Planning a Smart Landscape

With spring in full bloom, home owners are ready to enjoy their yards. Share how a master landscape plan can improve an entire site, satisfy their wish list, and help a property appeal to future buyers.

April 6, 2015

So many buyers base their housing decision on location, price, and curb appeal. Neatly pruned hedges? Colorful flowers? Level, paved walk? Check, check, check.

But the great outdoors are about much more than just the front yard, particularly when home owners want a pond, outdoor room, or vegetable garden. Whether they can afford all of that will depend in part on their budget and the site. But the order in which they do the work also makes a difference. Without an overall plan to guide the work, the pond may not leave room for the terrace or garden that the owners might have hoped for down the road.

Working from a master landscape plan can help avert such problems. With the plan — similar to a blueprint that maps interior changes — the entire site is designed at one time. Softscape (flowers, plants, shrubs, and trees), hardscape (materials for walkways, terraces, and walls), and amenities like the pond and a deck are chosen all at once. The plan takes into account yard size, topography, climate, water availability, neighborhood covenants, maintenance requirements, and budget.

“The main points of a plan are to meet the community’s zoning requirements and setbacks and help clients visualize how it all lays out and is sequenced,” says Pittstown, N.J.–based landscape designer Howard Roberts. Sequencing involves defining how users get from one area to another, perhaps from a pool to a changing house, Roberts says. The plan also will provide a more complete sense of the costs involved, he adds.

Many home owners with garden expertise can sketch where they want everything to go — a row of tulips and daffodils in front and fruit trees to shade a rear patio. But for those without such knowledge or others who desire bigger improvements such as a full outdoor kitchen, it’s prudent to bring on board a landscape professional who makes recommendations and draws a detailed plan to scale.

Just because home owners have a grand plan in place doesn’t mean the installation has to happen all at once; projects can be phased in over several years. In fact, the slow approach offers an advantage. Garde

ns can take three years or more to fill in. The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap, says California landscape designer Michael Glassman, coauthor of the upcoming book The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Garden (Images, 2015). As plantings mature, home owners may want to make revisions. Perhaps they want more fragrance in their bulb garden—think hyacinths and lavender. If they desire more birds, butterflies, and bees to visit, they may want to try bushes with berries such as elderberries and blueberries, says Julie Moir Messervy, a landscape designer in Saxtons River, Vt., and author of Landscaping Ideas that Work (Taunton Press, 2014).

Share these three steps with home owners so they end up with the most useful plan and reap the best results.

Make a wish list

Home owners need to prioritize what they want since few properties and budgets permit everything. Suggest they study garden books such as Celeste’s Garden Delights (Celeste Longacre, 2015) or websites like Gardenista, take a garden tour organized by The Garden Conservancy or other groups, or stroll through favorite neighborhoods. Choices vary, but the following five are generating big buzz:

  • Outdoor kitchen. The cost and size depend on the number and brands of appliances, amount of storage and countertops, lighting, and seating.
  • Vegetable garden. These can be as simple as a few containers filled with favorite veggies and herbs or as elaborate as a setup with rows planted in the ground or in raised beds with a fence to keep out wildlife.
  • More hardscape, less lawn. This sustainable choice helps cut maintenance and watering. But Messervy cautions, “Don’t pave over paradise.” She prefers small hardscape areas for different activities, such as a sitting area around a fire pit.
  • Drought-tolerant plants. Native flora in proper soil can also help pare water use, even in non-drought areas. “Climates are changing. Six or seven years ago we weren’t talking about a drought in California, and Boston had never received so much snow,” Glassman says.
  • Perennials. These plants return annually without replanting, saving money and labor. Their downside is that they often offer less vivid color than annuals offer. Glassman suggests home owners pop in a few annual favorites such as impatiens, cyclamen, or snapdragons.

Hire the right professional

For home owners who aren’t experienced, there’s great advantage to hiring professionals who understand all factors that influence success. They know which plants wildlife crave — for example, deer love hostas and squirrels feast on tulips, says Messervy. They also know that hostas thrive in shade while daylilies need sun. And they’re experienced in arranging colors. “A mass of white drift roses will make a bigger visual impact than smattering of different hues,” says Glassman

Advise home owners to consider pros with skills that reflect their specific needs. They should examine any design pro’s website or portfolio, secure recommendations, and visit some finished jobs — preferably several years old to see how they’ve held up, says Roberts. And always advise clients to sign a written contract, which will spell out who is responsible for each part of the job if problems arise. Here are four categories of professionals to consider:

  • Landscape designer/architect. Both design specialists understand plants, basic engineering, water issues, and what a plan should include. The main differences are their professional schooling and licensing requirements.
  • Arborist. This expert is trained to diagnose a tree’s healthfulness. They can help determine when trees should be pruned, removed (if diseased), or transplanted (if taking too many nutrients and water from soil in its location). Glassman suggests hiring a certified arborist when a home includes large specimen trees — those that are unusual and that may be taller, older, with unusual leaves and flowers, or in other need of extra care. Doing so is also smart if any tree’s branches look “sad” or dead, or its canopy of branches and leaves needs to be opened to allow more light to reach lower limbs.
  • Landscape contractor. This professional may be skilled in a range of work, from planting trees to building a bocce court or pool. Suggest that home owners pick the person with the right skill set and experience for their job.
  • Design-build firm. Many of these companies have a variety of specialists on staff who do everything from designing a site to building and maintaining it. There’s a convenience to getting all these skills from one source; the downside is that home owners don’t have the advantage of competitive bids, says Glassman.

Home owners can also consult local cooperative extension services, often connected with colleges. These offer soil testing and information on the best planting choices for the area. They can also advise about local invasive plants to avoid and which area bugs may cause certain plants and trees to fail.

Budget wisely

Most landscape professionals suggest home owners spend between 10 and 20 percent of their home’s value on landscaping. That percent may go down if prior owners installed quality work, but it can go higher if the project includes big-ticket items like a swimming pool, says Roberts.

Home owners may want to check the latest Cost vs. Value report, which will help them understand average paybacks to expect at resale. In the most recent survey, a mid-range composite deck addition averages $11,476 in resale value (a 74.3 percent payback). An upscale version averages a higher $22,881 at resale but offers a smaller 65.1 percent payback. The good news is that some luxury choices can be scaled back but still offer a similar effect. A fountain can provide pleasing water sounds in a more affordable way than a pond; a vinyl pool costs less than a gunite one; and gravel or cement pavers are less costly than fieldstone.

The cost of the landscape plan itself varies, depending on design complexity and features. A simple sketch averages between $500 and $1,000 while a colored drawing with species, water sources, electrical, and construction details might run between $2,000 and $4,000 or higher, says Glassman. Some companies charge hourly or by a percent of the total construction cost.

Sharing all this information will set home owners on the right path. With a well-designed site, they’ll find it easier to add value to their home in a planned and sustainable way. But they may also discover their backyard to be a compelling destination in its own right, as the ultimate “staycation” space. 

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).


Residential Styles & Structural Elements


Tudor arches have a low point and are seen mostly on Tudor Revival and Gothic Revival styles of architecture, both popular in the late 19th and...