Landscaping Your Yard: Where to Start?

May 10, 2017
How to Start Landscaping Your Yard


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Would you like to improve the landscape design of your yard and property?  Where do you start? 

I’m not much of a planner and this lack of forethought is reflected in my gardening style. My flower beds are in a constant state of change depending on what new plants I acquire each season. Many are planted and moved several times before they land in a suitable spot or die. To avoid making the same mistakes that I do, let’s see what the experts have to say.

It Starts With a Plan

If you were to hire a professional landscape designer, one of the first things he/she would do is draw up a plot survey of your property, including your backyard and front yard. This is something you can easily do yourself.

  • Draw a birdseye view of your property noting the placement of all the manmade features—called hardscape—such as buildings, fences, driveways, stonewalls, etc. Boulders, trees, and large shrubs combine with your hardscape to form the “bones” of your landscape.
  • Using graph paper helps but you don’t have to agonize over exact measurements, a sketch that is roughly in proportion will be fine.
  • Make sure to include the location of your well, septic system, or any buried utility lines. Orient your lot on the compass and note where your sunny and shady spots are.

Making a Wish List

Once you know what you’ve got you can move on to making a list of what you’d like. How do you want your garden to look? Start with a few general goals. For example:

  • Do you want privacy for a patio area?
  • Do you want to screen an ugly view?
  • Is your top priority curb appeal/resale or a more private (patio) display?

If you already have flower beds: Note the successful plants and fill in the blanks with the colors, heights, foliage, and bloom time you need to get the desired look. This will help guide you when you are plant shopping. If you know that your garden lacks color after July 4th, you can limit your choices to later blossoming plants instead of buying more spring bloomers.

Look around your neighborhood. What gardens do you like? Colors? Plant shapes and textures? Sizes?

Be sure to make the most of what you’ve got already. Don’t try to change a dry, rocky spot into a vegetable garden. Use it for a rock garden planted with alpines and sedums instead.

What is Your Style?

Your garden should complement your home’s architectural style. Gardening is just like decorating the inside of your house, but instead of fabrics, paint, and furniture you will be using color, texture, shape, size, and placement of plants to create a mood.


  • Formal: straight lines, symmetry, elegant focal points like statues & fountains, manicured lawns, pruned hedges & shrubs, color is secondary to structure and the mood is refined & serene.


  • Informal: lots of curves and colors, lush growth, asymmetry, natural-shaped trees & shrubs and the mood is comfortable & relaxing.


  • Natural: imitates nature, low maintenance, no lawn, blends with the surroundings whether wildflower, woodland, meadow, prairie, or bog. The mood can reflect untamed chaos or just energetic abundance.

Assessing Your Needs

If you have young children or grandchildren you’ll need areas where they can play. Same for pets. Look to incorporate “bulletproof” plants that can take some abuse.


Do you need a welcoming entry garden that directs visitors to your door?

Do you have a tiny lot?


There are tricks you can use to make it seem larger such as lining up paths, gates, and trees to create sight lines that allow the view to flow from one area into another.

Would you like a getaway spot complete with a bench where you can sit and enjoy your yard from a different point of view?


Hardscape, Then Planting

It is tempting to start your design with the plants but it is best to tend to your hardscape first. Once that is in place you can start by planting any trees or shrubs you want to add. Begin from the house and work out. Remember to plan for the mature size of the trees and shrubs to avoid having to move them later when they outgrow their space. Deciduous shrubs planted in front of evergreens will change the look seasonally. Don’t forget to pick some plants for winter interest.


Layout potential flowerbeds with a hose or rope to get the shape you want. A few gentle sweeps look more natural than many sharp curves.


Borders are usually planted against a wall, fence, or hedge and are viewed from one side only.


Beds present more of a challenge since they can be seen from all sides. Wide beds and borders need a path or stepping stones to allow you to tend the plants without compacting the soil or trampling anything.

Define the edges where your flower garden meets the lawn. A physical barrier made from metal,vinyl, granite, or brick will help to keep grass from encroaching into the beds. Plants in the foreground can be left to spill over this edging, softening the look.

Layer plants according to height. Repeat drifts of similar plants throughout the garden to give it rhythm. Large blocks of one plant will make the most impact when viewed from a distance rather than the polka dot look of many different plants in one area. To combine plants effectively, take into consideration their size, shape, leaf color and texture, flower color, and visual weight. Loose and open or heavy and dense?


Bold leaved plants like hosta combine well with finely textured ones like astilbe. Blue-green, chartreuse, bronze, burgundy, and silver-leaved plants liven up the garden even when they are not in bloom.


Remember that hot colors appear to advance while cool colors recede into the background. White can separate clashing colors and will brighten up a shady spot.

Armed with a realistic master plan, you can spread out the work and expense over several years. Take one step at a time to keep your project from becoming overwhelming. Remember this is supposed to be fun! Small steady improvements over the years can transform your yard into the paradise you envision.

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser's backyard gardening tips. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer's Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer's Market.

Reader Comments

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deers eating in your garden

Mark your territory. My husband does this and we haven't had any problems in quite a few years :)

Many gardeners swear by this

Many gardeners swear by this easy approach to repelling deer. It is known around here as the Maine farmer’s fence!


This garden is lovely; however, it is totally OUT OF THE QUESTION WHEN YOU HAVE CONSTANT DEER. They either jump or tear down fences whether metal or the plastic chicken wire. How about a DEER-PROOF BLOOMING garden! FYI: They also EAT THE BLOOMS for supposedly deer-proof flowers, i.e. daffodils! The only things the don't eat are Dusty Miller and Rabbits' Ears and Vinca both the vine and the flower. What else will work in Western PA where winters are cold and summers are hot?

I share your frustration

I share your frustration Michele! We have a resident herd of deer living behind our house and it is not uncommon to have twenty deer in the yard eating everything I love! We have a 7 foot high plastic mesh deer fence around the vegetable garden that makes the yard look like Alcatraz (without the water view), but has kept them out so far. Over the years I have tried every deer repellent trick known to man with varying degrees of success. One thing is for sure, if the deer are hungry there is nothing they won’t eat. There are too many plants that show up on the deer-resistant plant lists to go into here but for some that are specific to PA check out this site from  Penn State Extension I will devote a whole blog post to deer resistant plants in the future so stay tuned.


Just a thought, but as a hairdresser, I've had many people through the years stop in and ask if we would be willing to set aside a bag of trash for them at the end of the night, i.e a bag of hair clippings. The smells/oils in the hair make it a perfect sprinkle in a vegetable garden as it repels several different animals, not just deer. The countryside that we live on sees deer on occasion but never in our yards scavaging for food sources such as yours, so I'm not sure how effective this would be. However, I thought it may be worth at least mentioning, if not an option for you, maybe another who reads this.
Oh, and BTW, I did get fed up last spring with the birds and their consistent burrowing and nesting in our roof rafters coming in off our porch into the attic area (we were doing a roof repair, and porch remodel at the time). So I thought I'd test this same theory and sprinkled some hair onto and around the rafters (what I could safely reach) of the porch and on some other areas I just rubbed the hair onto the wood just to get the scent onto it. And to my surprise, we haven't had not even 1 bird even attempt to come near our porch! And this had been on going every spring and summer for the past 4 years that I've lived in this house!

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