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Plan for a beautiful yard

Although it's still February, it's not too early for Utahns building a new home or those looking to spruce up their yard after the winter thaw to begin landscape planning now.

Thoughtful architects, builders and homeowners are increasingly concerned about blending homes with plants and terrain. A landscape addition should be designed to complement nature.The fundamental idea is to preserve the character of the land and design the house and plants accordingly. This includes using plants that are native to the area, says Connecticut landscape designer A.E. Bye.

The formality of linear flowerbeds and sculptured hedgerows may complement a rigidly traditional home, but most landscape pros favor a softer touch. The goal is a balanced, interesting and natural appearance.

Plan early

The biggest landscape mistake new homeowners make is in timing - contacting a landscape professional or planning their own design too late, says Diane Cagle, a landscape architect in Tulsa.

"Landscaping needs to be an integral part of the house design process, incorporating the trees and plantings with the outdoor structures such as patios and decks, and the house itself," she says.

For existing homeowners, a landscaping redux is likely to require advance planning even while there's snow on the ground.

During new home construction, landscape designers work with the architect or builder to achieve a desired effect, forgoing the rigidity of a traditional shrub-bordered lawn in favor of plants and grasses that are low maintenance and functional.

Landscape designer Neil Diboll of Troy, Mich., is a great proponent of this. Seed mixes for perennial plants diced with a few annual flowers can be an investment that often outlasts the homeowners, Diboll says.

Groundcovers such as ivy, pachysandra and spreading plants can readily replace a grass lawn and are especially good for awkward slopes that defy mowing.

Ornamental grasses - clump-forming relatives of lawn grass - provide ever-evolving beauty in places where the lawn is dormant for the winter.

Aesthetic basics

Conventional landscape theory suggests dividing the property into three categories - foreground, service space and private areas - each of which serves a specific purpose but as a whole fits neatly together.

Sometimes called the streetscape, the foreground usually comprises the lawn, walkway, foundation plants and some trees.

The service space includes the house itself, plus outdoor structures or screens that usually hide trash cans, play equipment for the kids or that rake that never quite gets put away.

Private areas include the backyard and courtyards, and such secondary structures as gazebos.

Put it on paper

Remember that landscaping is created in pencil, not in dirt. Whether you plan traditional or natural landscaping on your own or will oversee a contractor, take a look at your lot objectively. Doodle diagrams showing sun angles during the day and throughout the year, direction of winter winds and summer breezes, privacy, good and bad views, slope and the closeness of the lot line.

Once you've spotted the good and bad points of your yard, get to know its dimensions and boundaries. If the house is in a development, the builder or architect may have a detailed site plan for your home that shows the house and lot in scale. An alternative is the loan plat or survey plat, which shows lines drawn to scale, locations of all structures and easements on the property, if applicable.

A sense of unity

The simplest and most commonly used method of unifying your site's different environments is through hedges, fences or walls for privacy boundaries. These elements set the landscape apart and attract attention. They will also separate special areas such as planting beds or vegetable gardens.

Unity is also created by using plants that are similar in form, texture, color and growth habits. Nature provides its own guide: Group plants that thrive together in the wild.

Natural plant forms

Except for what's done through shearing or clipping, as with hedges, the form of all plants depends on the habitat. Basic forms may be vertical, rounded, horizontal or weeping or trailing. Vertical plants such as arborvitae, some cedars and conifers are important in plant composition because their height creates a strong contrast when placed among spreading or lower-growing plants.

Dogwoods, pin oak, Enkianthus, hawthorns and a few viburnums develop strong horizontal lines and provide breadth. These work best around contemporary homes or traditional prairie-style homes with low, sweeping lines.

The drooping lines of such plants as weeping willow, beech, flowering cherries, Forsythia and jasmine can be used to create softer lines. These plants are most useful as accents in front of or among the stiffer, upright plant varieties.

Globular or rounded forms, the category in which most plants fall, are useful for creating large masses or borders.

Shade trees

Shade trees grow to heights between 40 and 100 feet. Some shade trees, such as willow and catalpa, grow rapidly and will provide shade in five to 10 years. That quick growth results in weaker wood, however, so these trees are less likely to weather high winds without damage.

Slower-growing shade trees, such as red and white oak, and sugar and Norway maple, have stronger wood to resist weather extremes. These trees are valuable when planted on the south side of your home, where they'll provide shade during the hottest part of the year yet allow the sun's rays to filter in for warmth in winter.

Evergreens

Evergreens grow slower than shade trees but offer some advantages. They require very little maintenance and pruning, remain green year-round, provide relief from bitter winter winds when planted along the north side of the home, and can serve a variety of landscaping purposes. The low-growing types fit easily into tight places, and short evergreens are popular for framing doorways or windows.

Problems that grow

Beware of how things can grow. Plant with a vision of the future, especially when working around your home's foundation. Tree roots can exert relentless crushing power against a basement wall.

Many large plants, such as cedars and certain pines, lose their symmetrical forms with age and the effects of strong winds and become frayed and ugly. Others, such as most pines, some firs and spruces, and Cryptomeria, lose their lower branches with age; unless they are masked by lower-growing plants, they can lose their charm.

Building with existing trees

When building a new home, many people buy their lot because of its beauty and established trees. Remember that it's easier to visualize a home nestled among those majestic trees than it is to build one there.

Designing a home for such a site will be more costly, but most homeowners wouldn't have it any other way. However, it is nearly impossible to build on such a site without causing some trauma to broad root systems, which can be compacted by soil during construction.

Distancing the home from tree roots as much as possible will help, says Creative Scape's Cagle. But wherever the trees are, builders of finer homes are becoming more careful about preserving the trees.

"Protective fencing can be placed around the tree when the heavy equipment comes in," Cagle says. That will save trunks from careless scarring. Even a protected tree may suffer for a period after work nearby.

"It's a good idea to plan on a rejuvenation period after construction to give trees care and feeding until they are healthy again," Cagle says.