Landscaping Tips and Design Ideas
Copyright 2010 McGroarty Enterprises Inc.

 

The following are a few basic rules that will help you achieve beautiful landscaping results.

Rule #1   

Establish the outline of the bed design that you would like for your landscaping.  Most people are too conservative when comes to laying out the planting beds.  Make the beds plenty large enough.  All beds should be at least 4' wide at their narrowest point.  Trust me on this, anything smaller is too small, and down the road you are going to wish you did it different. 

Take into consideration the size of the plants once they mature.  Sure you can keep them trimmed, but you can not keep them dwarfed.  You've got to give them some room to grow so that your landscape will come together and look nice five years from now.  Your landscaping should look better in five years than it does now.

 The above photo is a simple ranch home.  By getting a little extravagant with the bed sizes and extending the beds considerably beyond the ends of the house, this house will take on an entirely different appearance as you will see in the photos below.  Proper landscaping can completely transform a home.

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Rule #2

Raise the beds at least 10" with good rich topsoil.  This is the most important step of all, and most people mess it up.  Topsoil is expensive, and wheelbarrowing it is hard work.   Don't let either of these points enter into your decision of how much topsoil to buy. 

If you're working on a very tight budget, then spend all your money on topsoil.  You can always add more plants, or put in different plants later on, but once you have the landscaping installed you can't go back and add another 6" of soil, at least you can't without doing a lot of hard and unnecessary work.

Last spring we sold over $25,000. worth of our 
little plants right from our driveway in a
 matter of about six weeks!

Click here to see one of our plant sales, photos 
of our house, and our backyard nursery.

Rule #3her supplier. 

Always ask about unscreened soil.  If the dealer has unscreened soil that he is willing to sell you, then he must have good quality soil.  Pay attention to how they handle the soil as it goes to the screener.  If they have to claw it out of the pile with a backhoe because it is packed so hard that the front-end loader can not penetrate the pile, then you don't want it.

Hold the soil in your hand.  If it appears to be little round balls and not grainy soil, beware.   Often times a clay based topsoil will come out of the screener as small balls of soil.  As soon as you put it in your planting beds it will pack down tight again.   This type of soil is no good for plants.  Plants need to breath.  The roots have to be able to get oxygen.  You're better off with topsoil that has a lot of small rocks in it, rather then a clay based soil.

Look for white roots in the soil.  You don't want to buy soil that has roots that are still alive, you'll get all kinds of weird coarse bladed grass and other undesirable weeds throughout your landscaping, that will be very difficult to control.  

Rule #4

The secret to great landscaping is the plants you select.   Plant selection is everything.  Once you have the beds laid out, and raised at least 10" with good rich topsoil, design your landscape on paper.   You don't have to know exactly what kind of plants you want in your landscape, you just need to know where the very low growing plants are going to be, and how many of them you need.  How many medium sized plants do you need, and where are they going to be planted.  And how many specimen plants will you need, and how many plants do you need to accent the specimens? 

Then take your design to different garden centers, find the most knowledgeable person there, and start asking questions.  Ask for their recommendations for each plant on the plan, and then ask to see the plant.  Take note of the price of each plant, but don't let the price play much of a role in your final selections.  Note:  To get the best landscaping advice at a garden center, visit during the week early in the morning.  This is usually when they are the least busy, and the most knowledgeable person is more likely to be available to help you.

The nicest plants in the garden centers are the most expensive.   Plants are funny creatures.  Sometimes the less expensive plants look much nicer, and are actually bigger, but in the long run the more expensive plant will serve you better.  The price of a plant is determined by the amount time it takes to grow it, and the costs incurred in growing it.  Thus fast growing plants are cheaper than slow growing plants, but slow growing plants almost always make better plants in the end.   If your money is tight don't cut corners.  Just do one area of your landscape at a time, or buy the plants you can afford, and then buy the others next year.  Your goal should be to end up with a beautiful landscape, and if it takes a few years to complete your landscaping, that's O.K.

Rule #5

Don't waste your time or money installing plastic or weed barrier cloth over top of the soil.  I have never seen either of these materials work, and I have pulled out thousands of yards of each, and removing these materials after they have proven to be ineffective, is a real pain in the butt.  If left in, they show through the mulch on the edges and corners, and completely ruin the landscaping.

The reason they don't work is because you mulch over top of them.   Mulch decomposes and becomes extremely rich topsoil, the perfect place for weeds to grow.  You end up with the weeds growing on top of the weed barrier, and the roots of the weeds actually grow through the barrier, making it a real tough job to remove it.

You have two alternatives.  You can use chemical weed controls that are very effective if done properly.  Click on the link "Controlling Weeds in Your Gardens" from the table of contents.  If you prefer not to use chemicals you can lay newspaper down over top of the soil and then mulch over the newspaper.   Make the newspaper 9 layers thick.  This will stop the weed seeds in the topsoil from germinating without creating the hassles that plastic and other weed barriers cause.  The newspaper will just rot and decompose.  By the time that happens the original weed seeds that were in the topsoil will no longer be viable. 

The only weeds that should grow after that are the weed seeds that blow in, and they are going to grow no matter type of weed barrier you install.  The only way to keep the seeds that blow in from germinating is to keep the soil or mulch turned, or to use a pre-emergent herbicide.

Rule #6

Don't fertilize the plants as you plant them.  Too much nitrogen can kill plants young and old if it is not applied properly.  If you have raised your beds with good rich topsoil, then your plants should thrive.  You can use small amounts of organic fertilizer, but it really isn't necessary at the time of planting.  If you're planting in sandy or gravel based soil, then some well rotted organic matter is helpful, but don't get caught up buying all kinds of soil amendments from the garden center.  I spent almost twenty years landscaping hundreds of homes, and all we ever did was raise the beds with good rich topsoil.  We never added anything as we were planting, and I guaranteed every plant that we installed to live for one full year.

Rule #7

Do Not Install Your Plants Too Deep.   This is a big mistake, made by thousands of people.  Remember what you read about topsoil, plants need to breath.  They must have the ability to transfer oxygen to the root system.  Planting them too deep is the equivalent of suffocating you or I.  Small container grown plants should be planted as follows; remove the plant from the container, and observe the soil ball that contains the root system of the plant.   The top of this soil ball should be planted so that one inch of it is above grade.   When you back fill the hole, cover the top of the soil ball with topsoil, leaving a slightly mounded area where the plant sits.  Cover this mound with 1�" of shredded mulch.

When planting balled in burlap plants install them so that 1�" of the ball is above grade, and follow the above instructions.  It is not necessary to remove the burlap completely when planting.  If the burlap is natural burlap that is biodegradable, leave it in tact.  This helps to stabilize the tree, so it will root into the new soil more quickly.  If the burlap is nylon, you can leave it on, just slice it up with a knife.  The little tiny fibrous roots actually find their way through nylon burlap, spreading it open as the roots grow.  Make sure you check around the stem of all burlaped plants looking for possible restrictions.   Nylon burlap should be loosened, giving the stem plenty of room to grow.  Look closely for string tied around the stem.  The diggers often wrap nylon or sisal string around the stem when they tie up the ball.  Sometimes plants are re-burlaped if they've been on the sales lot for a few months, and this can conceal string that was tied around the original ball.  Check around the stems closely.

   Rule #8

Be very leery of what the experts tell you to do.  Use what you are learning here, and your own common sense and you, and your plants will do just fine, and your landscaping will be beautiful.

Many experts recommend over digging the planting hole and putting gravel in the bottom for drainage, and loose organic matter around the sides.  If you follow this advice in heavy clay soil, you might just as well call the plant undertaker while you are planting.  If you do this if you have heavy clay soil, what you are actually doing is creating a bathtub for you plants to drown in.   You are giving the water every opportunity to enter the planting hole, and no way to get out.  Putting gravel in the bottom of a clay hole only increases the volume of water that can sit in the hole. 

That's why I always advocate raising the planting beds 10" with good rich topsoil.  This puts you 10" above the clay if that's the soil you have.  Your plants will always be able to breath.  If you have sand or gravel, raising the beds 10" with good rich topsoil will provide the natural nutrition and moisture retaining ability that is often lacking in  sand or gravel soils.

Rule #9

Mike's definition of an expert:  A gardening expert is someone who has installed thousands of plants in every possible situation conceivable, has guaranteed every single one of those plants to live, and has backed up that guarantee with his or her grocery money.  That, my friends, is an expert.  

I don't claim to know everything about gardening, as a matter of fact, there are a few million things about gardening that I don't know, and I'll be the first to admit it.  However, the things that I do know, I write about, and I did not learn them sitting in a class room or from reading a book.  I learned this stuff by doing it over and over and over, for a period of twenty eight years, on my hands and knees in the dirt. 

    O.K.  I'm stepping off my soap box now.



   

Notice how high the beds are raised in this photo?  See how much this landscaping stands out, even from a distance?  There are many great reasons to raise your planting beds.

This is a landscape design that I have used over and over for years.   All I do is adjust the number of plants, and the plant selection depending on the size and the height of the home.  I've stayed with variations of this design because my customers like it, and expect a variation of it.  By changing the plant selections, and altering the bed layout a little, I can landscape two homes side by side, and not have them look alike.  I've done it many times.

Every home has at least one straight wall across the front of the house.  You can see how I deal with straight walls when designing landscaping.   In this situation I used two Rhododendrons in the background, one on each end, and then planted five Japanese Holly in between.  The holly are planted in an arc.   As we go around this house you will see variations of this same concept all the way around the house.  Repetition is very important when designing a landscape.   Repeating concepts and using multiple numbers of one plant in groupings, makes for a nice landscape.

On a longer wall I just increase the number of plants.  If this wall were longer I would have used two Rhododendrons on each end, and increase the number of Japanese Holly to seven, or nine.  I always use an odd number of plants for an arc so I have a center plant to use as the extreme point in the arc.

Notice how large the bed on the corner of the house is.  This is a small house, yet I made this corner bed almost 15' in diameter.  Don't be too conservative with bed size.  This is a simple home, so a simple planting on the corner is just the ticket.  The center plant is a Canadian Hemlock.  Being the sole plant in the center of the bed it becomes a specimen plant and is accented with lower plants around it.  

The yellow plants are gold thread cypress, which are brilliant yellow all year long.  Most people like yellow plants, but often times over use them.  In this situation there are five plants around this Hemlock, but only three of them are yellow.  The other two not visible in this photo are Taxus Sebian, a dark green evergreen.  Using just three bright yellow plants against two different kinds of dark green evergreens creates a very nice contrast in the landscaping.   Adding the dark brown mulch to the mix only increases the effect.

Just about every home has a structural situation that will allow for a bed like the one you see off the corner of the porch.  Be it a porch, a sidewalk, or a jog in the wall, somewhere a bed like this can be constructed.  Once again, a specimen plant surrounded by five accent plants.  

 The specimen plant here is a Weeping Cotoneaster.  This is a man made effect achieved by grafting Cotoneaster Apiculata on to the stem of a Paul's Scarlet Hawthorne tree.  Cotoneaster Apiculata, also know as Cranberry Cotoneaster is a unique plant with a very unusual branching habit.  It is covered in early spring with little tiny delicate pink flowers, that produce small berries that turn brilliant red in September.  The red berries create a beautiful contrast against the dark green foliage. 

In it's natural state this plant only grows about 24" high, and can be somewhat of a nuisance in your landscaping.  It's tight branching habit traps leaves in the fall, and being so low to the ground many of the branches root to the ground making it very difficult to deal with.  Grafting this plant onto the stem of a tree was a stoke of genius.  Up in the air, none of these problems exist, and the beauty of the plant is much more appreciated at eye level.  For a closer look click on "Mike's Favorite Plants" in the table of contents. 

    If you find one in a garden center, just close your eyes and buy it.   They are actually kind of ugly when they're young.  It takes about two years in the landscape for them to really shine.  But you have to prune the head to get the umbrella effect.  If I'm landscaping a home, you can rest assured that I've included a Weeping Cotoneaster in the design.  Make sure you read the article on pruning at this web site.   You will learn much.   

The accent plants surrounding the Cotoneaster are Emerald Gaiety Euonymus.  A colorful, low growing evergreen with green and white variegated leaves.  

Notice how the outline of the beds are very gentle sweeping curves that can be easily maneuvered with a lawn mower.  Never make tight beds that require hand trimming or weed whacking of the grass.  Make nice gentle curves that are very easy to mow around, and your landscaping will flow like a river.

The low growing powder blue plants in front of the porch are Blue Fescue, a type of ornamental grass.  Very pretty when planted in two rows that are staggered on center.  This particular variety only grows 15" high and about the same width.  Again, notice how wide the bed is at it's narrowest point.  This is the narrowest bed in the landscaping around our house.

The specimen plant on the right is a Waterfall Lace Leaf Weeping Japanese Maple.  This is a beautiful weeping tree that doesn't grow any higher than 3 to 4 feet, but gets wide like a mushroom.  For a better view of this tree click on "Mike's Favorite Plants" in the table of contents. 

Look closely in the mulch under the tree and notice the well type landscape light.  This light serves only one purpose.   It illuminates this little tree, and it is a breath taking sight at night.   Make sure you read the article on landscape lighting.  Good quality lighting will give your landscaping a truly charming effect after dark.  Click on "How to do Landscape Lighting the Right Way" from the table of contents.

 The plants under the Japanese Maple are Green Mound Juniper, a ground hugging evergreen.  Since this photo was taken these Junipers have grown together to form a solid green carpet under this tree.  The only maintenance they need is once a year, early in the spring,  I take a spade and cut them back to 6 inches from the edge of the bed.  When they grow out the new growth conceals the cut ends.

 Looking at the above photo, this is the end of the ranch home you saw earlier.  To the far right of this photo is the Canadian Hemlock that you saw in the corner planting.  From this angle you can see the two Taxus Sebian near the Hemlock, as I mentioned earlier.  The color in this photo is a little washed out, these Taxus are actually deep dark green, except in May when the new growth comes out, they are a little lighter in color.

    From this angle you can see how much the bed layout has changed the appearance of this simple home.  From this angle it may appear to be a little over whelming, but when you are standing on the ground it actually is not.

    Notice the repetitive design.  Same idea, two plants in the background, and an arc of five plants in the center of the bed.  Changing the plants as I've done here gives the same concept a whole new appearance in your landscaping.

    The two plants I used in the background here are Burning Bush.  Burning Bush can grow quite large, or they can also be pruned to stay about 42" high.  The plants in the arc are Rheingold Arborvitae, a very colorful low growing evergreen plant, great for any landscaping project.

    Looking at the left side of the above photo, the plant in the center of this bed is a Harry Lauder's Walking Stick.   This is a truly unique plant with twisted branches.  A great conversation item for any landscaping.  For a much better photo of this plant click on "Mike's Favorite Plants" in the table of contents. 

    The blue ground hugging plants behind this specimen are Blue Rug Juniper, a great alternative to traditional ground covers.  Blue Rug is almost maintenance free, and only grows about 2" high.  Since this photo was taken the Blue Rug Juniper has completely covered this whole bed, and I've removed the three little accent plants seen in this photo.

    Looking at the photo below, this is the back of our house, you can see that I have once again used the same concept on a straight wall.  Two variegated dogwood shrubs in the background, with an arc of  Blue Boy and Blue Girl Holly planted in front of them.  Except this time I arced the landscaping bed in the opposite direction of the arc of the holly, creating an area to put a specimen plant.

The specimen plant in the center is a Rainbow Dogwood.   This is a beautiful plant.  Click on the link "Mike's Favorite Plants" in the table of contents for a better view and description of this plant.  

Look to the far left of the photo and you can see a Lace Leaf Weeping Japanese Red Maple, we'll take a closer look at this plant shortly.

In this photo  we are looking at this Japanese Maple from the opposite angle.  This is the other end of our house, this wall is exceptionally short, because to the left of this planting is the walk-in door to our garage.  Once again, I have repeated the same concept with different plants.

The plants in the background are Dwarf Alberta Spruce, and the plants in the arc are Rosebud Azaleas.  

The above photo was taken a year or two later.  Notice how much the Blue Rug Juniper has filled in?  Blue Rug Juniper makes an excellent ground cover if you have a sunny location.

This concludes the tour of the landscaping around our house.  It would be easy to say that I have a limited imagination because I use the same concept so often, but after landscaping hundreds of homes I have used many, many different planting concepts, and in some situations a different concept is just the ticket, but most often what you've seen here works just fine.  We receive hundreds of compliments on our landscaping, and not one person has ever commented that I repeated the same concept so many times around the house. 

 Landscaping is like hubcaps on a car, you only see one side at a time.  We have so many beautiful plants in our landscaping that visitors to our house are so taken by the plants, they don't even notice the repetition, even though it is key to the attractiveness of the landscaping.

Here are just a few more tips to help you achieve excellent landscaping results.

The next landscaping tip is the most important I can offer you.   It is also the one that you will resist doing the most.  Don't brush it off.   Give it serious thought before you start your landscaping project.

Grab a sledge hammer and start breaking up the sidewalk leading to your front door.  Chances are if you have a walk that was installed by a builder, it is boring, difficult to travel, and leaves limited landscaping possibilities.  I am also willing to bet that the soil around your house has settled, causing the walk to tip toward the house, creating a potential drainage problem.

Is your house and your walk new?  It doesn't matter.  If the walk is straight and boring, and the planting beds are too narrow, break it up and put in a nice new walk that you will love.

The house in the above photo belongs to relatives of mine.  They had it built a couple of years ago, and allowed me to help with the design of the sidewalk as well as the landscaping.  A typical home builder would have installed a straight sidewalk, but their builder was very open to the idea of a curved walked after he saw the design I was suggesting, and he did a great job of installing this walk. 

Not only is this walk much more attractive than a straight walk, but it is also much more user friendly.  People don't walk square corners.  This walk provides a very scenic stroll to the front door.  This photo was taken during the winter, so the plants are dormant, but this walk is surrounded by beautiful plants.  The small tree in the center of the walk is a Waterfall Lace Leaf Weeping Japanese Maple, and there is a well type landscape light installed under the tree to up light the tree.

My relatives love this walk and the landscaping possibilities it created.  Do yourself a favor.  Slow down and decide exactly how you want your home to look a few years from now.  Even if it means putting the landscaping off for another year to do a nice sidewalk, it will be worth it in the long run.

This walk would have been even more attractive if it had been done in brick.  And if you don't know how to finish concrete, brick is actually easier to do.  As least from a skills, view point.   Anyone can do a brick sidewalk, and most of the companies that sell paving bricks offer instruction and will loan or rent you any tools that you may need.  

This is a patio that I designed for another relative.  It's actually two patios connected with an arced walkway.  It just lends a different view to the patio area.  

That's about it for landscaping.  Thanks for stopping by, and good luck.  -Mike McGroarty

Last spring we sold over $25,000. worth of our 
little plants right from our driveway in a
 matter of about six weeks!

Click here to see one of our plant sales, photos 
of our house, and our backyard nursery.

by Michael J. McGroarty
Copyright 2010