Where To Start?
Two years ago we decided to take the plunge, go the next step and move from our well-loved townhouse to a single-family house with a bit of a backyard. Although I loved the design of the house, opening up to a great room and open plan kitchen, with a well-appointed master bedroom across from identically-sized kid rooms and bathrooms in convenient locations, the rooms were every colour of the rainbow (including the ceilings!) and seemingly everything was either incomplete, or not built according to code.
But I was determined to have a yard, somewhere to channel my serious plant addiction. I knew there was potential even though it was mostly a boulder field (see image below), with only one patch of grass littered with car-tire container gardens and empty beer cans left in the makeshift firepit.
But where to start? Typically, you inherit someone else’s garden but this place started with nothing but gravel and rocks - it truly was a clean slate. Yea. For. Me.
Being no expert, I visited the library more than usual and because obsessed with finding as much about landscape design and native ecosystems as possible, and took to sketching drawings of possible landscaping on the house blueprints.
So-called hardscape such as patios, walkways, ponds and garden beds were laid out as the background, to which I tracked the sun’s position for the first year to see the full sun, partial sun-shade and full shade areas, and drew these into the plan as well. We didn’t have much money to spend on plants, but I did choose a few conifer saplings, and native and Japanese maples to add focal points and height to the gardens.
There were a few random pines that we left in the yard but we took out all the cottonwoods. I felt terrible ripping out the few trees that were already there, however cottonwoods in particular are messy trees with weak wood, that drop limbs, split their trunks and are prone to disease. They are also the fastest growing trees in North America, averaging 6 feet of growth in a year, to towering heights up to 190 feet, and 75 feet wide... that would take up most of our yard! Out they had to go.
According to design principles, start your plantings with the taller canopy layer, made up of evergreen and deciduous trees. This essentially creates a backbone for the whole landscape. I knew I wouldn't be able to create a forest in my yard in only one season, so I focused on filling in edges, borders and corners.
To create a naturalistic-look, we planted a smaller shrub layer between the trees, and then filled in the spaces with grasses and perennials.
While wanting to create a pleasing landscape visually, I also wanted to be able to grow fruit trees, herbs, berry bushes and veggie gardens, so I allocated the sunniest corner of the lot for that.
Some landscaping tips I've learnt through trial and error:
* Start out by looking at your property, and plot out areas for kids' play, alfresco dining, pathways and decks or patios
* Look at how the sun's position changes throughout all four seasons - this will be one of your most important steps as all plants require their own specific amounts of sun
* Plant larger, open areas with trees to create a backdrop for the rest of your plantings, and to add important structure to your yard - when you're at the nursery, the trees you like might not look much more than twigs, but read the label, or even better, do a google search to see how tall and wide the tree species might eventually become, and plan accordingly
* After you've selected and planted your trees, to bring balance to the viewer's eyes plant your shrubby layer as a next step - this creates a more natural look to your landscape
* Incorporate evergreens for year-round interest and structure to your winter garden
* Plant in groups, drifts or clumps of the same species, as repetition brings unity, instead of lots of different species of plants creating a higgledy-piggledy look