Creating a plan for my backyard--where to begin?

TuchinaMarch 5, 2012

Hey all,

I posted a couple weeks ago about developing an area under a co-dominant tree in my backyard and got some great advice. Upon reading your responses however, I realized that I'm utterly clueless about forming a design for my backyard and also that I need a master plan before starting in on any one area...(duh!)

I'm pretty new to gardening and would love some pointers on where to begin in turning my ugly lot into a place I can really enjoy.

Here is a pic from the back of the house for your viewing (un)pleasure:

The area is about 45' across and at least 150' in length, I believe. Please excuse the dead leaves and tree limbs. The yard was really overgrown when I moved in 2 years ago and had even more dead material piled up than seen here. Also, the fence in the back belongs to the neighbor and he won't fix the sagging or missing parts (I've asked.) You can see the 2x6 boards the previous occupant of my home tacked on to reinforce it.

In a perfect world, I would hire a pro take out those trees and formulate a sketch for future plantings, hardscape, etc. Unfortunately, I'm a student and don't have the immediate funds to do this as of yet.

Barring the removal of the trees, what should I do? Where do I begin in developing a plan for this mess?

Some pertinent info:

--I'm in zone 7

--the soil is mostly heavy clay

--there's a storm drain located in the neighbor's yard adjacent to the back left corner of mine

--I have a dog

Thanks for reading! :)

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Some tough shade and drought tolerant shrubs work.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2012 at 4:05AM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

I'd suggest a trip to your public library, and look for books that address landscape design how-to's. There are distinct and time proven steps to design landscapes/gardens that will help you sort through the various components; determining your intended uses and goals balanced against your site's constraints and opportunities, how to combine your uses into areas that make sense, how to determine costs, how to evaluate different potential layouts and best select from among them given your site constraints and opportunities, etc.

After wading through all this sort of background info, you should ha e a better understanding of how to get started with your site.

If you do de idea it might be worthwhile to hire a consultant to get you pointed in the right direction, you'll have a better idea of how to evaluate the proposed ideas. Start with listing all your ideas for the space, rank them in importance as you have a small budget, list the good points of the site as well as the bad ones, and maybe cull examples of garden designs you like. You may also find that walks around your neighborhood looking at gardens and layouts and plantings that seem to function well will give you specific ideas you can use in your own backyard. Hope this helps, as I feel more specific recommendations at this point short-circuit the full pro RSS that can give you a truly useful as well as beautiful garden design. You'll also want to carefully consider how much a garden design based on your dog needs to be a factor. That really depends on your dog,its habits, whether it will be destructive of plants, it's functional needs within the garden, etc.

Good luck with the process, maybe others can recommend good landscape books more specific to your region and conditions, but general books on design will still elaborate the process which is used regardless of regional climate.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2012 at 2:34PM
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I'm not a professional designer, just a professional dreamer.

With your situation--student, limited funds, existing trees, soil, and other constraints--a great deal depends on who you are and what brings you joy.

For me, I love research, asking questions, gaining know-how, envisioning possibilities (even financially impossible possibilities). I love being outside in the garden as much as possible, so spring and fall clean up, bed prep, plant transplanting, as well as creating places I like to eat, sit, meditate, and read are important. Working to create these spaces is something that I find entertaining.

And I don't mind very slow progress. I purposely set my annual garden goal very low: Is it better this year than last year? And, though it's been slow, I am getting there.

I agree that creating a sort of master plan may help you move forward. But it's okay to plan to take the trees down in your master plan, even if you can't do this for a couple of years. That question, of course, may also depend on how long you will live in this house and whether completing your schooling will mean you will be trying to sell.

If you plan to work in the same city / town where you are now in school and this will be your home for the next 10 years, then consider a master plan strongly geared toward what you would really love this place to be. On the front end, don't limit your dreaming perspective. It will, after all, potentially be your back yard for a good chunk of your existence.

If your time frame is considerably les, then moderate the master plan toward the objective of good stewardship of the yard and home and doing what you decide will give you best value when you need to sell.

Once that's out of the way I second Bahia's advice about books, gardens in the neighborhood, gardens and parks in your city, botanical gardens. Go on a picture safari this spring. Take garden tours in your town or region. Lots of notes. Keep a garden journal, especially describing vignettes (little created scenes and settings in a landscape) that, perhaps for some as yet unknown reason, seem to stop your heart. Do the same with garden pictures in magazines and seed catalogs. If you can cut out the pictures, then put them in the garden journal.
Later on, you will have to deal with the fact that some of these photos are touched up like runway models, but, nevertheless, if the picture seems to speak to your heart, it's worth beginning to ask yourself "Why?"

Now, much of what you capture this way will have nothing to do with your current backyard. I told you I was a professional dreamer! But it is still very much worth learning what it is that you love in the garden, don't you think? Apparently, you found something wonderful about having a fig tree, right? My mom planted one a few years ago and it's a lovely thing ...

Back to planning process. You also need to ask yourself a lot of questions about what you want to be able to do in your backyard.
You've mentioned that there is no patio -- Would you like one?
Do you want a place to drink a cup of coffee in the morning?
A table and chairs for friends to sit outside and talk deep thoughts past midnight?
A place to groom the pups?

You've mentioned a back fence that the neighbor put up but does not maintain. You've put up a second fence ... I think to keep the pups in the yard. Not sure. So this brings up some things you need or want:
Enclosure adequate to keep dogs in the yard, and
A way to mitigate the ugliness of the neighbor's fence.

Now, remember, at this stage you're still just playing. So you can write anything in the whole wide world down as a "I'd love to have ...". Nobody needs to see your list.
do you want a fountain or water feature?
Do you really wish you had adequate sun for a vegie or herb garden?
Do you want to teach your pups dog agility? (Don't laugh! That's what's in my brother's back yard. All these wonderful fun things for his dogs.)

Or, maybe you'd just like a nice patio area, maybe some containers of flowers spilling over, and a real lawn dotted with much smaller (younger) ornamental trees and shrubs?

Information about what you want and what you need comes first. And I'd even say it comes before you limit the discussion with budget. Trust me, mine is miniscule, but I am working to save up for a major change. I know what I want because I worked on my "master plan".

I'm hoping something in this is helpful. If it were me, I'd try to sketch out your main design, I would (and did) get a consultation with a designer (oh, meant to ask, are there any landscape design schools around? You can sometimes get help through a student looking for experience), and then I'd focus on one small area. For me, I'd be planning to nix the trees, so I'd check out the cost. Then that might be all that I could do this year.

Or I'd get myself a patio so I could sit sipping a glass of wine, contemplating the possibilities ...

    Bookmark   March 5, 2012 at 10:00PM
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Wow! Wellspring, after that post I think you could be a professional "garden inspirer."

All the advice above is great and could keep a person going for a long time. Let me offer a jump start project that you could do right away for minimal cost and get things looking much improved pronto. You could adapt it later if your plans change. Figure out the lawn vs. the mulch beds. You don't even need plants. It's mostly a 2-D art project. Figure out where the grass grows well and you want to keep it and figure out where it doesn't grow well and needs to go away. Start with a plan of the yard. Draw it out to scale at 1" = 10' or 1" = 8'. Show the footprint of the house and where the fences and two trees are. Then get some tracing paper (or multiple copies of the plan) and start laying out where grass is possible and where it's not. At some point, you should be able to refine the geometry that's forming up into a layout that looks pleasing. (These should be quick graphic experiments that you'll throw away until you hit on something that you like that works well.) I know there are differences of opinion on this, but my tip is avoid wiggly lines. I'd start by making the largest, simplest shape that works and then refine it. Big, bold, smooth lines. Like an arch the encompasses nearly the entire width of yard, etc. Not little squiggles. Your lot is rectangular. Nothing wrong with straight lines. You'll work how you want it to be. Show what you've done here and get some feedback on it. Then kill the grass in the bed area and get some of that free tree-trimmer mulch and cover up all the beds (end grass maintenance where it's a pain anyway!) Voila! you will instantly have a landscape. Anytime later, you can add plants per your schedule and budget. Even the bed lines can be changed without huge difficulty up until the time the bed is planted.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2012 at 12:08AM
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Notwithstanding we live in an age where people glory in sharing the details of their personal lives with others, I don't know that privacy in one's back yard has altogether gone out of fashion. You don't seem to have much. Screening out your neighbors with some nice, tall evergreen shrubs will also take care of that fence. Speaking of which, I believe it is customary to share the costs of maintaining one with one's neighbor, even if it's not on your property. You're certainly getting some benefit from it because, were it not there, goodness knows what horrors would be exposed.

I'd think long and hard about removing those trees. You can have trees hauled off, but you can't haul in shade. Flooding your back yard with sunlight can create some opportunities, but exploring them might require more time and water than you want to deal with. You can do wonders with shade and part shade. I think you might well have had the right idea with putting raised beds around those trees. You can protect the trunk with a collar. This calls for professional expertise, of course, which you should be able to get gratis, at any large nursery. If you kill them, well, it was a borderline decision to begin with.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2012 at 2:54PM
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Thanks for your responses! They've made me feel much less overwhelmed.

wellspring, I love all your ideas. I, too, am somewhat of a dreamer but I just couldn't figure out how to translate a lot of the beautiful garden pictures I've seen into something that might work in my own space. I'm going to do just what you said and start a garden journal to help get me started.

Here are some of features that I've been thinking about:

1. A patio with room for seating, cooking out, etc.

2. One or two small wooden or rocky platforms for my little guys to sit on (they like to be up high where they can see things,) perhaps tucked in between some dwarf shrubs

3. A digging area/sandbox for the dogs

4. Paths

5. Garden beds with mini fences to discourage my pups from running through my future plants (although they are pretty good about leaving my one current flower bed alone and it's not really blocked off from them)

6. A shallow pond

7. A second patio area further from the house where I can put my metal fire pit and a couple seats

I'm going to go by the library tomorrow to get some landscape design books and start drawing a plan on graphing paper. It's a little hard to see exactly where the sunny parts vs. the shady parts are since it's not quite spring yet but I think I have enough of an idea of them to get me started.

I'd like to get rid a lot of the grass and just keep an island of it where seems to grow most easily, like you mentioned Yardvaark.

I'll post my attempts at creating a design soon, if you guys are interested in seeing them. I'm excited to get started!

    Bookmark   March 6, 2012 at 8:41PM
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whitecap2, what do you mean by a collar to protect the trunk? I understand that building the soil level up around the tree's trunk and bark can be very damaging but the only thing I can visualize is a one of those watering bags you see on saplings.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2012 at 9:14PM
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"I'll post my attempts at creating a design soon, if you guys are interested in seeing them."

It's the easiest way to get feedback!

    Bookmark   March 6, 2012 at 9:38PM
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Collar=something you put around the trunk to keep the soil you will be piling into the raised bed from touching the bark, thus causing it to decay.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2012 at 11:01PM
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