Angie's LIST Guide to
Landscaping your yard

Landscaping your property can be a major undertaking, and a long-lasting one. Start with a clear plan of what you want to achieve, then decide what parts you want to do yourself and what would require a professional. If you're thinking of selling your home, a bit of landscaping can give it the 'curb appeal' it needs.
 

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Planning your landscaping

Because we don't all live in areas where it's 85 degrees and sunny year round, it's important to plan ahead when considering any outdoor landscape projects. Planning ahead will give you ample time to do your research and make sure you're hiring the best professionals in the area. It will also help you get a clear idea of how you want your outdoor space to look and give you time to compile your wish list.

Here are some things to consider:

• Decide which parts of the property you want to landscape. You don't have to do the whole yard at once. Break it up into projects or phases. This makes the tasks more manageable and affordable.

• Think how you'll use the landscape. Will it be for outdoor entertaining? Are you trying to gain privacy or dampen noise?

• Collect landscape images that appeal to you. Try sketching a rough idea of what you have in mind. Visit garden centers and make a list of plants that interest you. Present these materials to the landscapers under consideration and listen to their advice. Sometimes designs or plants may look good but aren't well-suited to your particular property.

• Decide if you're going to do the job or hire someone. If your property has slopes, drainage issues or other kinds of potential engineering problems, hiring a landscape architect or designer may be your best option.

Tips on hiring help

Follow these tips to find the right expert for your needs:

landscaper at work

Columbus, Ohio landscape designer Todd McKeegan thinks of
each of his installations as a work of art.

1. Have an idea of what your ideal landscape looks like. This will help the professional understand what you're looking for; however, be open to ideas. They know what will work best for your space.

2. Get recommendations from others. If you join Angie's List you can search for landscapers in your area and read the reviews and ratings submitted by other Angie's List members who have used those companies.

3. Make sure the landscaper you hire meets state and local certifications and licensing requirements, if any.

4. Obtain a signed copy of any contracts and work orders.

5. Be prepared to go on site visits. Some professionals will ask you to view examples of past work or similar landscapes to what you're requesting.

What kind of expert do you need?

Here's a primer on several related professions:

Landscaper: These professionals can plant new trees and shrubbery; remove, modify and replace existing plants and materials, such as mulch; establish new planting beds; install sod or seed a new lawn; and provide routine maintenance. Some landscapers offer design services, but usually they work from plans the homeowner commissioned from a landscape architect or landscape designer. Many landscapers offer irrigation and sprinkler services, but there are also individualized specialists who can install these systems.

Landscape architect: If you aren't sure what you want, or if your grand plan requires changing the lay of the land, you may need to start with a landscape architect.

These professionals often work on large custom home projects, providing overall site plans for drainage and landscaping. They can also work on smaller, yet complex, residential projects. Often landscape architects are involved in commercial and municipal projects as well. They have advanced education, professional training. Nearly every state in the U.S. requires landscape architects to be licensed.

Landscape designer: Many have horticulture backgrounds or nursery experience and can design a landscape for a new home or renovate an existing area. They're very good at providing a blueprint for your yard, indicating where each plant and feature should be placed. Typically, designers are trained under the apprentice system and aren't licensed.

Certified arborist/tree service: Specialize in pruning, disease and pest diagnosis and treatment. Depending on their experience, they can provide suggestions for tree replacement, install lightning protection, or cable and brace trees that have broken limbs or are leaning. Certification can be verified through the International Society of Arboriculture.

Gardener: A person with or without horticultural education, and often performs routine garden chores similar to a landscaper. They perform simple maintenance chores like dead-heading flowers, feeding and repotting plants. The more education or experience the gardener has, the better he/she will be able to help you pick the plants, flowers and vegetables that will thrive in your location.

Horticulturalist: Help with plant problems and diagnosis of diseases and problems. Are usually knowledgeable in plant cultural requirements and can advise watering and feeding schedules.

Contractors: Though perhaps not the first profession that comes to mind when you think of your landscape, hiring someone to install an outdoor kitchen or living area, for example, would take the work of contractors or specialists. When researching who to hire, ask your local landscaping company if they install outdoor kitchens.

Many landscaping companies offer outdoor living space services and other companies brand themselves as outdoor kitchen installation specialists. Make sure you are familiar with licensing laws in your state. With the amount of work involved, state law might require a licensed contractor perform this type of work. Because of the construction, masonry, plumbing and electrical work needed to make the kitchen function; you might need to call upon individualized specialists.

Lighting your landscape

landscape lightingLight your landscape at night

Low-voltage lighting can showcase your home and landscaping effectively and inexpensively.
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There are several types of landscape lighting, depending on the effect you wish to create:

Downlighting: Casting light downward to increase drama and beauty.
Uplighting: Casting light upward to highlight texture, size and color.
Moonlighting: Usually globe-shaped, they cast a soft, natural light glow.
Spotlighting: Casting light to specifically focus on a garden feature, such as a flower bed or sculptural piece.
Pathlighting: A series of lights set low to define a walkway for safety and increased aesthetic appeal.
Silhouetting: Incorporating background lighting to accent structural features.
Grazing: Directional light placed at an acute angle, to emphasize texture

Landscaping for curb appeal

First impressions are important, and that goes for your home, too. Whether you’re trying to attract potential buyers and achieve the highest resale value possible or wanting to make your home stand out from the others on the block, your home’s landscape can make or break its curb appeal.

A well-landscaped home will make a powerful first impression when it's time to sell. (Photo courtesy of Barbara Helgason)
Making a great first impression

Landscaping can give your home the 'curb appeal' needed to sell in a down market. Read more

Make sure your yard is clean and tidy. A neatly mown, edged and debris-free landscape offers the impression of a home that’s been well cared for. Keep the front walkway clear and uncluttered, and consider landscape lighting to create a warm and welcoming entrance.

Because you want your house to be the focal point, it’s important to stay on top of pruning. You can't showcase your home if it can't be seen from the street. Prune overgrown trees and shrubs to frame and show off the house. Branches in contact with the house are a red flag for appraisers checking structural integrity and potential pest damage. Safety issues, such as dead wood and dangerous trees, are sure to show up on costly work orders.

On the other hand, if your front yard is devoid of plants, consider planting a tree as a focal point. Consider color. First impressions are largely emotional. Use color to attract and focus attention on positive aspects of the landscape. A single substantial container brimming with blooming bulbs and fresh spring color creates a bigger splash than the same number of plants scattered throughout the front yard.

Maintenance is especially important with color — faded bulbs and burned out plants mid-summer are off-putting. Plan to trade out and refresh container plantings with seasonal shifts.

If you’re thinking of putting your home on the market, Realtors say the online photo is the first step of curb appeal, so make sure you have a photo of your home’s exterior at its best.

Land surveying

When building a fence, planting trees or installing outbuildings contracting with a land surveyor before making changes to a property can prevent clashes with neighbors and city code violations.

Land surveyors place iron rods or other markers at the corners of a property to establish boundary lines. Essentially, land surveyors determine where one property ends and another begins. They can also provide other services including topographical and flood elevation surveys.

While a survey is not needed for every kind of landscaping or outdoor home improvement project, any plan that includes working near a property line has the potential to create a dispute with a current or future neighbor.

Land surveying is most important before erecting permanent, expensive structures near boundaries. That includes wood fences, rock walls and other barriers that are difficult to move. Trees and shrubs can also be expensive, and planting them too near a property line could result in a neighbor forcing them to be removed.

Hiring a land surveyor is a good idea before starting construction on outdoor projects like building a fence or landscaping.
Hiring a land surveyor is a good idea before starting construction on outdoor projects like building a fence or landscaping.

Storage sheds and other outbuildings are often erected near property lines, but a recent, accurate land survey is necessary to make sure buildings comply with utility easements and other building code requirements.

Even if the relationship with an adjoining neighbor is friendly, the house could later be sold to someone who insists on complete compliance with property boundaries. Other factors like blocking a neighbor’s view or creating unwanted shadows on his or her property should also be considered.

Land surveying is also useful to homeowners trying to prove that a neighbor has encroached on their property. The plot a surveyor provides could be enough evidence to win a civil or small-claims court case.

Hiring a land surveyor

Because of the need for a state license and specialized equipment, land surveying is never a do-it-yourself project. Professional land surveyors are easy to locate, however. In most parts of the country, they are known simply as surveyors, and they are sometimes part of civil engineering or land use planning companies.

Finding firms that offer the service is easy, but choosing a well-regarded firm with proper state licensing, a high rating on Angie’s List and good references is essential to getting an accurate measurement of your property. A written contract is also an industry standard, so it is best to avoid surveying contractors who refuse to provide one.

While surveying costs vary based on the area of the country and the size of the job, homeowners can expect to spend between $300 and $1,000 for a survey, perhaps more.

Like hiring any professional, choosing a land surveyor involves choosing a trustworthy, polite and friendly company that is willing to answer your questions. Some questions to ask include:

  • Do you regularly perform this type of surveying?
  • Will my lawnmower damage or interfere with the markers you place in my yard?
  • Will you be filing your report with any governmental agency, and if so, where will it be recorded?

A land surveyor should be willing to walk the property with the homeowner after the survey, pointing out where markers have been placed and answering any additional questions.

When homeowners turn to the services of a professional land surveyor before starting an outdoor project near property boundaries, they can avoid creating problems that could be costly and difficult to fix after the project is complete.

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