planting a hedge to hide the neighbor’s yard or low plantings around your foundation for decoration size type and color are important.
That 18” plant you picked may grow to be 20 feet tall when it matures. Not what you want for a foundation planting for sure. Ask your nursery person as many questions as you need. They will be glad to help. Balsam, Douglas fir, Scotch, Pine, White pine, Arborvitae, Hemlock, junipers are only a few and all differ greatly in color, needle type, and growth characteristics. There are many technical manuals available on the Internet that you can research for more info.
Do a soil PH test before planting. Evergreens like acidic soils and many fertilizers and additives are available to adjust your soil PH at your landscaping center. A word of caution here, Double-check the plants full size when mature to avoid future problems with overgrown plants crowding foundation or fences.
Evergreens or firs come in all shapes and sizes from low growing ground covers to full-sized trees. Always make your choice based on full size when mature among other factors. Landscaping could be a fun hobby if you do it right but it also could be tough, take landscaping seriously.
If you want a fast-growing evergreen to try hedera ivy on the trellis. Caution though in that ivy, once I get started is really hard to get rid of but is easy to prune. If you want beautiful colored foliage try a Virginia creeper.
Its leaves turn a beautiful crimson red in the fall but lose it leaves during the winter. A flowering vine that grows quickly is the trumpet vine variety. This vine grows very quickly and is pretty aggressive but was wonderful flowers that are in the orange to red shades.
Another flowering vine is the Clematis. There is even an evergreen type but it doesn’t always grow as full and thick as the deciduous types. A nice combination is the Ivy grown with clematis laced through it. Clematis vine comes in many colors and grows very quickly. Landscaping is a great hobby to be involved in.
There are many color choices with Clematis. Watch out for Wisteria. It is beautiful but its roots are very aggressive and almost impossible to remove. It also can take at least three years before it Wisteria tree took three years to bloom and only then after trimming off in the fall and before all new shoots developed over the summer.
I also cut away all new ground creepers to maintain the tree shape. Any branch that touches the ground will form a new tree. It has a wonderful aroma for a short period of time.
Climbing roses can be a good choice. Some grow quite quickly once established but may need to have dead stems cut back each spring. This does help to keep the shape but inhibits the overall growth somewhat.
I am told the trumpet vine is the fastest grower but it will not grow in my zone so I have no first-hand knowledge. If your local nursery sells it chances are it will survive in your area.
Landscaping and Gardening
Shape Plants – The best shade plants in my opinion are in the Hosta family of plants. There are varieties with plain green leaves, large and small, thick and thin, wide, and narrow. There are variegated varieties that have white edges or stripes on the leaves.
These come in all shapes and sizes up to elephant ears, down to tiny plants. Mixing these plants in a rock garden or hillside or around a shaded pond can produce a lovely layout to view. Many flowers with light blue flowers on long stalks.
Caution: In my area, white-tailed deer consider these plants a great meal and can devastate a bed overnight. Installation of deer netting is required to see the plants safe but if you use the black plastic netting it is almost invisible at a short distance.
Landscaping Children’s Project – If you have a young child, try planting some marigold seeds with them. Marigolds grow quickly and can be grown in containers on a patio, flower boxes, or landscaping. When the flowers die off, have them pick them and dry them on a brown paper bag in a sunny window. When dry, have them peel way the outside dried flower to reveal all the new seeds inside.
A few flowers will produce hundreds of seeds for next year for FREE and they will have learned how flowers produce and multiply. Many colors of marigolds are available ranging from light yellow to deep orange. Long and short stems and giant sizes are available.
The next best thing to seeing your flowers bloom is getting your hands into the good earth. The smell of freshly dug earth in the spring is wonderful. Have your children share this time with you and perhaps you will help develop a future or at least someone who will continue to plant some wonderful flowers to enjoy.
Landscaping tips and hardscape ideas to help to select plants, learn how to beautify your yard. The focus is on low-maintenance, year-round color.