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AARP Smart Guide to Landscape Design

Merge form and function to transform your yard into a sanctuary


spinner image tan house with rock pathway out front, surrounded by trees and shrubs
Trinette Reed/Stocksy

 

At first glance, a yard might look like grass, a few trees, some flowers and a smattering of rocks or mulch. If you look closer, however — at the neighbor tending her garden, the early bird mowing his lawn, the kids playing soccer or the home chef manning the grill — you’ll realize that a yard is never just a yard. At its best, it’s a sanctuary.

We want to help you cultivate your own personal sanctuary, so if you have landscaping projects on your to-do list, we hope these tips will help you to create an outdoor space you'll savor for years to come.

 

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GETTING STARTED

1. Take a walk or drive

Instead of going to Google to research landscape ideas, begin your journey in your neighborhood, suggests John Thomas, founder of the gardening blog BackyardGardenGeek.com. “When I did a $20,000 landscape renovation project a few years back, the first thing I did was I started driving around my neighborhood, and then I drove around the surrounding neighborhoods when I was taking my kids to school. If I saw somebody who did something really interesting with a property, I stopped, I got out of my car and I took photos,” Thomas says. “When you hop on Google, a lot of times you don’t know exactly where these photos are coming from. Plants that do really well in the Dallas area may not do well at all if you’re in South Dakota or Oregon or Florida. When you drive around your neighborhood, you’re seeing people who are growing things in your area that are going to work.”

2. Use apps to identify plants

While you are out and about scouting for plants, if you need help identifying plants you are interested in, apps — such as Pl@ntNet, iNaturalist, PictureThis, FlowerChecker, LeafSnap and Plant.id — can help. Just snap a photo of the plant on your phone and share it to the app.

3. Visit your local botanic garden

Botanic gardens, conservatories and arboretums can be wellsprings of inspiration and education for homeowners, says Dave Halvax, director of horticulture at Fernwood Botanical Garden in Niles, Michigan. “Local botanic gardens can be great resources for questions about home landscape problems, including pest management, diseases, plant choices or their locations, or as places to obtain plant material,” explains Halvax, who says your local botanic garden shares your geography and can therefore be a showcase for plants that grow well in your region and climate. In fact, specimens at botanic gardens typically have labels that help you identify their scientific and common names, the date they were planted and other pertinent information that can be useful for research. And because plants at botanic gardens are planted in collections, they offer a unique opportunity to learn which plants grow well together in close proximity. Finally, many botanic gardens offer plant sales where you can purchase plants for your gardens, as well as hands-on events where you can learn about plants and interact with experts, including garden walks and horticulture classes.

4. Plan before you plant

You should plan your project on paper before you put a shovel in the ground. You can outsource to services such as Yardzen, which provides custom landscape designs to clients based on site and inspiration photos that they uploaded via the web. The iScape app allows you to plan your space and costs $29.99 a month or $299 for a year. Tilly Design offers remote packages for backyards starting at $629. Thomas prefers using graph paper, where each square represents 1 foot, for instance. “It doesn’t have to be super accurate, but it gives you a bird’s-eye view of your yard so you can start imagining what your yard will look like and where things will go,” he says. If you prefer sitting down with a landscaper, call around to get at least three estimates and talk over your ideas.

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5. Begin with the end in mind

If it’s done well, your landscaping can add value to your home, according to Baron Christopher Hanson, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Realty in South Florida. When planning, consider what your yard might look like if you sell your home.

“Any landscape design that adds functionality, creates space, improves privacy or reduces maintenance headaches beyond visual or colorful enjoyment alone will add value to your residential property,” explains Hanson, who says bad landscaping can hurt home values as easily as good landscaping can help them. “Overly garish vegetation that is laborious to maintain or clean up after can be an expensive detractor of value.”

In the worst cases, haphazard landscaping decisions could even be dangerous. “Poorly or wrongly planted trees will eventually grow both above and below ground to the potential detriment of your home’s actual structure, plumbing, irrigation and paving,” Hanson says.

6. Root your design in function

When you’re starting a landscaping project, plan your space according to how you’ll use it, suggests Kevin Lenhart, design director and landscape architect at Yardzen. “The most successful designs are rooted in function,” he says. “I like to begin thinking about a new layout of a yard by listing out the functions I hope to achieve within the space, and starting to play around with where each function may be best situated.” If you’re a foodie, consider an outdoor kitchen near the house for easy access, points out Janet Loughrey, a contributor to GardenDesign.com. Or if you’re an avid reader, you might wish to create a reading nook farther away from the house where it’s quiet.

7. Beautify on a budget

Though landscaping costs can vary dramatically from site to site and from region to region, a good starting point is a budget equaling about 10 percent of your home’s value for a full-yard landscape, Lenhart says. “Make a list of the must-have and nice-to-have elements, and be ready to scale down your project if some elements prove to be cost-prohibitive,” Lenhart advises. “Leave some padding and be flexible. Whatever budget you arrive at, market forces, site conditions and unexpected build contingencies can all be part of the process.” And remember, you don’t have to do everything all at once. “If you have big ideas but you don’t have enough money to do them all, you can break it down into smaller projects … and just do it in phases,” Loughrey says.

8. Price out hardscaping

Hardscaping — patios, walkways, sitting walls, retaining walls, water features, firepits, landscape lighting, grill surrounds and pergolas — can elevate your outdoor space in an incredible way but are typically the biggest expense. If you’re on a budget, gravel is an affordable option. “Aggregates like gravel and decomposed granite are delightfully crunchy when you step on them, and that evokes a rustic feel that can be very useful for setting a casual tone in a design,” Lenhart says. “Though if you have kids or dogs, you’ll need to tolerate these materials getting kicked around a bit.” Solid paving requires less maintenance and is more stable underfoot but can cost significantly more. “Concrete slabs, while cheapest among paving options, can feel cold and uninviting, especially when they get large,” continues Lenhart, who prefers stone pavers. “Stone paving tends to cost more, but it’s incredibly durable and has beautiful natural color variation. Using regional stone can reduce costs — and carbon footprint — by cutting out extensive shipping, but it also can help build a visual connection between your yard and the surrounding natural landscape.” If you’re just getting started in updating your outdoor space, it’s probably best to test out cheaper alternatives to built-in hardscaping.

9. Consider hiring a pro

“Some things are fine to DIY, especially if you’re experienced with landscape installation and maintenance. At the same time, there are real benefits to hiring professionals,” explains Lenhart, who says pros typically get cheaper rates on plants and building materials and often warranty their work in case plants fail to survive the first year or two of installation. Plus, they tend to be much more efficient. “Time is money, and professional landscape contractors will almost always get a landscape installed more quickly than a DIYer. If you factor in the cost of your time, it quite often ends up being a cheaper proposition to hire a professional.” The more elaborate the project — grading, drainage or electricity — the more likely it is you’ll need a professional, Loughrey says.

 

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Serena Burroughs/Stocksy

BUILD A FOUNDATION WITH TREES AND PLANTS

10. Choose the right plants for the right place

When choosing plants and trees for your landscape, you should consider whether you want more or less privacy, color, shade, maintenance and wildlife, says David Angelov, founder, CEO and master gardener at PlantParenthood, in Swampscott, Massachusetts. All of those things will dictate your choice of plantings. Most important is knowing your plant hardiness zone, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) describes as “the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location.” Your zone dictates what will survive in the winters, explains Angelov, who says your local garden center can help you determine your zone and what grows best in it. Look up yours at planthardiness.ars.usda.gov.

11. Plant for all seasons

Maximize your landscape by choosing plants and trees that will give year-round enjoyment, Lenhart suggests. “Strong planting designs capitalize on seasonal change to pass the spotlight from one part of the yard to another throughout the year,” he says. “Colorful blooms can begin in early spring with early bulbs and bare-branch blossoms, and move from one species to another all the way into late fall and early winter. Evergreens maintain interest through the heart of winter, but so can deciduous plants with sculptural forms and trees with attractive bark or winter fruit.”

12. Be strategic about trees

Trees can serve important functions in your yard if you plant the right species in the right spots, according to Joshua Malik, president of Joshua Tree Experts in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. Because big winds tend to come from the west and northwest, he says, large evergreens on that side of your property can serve as windbreakers. Likewise, the sun is typically hottest on the south and southwest side of your home; planting large shade trees on that side of your property can keep your house cool in the afternoon and evening. Small flowering trees are good for the front of the house because they add curb appeal.

13. Group plantings for greater impact

If you want a splash of color, planting a few ornamentals will do the trick. According to Angelov, however, more is better. “I like to group a lot of similar plants together. They make the best impact when they’re in a group of 50 versus one,” he says. “I like to work in odd numbers — it’s calming to the eye and more natural-looking — but most of the time I’m adding 20 to 40 of something in a single area, which adds a huge impact. It’s as if you’re in a field in nature.”

14. Cultivate privacy

Unless there’s a good reason not to — to keep a pet contained, for example — consider using natural edges and borders instead of fencing. “I’ve found that using hedges, especially evergreen ones, is a great way to get the privacy I want without having to completely cut off the surrounds like a fence would,” says master gardener Jen Stark, founder of Happy DIY Home, a gardening and home improvement blog. “I love using boxwood for hedges. They come in a huge range of sizes, and you can easily trim and prune them into a solid fence that stays neat and green all year round.” Be sure to plant any shrubs or bushes far enough away from sidewalks and paths so in a few years you aren’t bemoaning the location.

15. Add organic mulch

When it’s used in plant and flower beds, just a couple of inches of mulch can keep the soil cool and moist while preventing weeds. Organic mulch includes any material that was once alive, so grass clippings, wood chips, straw, hay, bark mulch and composting material all work. “If you’re more concerned about moisture retention and soil nutrients, go with organic mulch. Wood chips or bark, in particular, help trap water closer to the soil and keep the plant roots cool in hotter temperatures,” Stark says.

16. Or consider inorganic mulch

If you want something that doesn’t break down, consider inorganic mulch, which includes pea gravel, rubber chips and river rocks. They don’t add any nutrients to the soil, but they can add eye-catching layers of color and texture, Stark says. Inorganic will typically cost you more per bag than organic.

17. Choose a complementary color

Basic mulch colors include brown, black or red. “Choose a mulch color that doesn’t work against your flowers’ colors or the color of your house. Red mulch contrasts nicely with white flowers without taking away from them,” Stark says.

18. Think twice about mulch spray and glue

You can use mulch spray to refresh old mulch, and mulch glue to keep loose mulch in place. But Stark isn’t a fan of either. “The spray doesn’t do much by refreshing the color, and you should be adding new mulch each season anyway as the old breaks down, so it’s an unnecessary expense. If you choose to use it, make sure you have a nontoxic choice that won’t harm your plants,” she says. “I’m also not a big advocate of mulch glue. If you keep the mulch watered and have a border like stones around it, you shouldn’t need to glue it into place to keep it from blowing away. If you do use it, have a light hand when you apply it. You don’t want to create a thick matte of mulch that prevents water or nutrients from coming through to reach the plant roots.”

 

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Stocksy

LOVE YOUR LAWN

19. Choose the right grass

A lush, healthy lawn starts with the best grass, according to Malik. “Selecting a grass species for your certain region that is disease-resistant and more tolerant of drought is very, very important to consider,” he says. With new lawns, in particular, annual aeration and seeding are crucial, as is ample water — about an inch of water a week from either rain or irrigation.

20. For speed, use sod instead of seed

Grass seed can spend months taking root and filling in. And if people or pets walk on it before it’s well established? Forget about it. If you want a lush-looking lawn that you can use quickly, opt for installing sod instead of seed, Thomas says. Check your garden centers for sod deals and be prepared to pay extra for the convenience.

21. Prune your trees

Like any other plant, grass needs sunlight. If it’s not getting enough, consider pruning adjacent trees. “You might need to thin the trees so they can allow filtered light to get to the subfloor of the lawn to keep it healthy and growing properly,” Malik says. “You might also have to raise low limbs up to an 8-, 10- or 12-foot height to allow air and sunlight to get in under there.” Having a professional prune taller trees is recommended — and they can let you know if any big branches should be removed so they don’t fall on your home or vehicles.

22. Install an irrigation system

A hose with a sprinkler will work for watering, but if you have the money (typical systems can cost at least a few thousand), an underground irrigation system is ideal, according to Malik, who says you can program your system to water the right amount at the right time of day — early in the morning, before the sun gets too warm. “You just set it and forget it,” he says. “Although I would still encourage people to watch the weather. There’s no sense in irrigating if you’re getting proper water from Mother Nature.”

23. Direct foot traffic with stepping stones

Although grass is hearty enough to withstand people walking on it, regular and heavy foot traffic can compact the soil and kill it. To keep that from happening, install stepping stones and use them like a runway to direct traffic through the lawn but not on it. “It’s a great way to guide people if you don’t want them walking through certain areas or if you just want to guide them in a specific direction, whether it’s to a pool or to a garden or to a driveway,” says Mike Wolfe, CEO of Delgado Stone Distributors.

 

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PLANT A GRANDER GARDEN

24. Save your seeds

Get a jump on next year’s garden by harvesting seeds from this year’s. “I typically plant self-seeding cultivars and leave them to grow and spread in their designated area. However, if you want to harvest seeds from your plants to use next season, this is a great way to get a head start on your garden in the spring and save a bit of money,” Stark says. “All you have to do is find out when your particular plants go to seed and harvest them before they drop to the ground. Some seeds like to get stored in cool, dark places, and other seeds require refrigeration to mimic the winter dormancy period before they germinate in the spring.”

25. Source seeds from a swap

Consider participating in a seed exchange, suggests Josie Flatgard, exchange and outreach coordinator at Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), a nonprofit network of gardeners dedicated to saving and sharing seeds. “Swapping seeds can happen informally, from one neighbor to another; at a seed library, often housed in a public library; or at an organized seed swap event,” Flatgard explains. Gardeners bring their seed along with a description of it, including when and where it was grown and the variety’s known history. “Sharing seeds with folks in your community means you receive seeds that are adapted to your local climate conditions. An added benefit is the connections you make with other gardeners and with the stories of the seeds themselves. By swapping seeds, seed stewards preserve the biodiversity of our food system and strengthen it for future generations,” continues Flatgard, who says gardeners who can’t find local swaps can access The Exchange, SSE’s online gardener-to-gardener seed swap.

26. Trade plants, too

Seeds aren’t the only things generous gardeners can exchange. Thanks to the miracle of plant division — the act of splitting a single perennial plant into two or more specimens — they also can exchange full-grown plants, according to Cathy Walker, president of the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA). In fact, what helps your neighbors also is good for your garden. Divided plants have more room to grow, and their roots have less competition and can absorb more water and nutrients, resulting in a healthier plant overall. “Perennials multiply,” Walker says. “So if you don’t have enough space, don’t just dig them up and throw them away. Why not share them with somebody else?”

27. Join a community garden

Community gardens can be great places to share seeds and divided perennials, according to Walker, who says community gardens are especially attractive for people who don’t have yards or gardens of their own, such as urbanites and apartment dwellers. Even if you have the space at home, however, community gardens can be ideal places to exercise your green thumb. Whether you’re a gardening novice or a more experienced gardener who wants to improve your skills, community gardens are living classrooms where you can collaborate with and learn from other gardeners.

28. Scout for sunlight

A garden’s success hinges in large part on where you put it, according to Thomas, who says it’s important to track sunlight in your yard across different times of day and across multiple seasons. An area that’s full sun in the morning might be full shade by noon. And that same area might be sunny in July but shady in October.

29. Protect vegetables with raised beds

If you want to plant a vegetable garden but are worried about critters eating your harvest, use a raised bed, Angelov suggests. “Tomatoes and herbs do really well in a raised bed with very, very loose, fine soil,” he says. “You don’t want soil with wood chips in it — you don’t want any sticks or rocks in there — because you want to make it easier for the roots to move around.” Thomas installs his raised beds atop at least three layers of cardboard. “I don’t use landscape fabric under raised beds because you want earthworms and microorganisms to migrate from the native soil into your raised beds, and landscape fabric will block those,” he explains. “When you use cardboard, you’re killing off weeds and grass under the beds, and in about six to 10 months, the cardboard is going to be gone, so those microorganisms can come up into the soil in your raised bed.” Thomas adds that you can maximize the space within a raised bed by using the Square Foot Gardening method, where you grow more in less space by densely planting in 4x4-foot sections. And because they can be elevated on legs, container gardens and raised beds can be especially attractive for older adults who have trouble kneeling.

30. Take advantage of small spaces

If you don’t have a big yard, you can still grow your own food and flowers, according to Thomas, who says container gardening is ideal for small spaces. You can plant flowers, herbs or vegetables in terra-cotta pots, raised beds, water troughs or even paint buckets.

31. Go vertical

If you’re really pressed for space, try a vertical garden. “There are planter setups you can buy or create that sit in a tiered frame that allows you to grow a large range of vegetables or plants in one spot. There are also planters that attach directly to railings on balconies so you can use this empty space,” explains Stark, who says a living wall can be a good option if all you have is a balcony or porch. “Again, you can make or buy a small modular system where you place each plant in a small cup that is attached to a frame that hangs on the wall, or there are wall planters with irrigation troughs attached.”

32. Water with ease

The secret to a successful garden is consistent and sufficient watering, according to Krystol O’Rourke, cofounder, along with Katie Phillips, of Spade & Sparrow Designs, an exterior design company in Raleigh, North Carolina. “We’ve watched so many people let their gardens go because they get tired of watering them every day, or because they go on vacation for a week and everything dies,” says O’Rourke, who recommends simplifying irrigation either by adding water-storing crystals to your soil or by installing a drip-irrigation system that waters your garden automatically on a timer. “There are many DIY kits that you can hook right up to your hose bib.”

 

spinner image pathway lined with shrubs in row of tiny home cottages
Stocksy

CREATE A SUSTAINABLE SANCTUARY

33. Add green without grass

If there are stubborn areas of your yard where grass won’t grow, or if you’re looking for a more sustainable alternative to the traditional lawn, consider perennial ground covers. “You can think of it as green mulch in that it helps to keep soil cool and moist, enriches soil with organic matter and suppresses weeds,” says Lenhart. Some options include small ornamental grasses like sedge and flowering plants such as sweet woodruff and lilyturf. “Ground cover planting is also a cost-effective way to achieve a lush-looking planting design. Rather than buy a large quantity of expensive ornamental plants, you can intersperse fast-spreading patches of ground cover species between clustered scenes of taller plants.” Because they can quickly grow out of control, invasive species such as bishop’s weed and English ivy should be avoided, Loughrey adds.

34. Save time while saving the Earth

In addition to being sustainable, many ground covers also can be low-maintenance for people who no longer have the time or stamina for lawn care, says Kathy Jentz, editor and publisher of Washington Gardener magazine and author of Groundcover Revolution. Her favorite low-maintenance ground cover is dwarf mondo grass. “Dwarf mondo grass looks like these little green mounds very close to the ground. These little rosettes form a mat, so it looks like you cut your lawn super short,” explains Jentz. “My next favorite is moss lawns. You’ll see those very commonly in the Pacific Northwest and in Asian gardens — a big expanse of moss as a lawn.”

35. Consider clover

An especially hearty ground cover option is clover. “Going back to the pre-1940s, clover lawns are what lawns used to be. They’re flowering, they stay low and they’re pretty easy to maintain because you don’t have to water them too much,” Jentz says. “The only caveat I would give for a clover lawn is it’s known to be a little slick if it gets wet, so you have to watch where you’re stepping.”

36. Embrace edibles

Edibles can be yet another ground cover option. “In front of your perennial bed or surrounding your vegetable garden could be a ground cover of strawberries because they spread by overground runners, similar to vining,” Jentz says. “Another one is Pink Panda. Pink Panda was bred specifically for ground cover use, and it’s especially good for covering slopes. You get beautiful flowers and beautiful leaves that turn a rusty red color in the fall — and then you actually get fruit, too.” Herbs, too, can be a substitute for lawns. “Creeping thyme and creeping rosemary are great ground covers, especially in a hot, very sunny, well-draining climate, like a Mediterranean or desert climate,” Jentz says.

37. Nurture native plants

Replacing thirsty ornamentals with water-wise species can cut back on irrigation. “Native plants are a great place to start, as they’re adapted to thrive in the regional climate,” Lenhart says. “Climate-adapted plants, which come from parts of the world with climates similar to your local climate, are also excellent for a water-wise landscape. In California, plants from the Mediterranean, South Africa, Chile and Australia all make for excellent, low-water options.”

38. Please pollinators

Native plants such as milkweed, yarrow and coneflower help pollinating bees and butterflies, which are critical to the environment. “You don’t need to be militant about using natives, but it is crucial to include at least some natives in order to support your local pollinator species,” Lenhart says. Another way to support pollinators is with wildflowers. “I love wildflowers. They’re the best for pollinators, and they’re really cheap to grow. You get a handful of seeds from the hardware store — you can get a 10-pack of seeds for $5 — and you sprinkle them everywhere,” says Angelov, who recommends having a dedicated wildflower bed or berm. “They’ll look like weeds if they’re just spread out randomly.”

39. Save water with rainscaping

Rainscaping — using landscaping practices that capture and infiltrate rain close to where it lands — can help you be a good steward of water resources, says Kara Salazar, assistant program leader and extension specialist for sustainable communities at Purdue University in Indiana. A favorite landscape feature for diehard rainscapers is a rain garden, which is engineered to hold and infiltrate water from downspouts and driveways to reduce stormwater runoff. If you’re a beginner, you might want to start with something simpler, such as collecting rainwater in a rain barrel. You can make your own rain barrel, Salazar says, by installing a diverter on your downspout and directing it into a store-bought barrel that’s outfitted with a screen and a spigot. You’ll need to elevate your barrel on a base if you want to connect a hose, as you’ll be reliant on gravity to pressurize it.

40. Create a composting zone

Composting can reduce waste in landfills while creating nutrient-rich soil to use in your garden. “To create a composting zone in your garden or yard, you’ll need to clear a space so you have bare soil,” Stark says. “Add a base layer of twigs or straw, and add layers of things you want to compost one at a time, alternating between green and brown materials so you end up with two-thirds brown and one-third green materials. Brown materials are usually wood-based, carbon-rich and fibrous, so stems, branches, tree bark, shredded newspaper, corn stalks and pine needles will all work. Green materials are nitrogen-based, including food scraps, manures, green leaves, coffee grounds and grass clippings. Once you build up the pile, add a handful or two of nitrogen-rich fertilizer to jump-start the decomposition process. Keep your compost moist enough so it feels like a wet sponge when you touch it, and turn the pile every few weeks to let the center get warm and break down.”

41. Avoid gas-powered tools

When it’s practical to do so, avoid gas-powered yard tools in favor of electric or manual options. “Machines that run on gas tend to emit a lot of by-products that aren’t so good for the environment,” Stark says. “Manual or electric options are also healthier for you in general to use because you’re not breathing in fumes. But they require more labor or you need several batteries to keep your projects on track.”

 

spinner image xeriscaped residential garden of cactus, succulents, bougainvillea and other arid perennial plants
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DEFEND AGAINST DROUGHT

42. Pack a prairie punch

For drought-prone areas, consider prairie- or meadow-style landscaping and gardening. “This style of gardening means planting thickly and tightly so we don’t need to water, employ herbicides, fertilize or use wood mulch after the garden is established,” explains Benjamin Vogt, owner of Nebraska-based prairie garden design company Monarch Gardens and author of Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design. “Let’s use more sedges and grasses, just like we see in a prairie or meadow, and use them as a living green mulch to increase soil moisture and shade out weed seedlings.” Neil Diboll, president of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wisconsin, echoes that idea: “Prairies are grasslands, and prairie gardens and meadows include ornamental prairie grasses in their designs. The dense, fibrous roots of the grasses help to fight off weeds by denying them the open soil they need to become established. Once established, prairie flowers and grasses normally require no watering, even during severe drought.”

43. Plant the right grass

If you still prefer turf grass to prairie grass, keep in mind that your ability to grow a lush lawn in drought-prone areas depends on planting the right grass, suggests Roger May, a technical operations director at lawn care company TruGreen. “For homeowners in specific regions throughout the country, many local grass types are drought-resistant,” explains May, who says the best grass for lawns in northern and mid-Atlantic states is tall fescue. “This grass type allows for a healthy-looking lawn that requires less fertility and lower amounts of irrigation compared to some other cool-season grass species.” In the South, try Bermudagrass, which has “higher resistance to heat and drought compared to other warm-season grass species,” continues May, who recommends buffalograss for lawns in the West and Midwest. “Buffalograss … is very easy to maintain, seeing as you only need to mow a few times a year, and it can survive even the hottest climates that make other grasses want to go dormant.”

44. Water wisely

When you live in a drought-prone area, it’s more important to water smartly than it is to water frequently, according to Katie Tamony, chief marketing officer at wholesale nursery company Monrovia Plants. “When you think about it, a plant’s roots are down at its base. So let’s say you plant a 5-gallon shrub; when you water, you need the water to be getting all the way down to the bottom of what you just planted,” she says. “For that reason, it makes sense to water more deeply and in short bursts of time — let’s say twice a week — than to water frequently.” May agrees. “The goal of lawn irrigation is to get water to the root zone — simply watering your lawn may not be deep enough for many landscape plants during times of drought,” he says. “Installing a soaker hose or a drip irrigation system is a convenient and efficient way to provide water to plants in landscape beds. Dragging a hose to a tree or shrub and letting water slowly soak in for 20 to 30 minutes once a week is less convenient, but will keep your valuable trees and shrubs from undergoing drought stress.”

45. Protect evergreens, too

Even evergreen trees and shrubs need water when it’s hot and dry. “The best way to keep these plants healthy is to never let them experience drought stress,” according to May, who says mulch is key. “Provide 2 to 3 inches of mulch around the base of your plants. This will help reduce water loss from the soil and, in turn, reduce the watering needs of your plants.”

46. Group plants by water needs

One especially smart strategy for water-conscious gardeners is hydrozoning, according to Tamony. “Hydrozoning is bundling your plants into areas of your garden based on their water needs,” she explains. “For instance, if you have hydrangeas, those tend to be more thirsty. If you can put those in one area of your garden along with maybe some perennials and annuals that also take a little bit more water, that’s going to be more efficient with your water. You might want to put some containers in that area, too, because containers tend to need more water.”

47. Embrace xeriscape

The king of water-wise landscaping in drought-prone areas is xeriscape, a style of landscaping that’s explicitly designed to require little or no irrigation. “When it comes to xeriscaping, you’re really trying to lower your water use, and that starts with the design you’re choosing — selecting plants that can tolerate drought and thrive in low water, making sure you have healthy soil that can hold water but also drain properly, and thinking about the right mix of plants and hardscapes so that you limit your lawn or get rid of it entirely,” Tamony says.

48. Choose the right xeriscape trees and plants

Trees are an especially important ingredient in most xeriscapes, according to Tony McCammon, owner of Bloom Horticulture in Saint George, Utah, and a member of the Southern Utah Home Builders Association (SUHBA). “The first and most important tip of xeriscaping is: Healthy trees provide healthy shade, which cools the landscape and allows many natives to thrive,” McCammon says. “So choose your trees carefully. Palo verde, honey mesquite, chaste tree, Wilson olive, African sumac and desert willow are trees that provide filtered shade, which many other xeriscape plants thrive under.” And many flowering plants and even edibles are perfectly suited to xeriscapes, according to Tamony. She cites edibles like figs, persimmons, grapes and artichokes, not to mention herbs like rosemary, lavender and sweet bay. For flowering plants, she recommends specimens like ‘Gold Star’ esperanza, kangaroo paw and salvia.

 

spinner image sideview of dog on grass with fence in background
Tina Crespo/Stocksy

SPROUT A SAFER SPACE

49. Use slip- and trip-resistant stones

If you use stepping stones in your landscape, make sure they feature a thermal, or flamed, surface, Wolfe says. That means the stones have a natural instead of smooth texture, which creates traction when you step on them. You want a contiguous surface, points out O’Rourke, who is a physician. Uneven cobblestones can be a tripping hazard, she points out, especially for people who use assistive devices such as walkers.

50. Look into installing railings

Railings are an important safety feature if your landscape includes stairs, according to O’Rourke, who says railings can be useful anywhere there is a change in elevation or texture — along a sloping driveway or a garden path that transitions from concrete to mulch.

51. Create housing for hoses

Hoses are major tripping hazards in yards and gardens, says O’Rourke, who recommends retractable hose reels that keep them out of the way when they’re not in use.

52. Take a seat

Working in the yard on a hot day can be exhausting — and exhaustion can lead to falls. “A lot of people get really tired after ambulating for a short amount of time, especially as they get older. So I like to sprinkle random little spots to sit around the yard — little garden benches and things around areas of interest in your yard,” Phillips says.

53. Protect your pets

If you have pets, keep them in mind, says dog trainer Ali Smith, founder of Rebarkable in Westminster, Maryland. A fenced yard is important to protect pets from predators. Likewise, you’ll want to avoid planting anything that’s severely toxic, such as wild onions or garlic. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) maintains a full list of poisonous plants, but not all toxins are created equal. Although azaleas can be harmful, for example, a dog would have to eat a lot of them to get sick, Smith says.

54. Add places for pets to play

Designing a pet-friendly yard isn’t just about removing hazards. It’s also about adding play areas. “When you make your yard stimulating enough for your dog, it means you might not need to take them on walks as often, which is great on days when you’re not feeling well or when you just can’t get out,” says Smith, who recommends adding dog-safe berry bushe such as blueberries, blackberries and raspberries for foraging; odiferous plants such as lavender, chamomile and lemongrass for sniffing; forsythia bushes for tunneling; shade trees and shrubbery bushes to create shady areas; and water features for playing. If you have a dog who likes to dig, creating a designated spot with loose sand or soil can be a good idea if you train them to use it.

55. Support wildlife

You can make your yard as safe for wildlife as it is for people. The National Wildlife Federation offers a special program for homeowners who want their yard to be designated as a Certified Wildlife Habitat. To qualify, yards must meet certain criteria such as providing adequate food, water and shelter for birds, butterflies or other critters (a $20 application fee is required).

56. Add features for feathered friends

Accommodating birds in your yard is easy, according to Megan Moriarty, communications manager for the National Audubon Society. “Growing native plants will attract birds and provide food and shelter for them while making your space beautiful,” explains Moriarty, who says the National Audubon Society maintains a native plants database with information on the best plants for birds in your area. Homeowners can reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides and fertilizers and install bird feeders or birdbaths. “If possible, make sure bird feeders and baths are near, but not too close to, shrubs or trees that can provide them cover if they feel threatened,” Moriarty says. “To minimize the risk of colliding with windows, bird feeders should be placed directly on windows or very close to windows, within 3 feet.”

 

spinner image owl peeking out of owl box
Shutterstock

PREVENT PESTS

57. Make your own herbicide …

You can control insects and weeds without harmful chemicals by making your own organic solutions. For weeds, Stark recommends mixing a gallon of vinegar with a cup of table salt and two tablespoons of dishwashing liquid. “Mix it until it dissolves and spray it to coat the weeds,” she says. “However, you do have to be very careful with this solution, as it will kill anything it comes into contact with, including the plants or flowers nearby and the grass.”

58. … and pesticide

For insects and fungus, Stark mixes a gallon of water with a tablespoon of cold-pressed, concentrated neem oil (available at garden stores, most big-box stores and online) and a teaspoon of liquid dish soap. “Wear gloves and apply it in the later afternoon hours only to plants that are a few months old. Younger plants can burn with this oil,” she says. “Only apply it once a week until you don’t see any more pests.” For soft-bodied insects such as aphids and spider mites, try soapy water before escalating to neem oil, suggests Thomas, who makes and stores large batches with 2 gallons of water and 2 to 5 tablespoons of castile soap per gallon.

59. Minimize mosquitoes

Mosquitoes are not only a nuisance, they can transmit illnesses such as Zika virus.  Because mosquitoes are semiaquatic, the best thing you can do to prevent them is to eliminate standing water, explains Emma Grace Crumbley, an entomologist at pest removal company Mosquito Squad. In mosquito-prone areas, that means avoiding water features, being careful not to overwater plants and lawns, and grading your landscape to ensure proper drainage. Crumbley says professionals can spray your yard with an aromatic, all-natural mixture of water and essential oils that’s designed to repel mosquitoes. That process typically costs about $500 for a half-acre lawn, according to Fixr, a home remodeling estimation platform.

60. Practice tick prevention

Ticks can spread illness such as Lyme disease. To avoid hosting ticks in your yard, long grasses, heavily forested areas and wood piles are verboten. Because they often catch rides on deer, Crumbley says the best way to prevent ticks is with daffodils, lavender and other flowering plants that deer avoid because of their toxicity to the animal. You can place tick tubes throughout your yard that kill ticks on rodents without harming the animals.

61. Keep nuisance animals at bay

The best thing you can do to deter skunks, raccoons and other nuisance wildlife is to eliminate potential food sources from your yard, says Brad Woods, district manager, Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, at Trutech Wildlife Service. “If you are growing fruits or vegetables, harvest your crops regularly,” he advises. “Raccoons and skunks are very adept climbers.… Collecting ripe fruits and vegetables is the best way to keep them from coming around.” If you have bird feeders, clean up spilled seeds promptly. Firmly secure trash cans and keep pet food inside. “Also, clear any debris piles to limit potential areas for shelter,” continues Woods, who says animal-specific barriers can be effective. “To keep skunks out, the fence needs to be at least 4 feet high with a 1-foot overhang to prevent climbing. Then the fence needs to be buried at least a foot deep and bent at a 90-degree angle so the critter can’t dig under it.”

62. Invite natural predators for pests

Predators are nature’s solution to pests. In his own landscape, Hanson installs owl boxes to attract birds of prey that are natural deterrents to rodents, including mice, rats and gophers. Crumbley recommends growing native flowering plants that attract spiders, praying mantises and ladybugs, all of which can help control pests naturally. Although you can purchase beneficial garden insects online, be careful not to trade one pest problem for another, she says.

 

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KICK THINGS UP A NOTCH

63. Soak up the shade

A shade structure can make your yard a comfortable place no matter the time of day or year — even a good old-fashioned patio umbrella can do the trick. For a decorative accent to walkways or gates or to shade a small seating area or bench, an arbor with an arched top is a classic choice. If you’ve got ample space and budget, a covered pavilion or gazebo could be an outdoor oasis away from the house. If you’ve got an exposed patio, consider an awning — it can be stationary, manually retractable or even motorized. And because they’re flexible, functional and affordable, pergolas are also popular.

64. Let there be light

Landscape lighting can make a big impact. You can use garden lights to illuminate paths, wash lights to brighten fences, uplights to spotlight trees, plants and architectural features, and downlights to light up your lawn. Although you can save on energy and installation by using solar options, a hardwired system usually casts a stronger glow. “[Lighting] adds a whole 12 more hours to your garden,” Angelov says.

65. Cook up an outdoor kitchen

For home chefs, an outdoor kitchen is the ultimate upgrade. Depending on your interests and budget, you can add features such as a wet bar or pizza oven. “Keep outdoor dining near outdoor kitchens, and provide some kind of social space near the kitchen so that the person cooking can still socialize with the group as they cook,” Lenhart suggests. “L-shaped kitchens are great for this, as you can run bar stools along the outer edge of counter space, allowing friends to have a drink and chat while someone runs the grill.”

66. Take the plunge with a pool

If you’re planning a major landscaping upgrade, it might be the perfect opportunity to install the pool you’ve always wanted. If space and budget aren’t an issue, “the sky’s the limit,” says Shaun Hurley, director of renovation and construction at America’s Swimming Pool Co. Fun upgrades include deck jets and laminar jets that create arcs of water from the pool deck into the pool, colored lights, tanning ledges, zero-entry pools that gradually slope from land to water, bubblers that create a fountain-like effect, raised water features, swim-up bars and integrated spas, just to name a few. If you have limited space and budget, you can still get your swim on, according to Hurley, who says a plunge or lap pool can be as small as 5 feet by 15 feet. Check the law for your municipality to see whether pools are required to be fenced — and include any associated cost in your budget.

67. Go bold with boulders

You can use large stones and boulders for form and function, according to Wolfe. You can arrange them in a sculptural fashion so they look almost like art, or you can use them as a property marker instead of a fence. You can even use them to cover up eyesores, such as an unsightly tree stump or a stubborn patch of lawn where the grass won’t grow. “Because they’re all unique, [boulders are] a great way to make your property stand out,” Wolfe says. “There’s an eye-catching curb-appeal element to having something like that.”

68. Relax with a water feature

Water features — anything from a simple plug-in fountain to elaborate ponds, streams and waterfalls — can bring a touch of zen to your yard. “A lot of times, we add water features near patio areas,” Phillips says. “Other than it being really charming and relaxing, it drowns out a lot of noise if you don’t want to listen to nearby traffic or to your neighbor’s dog.”

69. Turn up the heat

With cold-weather accessories, your yard can be as enjoyable in winter as it is in summer. “Incorporating heat sources like firepits or mounted infrared heaters, insulating the ground with outdoor rugs and providing attractive storage for outdoor blankets all help to create a ready-made infrastructure for cold weather,” Lenhart says.

There are several types of firepits, according to Eric Tamminga, founder of firepit maker Iron Embers. “Wood-burning firepits offer a traditional, rustic feel, while gas-powered firepits offer ease of use and convenience. Propane firepits offer portability and versatility,” he says, adding that the most important firepit decision is location. “The best place to put a firepit is in an open area, away from flammable structures and materials and close to a source of water.… Depending on your firepit type, you should check for roots under the burn area, as these can ignite and cause the fire to spread underground. Putting your firepit over gravel or patio stones is always best.”

70. Reimagine your front yard

Front yards traditionally have been all about curb appeal, but homeowners have also turned to their front yards to maximize their outdoor space. “Our clients continue to request front yard seating areas, firepits, play spaces, veggie gardens and other welcoming, functional design areas,” says Lenhart. Creating a comfortable and accommodating outdoor space allows you to use the area to host friends and family. Invite your neighbor over for tea, host a garden or pool party, or just enjoy a simple meal with a friend under the stars.

71. Try new high-tech helpers

New technology solutions can help with plant health and make chores easier. Though they cost more than push mowers — coming in at $600 to over $5,000 — robotic lawn mowers use artificial intelligence and computer vision to distinguish grass from nongrass. Popular brands include Husqvarna, Yarbo, Gardena, Mammotion, Kress and Worx, to name just a few. Robotic weeders from companies like Tertill and Dandy work much the same way. High-tech weather stations and soil sensors from companies such as The Connected Shop, Ambient Weather, Ecowitt and Zynect can provide real-time insights on soil moisture, fertilizer, ambient temperature and light intensity, and send alerts if your plants need attention. They cost $110 to $450. There are even smart watering systems. For example, check out OtO and the Rachio Smart Hose Timer. Starting at $470, the former is a solar-powered, Wi-Fi-connected sprinkler that intelligently irrigates your lawn based on size, shape and weather conditions. For $100, the latter connects to your garden hose and smartphone to automate hose-based watering.

 

spinner image person lying in hammock outside, surrounded by shrubs, plants and flowers
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AND FINALLY, ENJOY THE FRESH AIR

72. Exercise without working out

Tending to your outdoor space can help improve your health by increasing your activity level. “The garden and the outdoor environment provide the motivation to get outside and walk around,” O’Rourke says. “When you’re out in your yard, you might be navigating uneven ground, picking up sticks and pine cones or tending your garden. You might not even realize that you’re exercising, but you’re using your body in so many ways that are helpful for it.”

73. Savor the fruits of your labor

We all know the heart-healthy benefits of a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, and research shows that people with access to fresh produce will eat more of it. Plus, vegetables that ripen in your garden will probably contain more nutrients than grocery-store options. Commercially grown produce often has to be harvested earlier than peak ripeness for resell and transport purposes, and the nutritional content degrades. But you can pick your produce at its ripest, ensuring peak flavor and nutritional value. In a home garden, you also control the fertilizers and pesticides used to grow them.

74. Become a birder

A new yard can be the perfect excuse to learn a new hobby such as birding. “Birds are found in every neighborhood and habitat, and people of all ages, skill levels and abilities can benefit from spending time bird-watching. Bird-watching and time spent in nature is shown to have health benefits through relaxation, lowering stress and sharpening mental acuity,” Moriarty says.

75. Sit back and relax

The best part about planting a garden or designing a landscape is enjoying it when it’s done, Angelov says. For some people, that means working in the garden and tending it. For others, it could be as simple as sitting quietly and listening to nature. “For clients who don’t like to work in the garden or can’t physically work in the garden, I [install] a bench or a couple of chairs or a swing so they can sit and enjoy it,” he says. “Those moments are enhanced with a running water feature or some chimes or a little table where you can set your wine down. Just stopping and enjoying is a huge part of gardening.”

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