Upon buying a new home many homeowners are looking for ways to "make it their own" and add their own distinctive flair. Please take a look at our tips based on decades of seeing "the best and the worst" of homeowner landscaping. Part one of this series contains items that all fall under the heading of "Understand What You Have Before Acting". We recommend you spend some time getting to know your site before making major changes - and keep these notes in mind.
Understand Your Grading
Before doing anything else, you should be sure the site grading is functional and safely conveys water away from the home and any other important site features. Understanding and addressing grading issues first makes sense since proper grading is critical for the preservation of your home and for the proper functioning of everything else in your landscape.
- Keep an eye on outdoor areas during a rainstorm and see if water is pooling on any hard surfaces or lawn areas. Consider that any areas of ponding occurring in summer will likely become icy patches in winter. Also realize that frozen ground will not allow water to infiltrate (soak in) so water problems are often exacerbated when ground is frozen and snow melts quickly. Winter rain storms are also problematic for similar reasons. Remember also that snow drifts can create effective dams that alter water flow. Be sure to keep a very close eye on your landscape during spring thaw and any rain events when the ground is still frozen.
- Also keep an eye on the basement to monitor for any moisture issues.
- Check on and clean gutters and any landscape drains frequently to better understand their function and any necessary cleaning frequency.
Complete A Soil Test
Understanding a minimum about your soils is important for a few reasons:
- So you don't waste money and pollute the lakes by putting down unnecessary fertilizer.
- So you understand if pH is out of a normal range or soil is lacking in key nutrients.
- So you can understand which types of plants will thrive before investing in them. A soil test takes less time, and costs less than buying a small blueberry bush from the nursery and planting it. (Spoiler alert - a blueberry won't thrive anywhere in Madison without serious soil amendments).
It's a lot easier to incorporate amendments and alter the pH before plantings are completed.
- Visit uwex soil testing page at https://uwlab.soils.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/17/2016/01/Soil-Sampling-Instructions-modified.pdf , follow the directions, pay about $15 and have the info you need to save yourself time, money, and the heartache of an (unnecessarily) crummy looking yard and dying plants.
Oftentimes, new homeowners do not realize that there are tenacious weeds in their new yard. Over the course of a year or two, the weeds (which were once manageable), grow to the point of choking out other plants or spread thousands of seeds. I see this all the time. Many species of weeds spread so fast and are so difficult to remove that they are really analogous to cancers in humans. If managed early, some of these weeds can be eradicated through hand-weeding or other non-chemical methods.
It's very important to manage weeds in the right way and at the right time in their development. For example, trying to roto-till quack grass to death is much more likely to create more of a problem by making more of these awful plants and spreading the weed further. I've even seen homeowners spending hours pulling annual weeds that have already spread their seed - an absolute waste of time. Had they done the weeding a month earlier though it would have made perfect sense. Even improper mowing can help spread weeds like crazy.
- Learn the top weeds in your area and learn how to manage them. Keep an eye out for our blogpost identifying five of the worst.
- Read about pesticide related issues and think through your comfort level (the Healthy Lawn Team https://healthylawnteam.net is a great local group that has a good deal of relevant information).
- Talk with immediate neighbors about their weed issues. Share with them if you aren't comfortable with the use of pesticides - I've seen numerous cases of a well-meaning neighbor doing a "favor" by spraying weeds on a neighbor's property for them.
- Create a plan to manage, eliminate, or live with weeds.
Identify Trees & Shrubs
Some trees and shrubs are great to have on your property. Identifying these will be important so you know what to expect from them and can anticipate future growth - and any problems. Perhaps even more important is understanding which trees are less desirable, or if any of your plants may have specific needs to stay healthy. An example is understanding that an oak is a desirable tree but knowing that it can't be pruned until winter to prevent the spread of oak wilt disease.
Other trees are downright bad. A mature buckthorn, for example, can spread thousands of viable invasive seeds both on your property and the surrounding area. Removing a tree like this will save a good deal of time and effort because, if left alone, you'll have hundreds of seedings to pull.
- Try to identify your trees and shrubs. It can even be fun. It might even provide an opportunity to do a bit of science with a child. (See https://www.uwgb.edu/biodiversity/herbarium/trees/tree_key000.htm for a key to common trees and https://www.uwgb.edu/biodiversity/herbarium/shrubs/shrub_list_by_Latin.htm for a list of many shrubs (with photos).
- If you can't identify plants yourself send a closeup photo to us or another landscaper or nursery.
- Do a bit of research. Simply googling a plant name will bring up a wealth of knowledge. Missouri Botanical Garden has good info sheets on most plants. Printing these out and creating a binder with a rough sketch of where plants are located can be helpful for future reference.
- If this is all too tedious consider having a landscape designer or consultant visit the site to consult with you and help.
Understand Maintenance Needs (And Associated Costs)
Decks, water features, irrigation systems and other landscape components all need maintenance. So do the living components of a landscape like trees, shrubs, and lawn. The costs associated with any of these tasks can be financial - if buying equipment or paying a professional, or time-based - if completing them on your own. These costs add up rapidly and are unexpected for many new homeowners.
- Make a list of all landscape elements and create a file to manage maintenance information.
- Create a budget for items you will pay to have done and a list of tasks you plan to accomplish yourselves. Costs and time commitments really add up so be sure you can manage the existing workload before committing to add more landscaping.
Keep an eye out for future posts in this series that will discuss how to move forward with changes to the landscape, and how to maintain your landscape once it's installed.