Among the scariest jobs for a home gardener is to design and create a landscape around a new house.

Some people are never going to do it. They will live in previously occupied homes or, if they buy a newly built house, the building contractor will arrange to have some plants installed around the house. In those cases, the home gardener can make adjustments but is working with something that is already there.

But when you buy the land yourself and hire a contractor to build a house for you or the housing contractor has not done any landscaping, it is all up to you.

“The hardest landscape to design is a big, open space around a new house,” Lois Berg Stack, ornamental horticulture specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, told students in the landscape-design school I attended last fall.

Part of what makes it so hard is that you will only do it once. Yes, you can rip things out and start over, but most people don’t. You want to get it right the first time.

Also, there is a lot to consider. All homeowners – whether they admit it or not – want to impress the neighbors, so your landscape should look good for people driving by. But it is your house. You want it to look good from inside the house when you are looking out.

The first thing you should do is analyze the site, including slopes, so you know which way the water will flow; wind direction, so you can create places for comfortable sitting outside; where the sun shines and from what direction; and views of areas off your property that you don’t (or do) want to block.

Create a base map, including information from the site analysis, but also designate areas where the view is most important, which entrance you want visitors to use, where the dryer vent and water spigots are. You may want to have additional outside faucets installed or you might need hundreds of yards of hose to reach from the faucet to your gardens.

Next, decide how you are going to use the property. Do you want a vegetable garden? A place for children to play? Do you plan to entertain outside? Will you be cooking and eating outside regularly, or simply sitting and reading there?

Once you figure out what how you will use your yard, place those areas. The vegetable garden needs full sun. The play area should be visible from the kitchen window so you can see if the kids are beating each other up while you are chopping cabbage.

Separate – either visually or with a physical barrier – the different areas of your yard. You should create pathways – whether paved or just lawn bordered by plants – to get from one area to another.

Place your hardscape – items that aren’t plants – first. If you are plan to put in walls, walkways, a patio, built-in stone benches, a gazebo or a garden shed, you want to know where they will be before you start choosing the plants. Plan this all now, but you don’t need to install it now. Planning means you won’t have to move trees or patios in the future.

“Good landscapes are functional. They solve problems,” Stack said in the course. “They are sustainable, ecology-based without compromising any future owner from getting the full benefits of the land.”

You want something to separate the play area from gardens that have sensitive ornamental plants, because you don’t want the soccer ball breaking off the brittle tree peony you have been nurturing for a decade. A screen of tough but attractive evergreens could protect the delicate ornamentals. Or you could make the children play in the backyard and put the tree peony by the front door.

You also want to have obvious paths. Set up a clear walkway to the entrance you want visitors and the UPS delivery driver to use, but also a path from the play area to the place where the adults dine, drink and read.

You will want daffodils and other showy plants visible from the kitchen and living/family rooms so you can enjoy them no matter what the weather.

You also have to consider the owner. Few homeowners want to spend the amount of time my wife, Nancy, and I – as well as Lois Stack – spend in our gardens. So for most homes, the garden should be low-maintenance.

Stack believes – and although I hadn’t thought of it before, it makes sense – you should use plants that thrive in the type of soil you have on the site. You will have to get a soil test, which I’ve written about before (Aug. 9, 2015), and check your local garden center for the right plants for that soil.

“Try not to amend the soil,” Stack said. “If the plants don’t go for the site (without fertilizer and added compost), you’re going be on that treadmill” of building up the soil forever.

Rather than continually tilling compost into our gardens, I’d rather spend my time cutting flowers to brighten up the inside of the house, picking vegetables to improve our diet or sitting on the patio reading.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected].


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