The creativity and experience you invest in when hiring a landscape designer can pay big dividends. Sometimes, however, you may want to take a more hands-on approach, whether it’s for monetary reasons or because you enjoy getting in the dirt. Paying for a design consultation is helpful, but there are many professional strategies you can use yourself, leading to an attractive, functional space that is kind to your budget.
You can perform a DIY soil composition test by picking up a handful of damp soil, squeezing it in your fist and then releasing it.
1. Do soil tests. A soil test can guide your plant choices while helping you get to know your landscape in ever deeper ways. What can a soil test tell you? Everything from the composition to nutrient levels to pH. All this information will help you make plant decisions as you match plants to the landscape they are more likely to thrive in.
I’m not a fan of amending soil if you don’t have to — it may only be a temporary fix and can be expensive. Instead of putting down deep roots, some plants will meander around in the amended soil level where it’s more friendly. Over time this will make the plants less resilient, especially native plants, and less likely to thrive.
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2. Fix any drainage issues if they could undermine structures. How water flows through your property is one of the first things to consider, whether you’re doing a makeover of a small corner or redoing the entire landscape. Specifically, you should note whether the water runs toward or pools near a home or other structure, and whether it is washing away a hill or driveway.
Choosing the right plants for these areas to help water infiltrate deeper levels of soil while keeping it in place will help, but sometimes a more radical change is needed to ensure your property is safe. The changes might include bringing in soil, using gravel for a dry streambed or employing drain tile.
3. Consider more planting. Retaining walls, pergolas, fireplaces, paths and other hardscape elements can be wonderful landscape additions, and they also can be expensive, unless you’re especially handy.
Before going straight to hardscape, consider how a planting design might elevate the current lay of the land. A low area that occasionally collects water might be a perfect spot for a rain garden or bioswale. A sloped stretch of the yard might be accented with taller shrubs on top with drifts of grasses, sedges or other undulating perennials enhancing the curved nature of the landscape. If you’re lucky enough to live near a grove of trees, consider extending that feature into your landscape by planting new trees and shrubs.
Also think about how plants could become hardscape elements in their own right. Consider using shrubs or tall grasses as a living fence in an area where you want privacy. Ground covers such as thyme or shortbeak sedge (Carex brevior, zones 3 to 8) can be used to make a pathway through the space. A clump of trees could grow in to become a natural pergola, or an arbor or trellis covered in vines could fit the bill.
4. Make a detailed plant list. Make your plant list after you know your soil type, have solved site issues and have a design plan in place. It’s a good idea to have several options for each plant type you might want to use in an area. For example, choose three shrub possibilities for a living fence. Consulting with local designers can help, as well as county and university extension offices, native plant societies and botanical gardens.
Create a database of plant images, horticultural information (such as soil and light needs, and mature size), and any other information and ideas that come your way. When researching plants, use the Latin name, as common names can frequently refer to multiple plants and won’t take you to the more science-based growing information you’re looking for. Trust me, doing this legwork and getting to know the plants in a methodical way will reap benefits down the road as your landscape matures.