Build your own garden paradise

It’s time to transform your garden from no man’s land to green oasis. Here’s how to maximize your results while minimizing the budget.



From the April 2011 issue of the magazine.



Is there anything more charming, more delightful to the eye than a neat-as-a-pin house on a leafy street, fronted by a beautiful garden in full bloom? Rest assured, if there’s a For Sale sign in front of that house, the garden counts as a valuable asset, adding thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars to the eventual selling price.

Here’s the problem, though. For every one of those stunningly landscaped properties, there are a dozen homes where the yard either looks like a dried-up, patchy piece of semi-arid desert, or an unkempt, weed-choked jungle. The difference, in many cases, is less a matter of how much money homeowners put into their landscaping, and more a reflection of whether their tolerance for manual labour matches their ambition. All gardens require a certain amount of care and tending, and if your dreams exceed your green thumb’s grasp, you could end up spending a lot of money on a garden that doesn’t look good for very long.

The good news? Some designs require a lot less effort than others, while still delivering the kind of visual appeal that can punch up the value of your home. Even better, if you plan carefully and are at all handy, your impressive new landscaping doesn’t have to break the bank.

What are you getting into?
“Installing a garden that fits with your lifestyle is absolutely critical,” says residential garden designer Connie Cadotte, founder of Toronto-based Garden Retreats Inc. “People have all these ideas about what they’d like in a garden, but they don’t stop to think about who is going to be doing the actual gardening. It’s like joining a gym, and then discovering you don’t have the time, energy or inclination to exercise. So be honest with yourself at the outset. How much work are you creating? And are you going to do all that work? Because the days of parents getting their kids to help with the garden seem to be long over.”

Fluffing for the sale
If your goal is simply to “fluff” your property for sale, don’t overdo it. Simple pot planters might be the way to go. “The view from the street is what sells the house, so concentrate on that,” says Calgary-based garden consultant and writer Donna Balzer. “Two pots on the front step is the ultimate landscaping cliché, and yet it can be very effective. You can even make an architectural statement, say, by purchasing Spanish-style pots to go with your Spanish-style house. But don’t cheap out. If you get small, 12-inch pots, they’ll dry out almost immediately, and your plants will turn to dust and blow away.”

Work with what you have
A lot can be done to improve the look of your property simply by cleaning up the existing landscaping. “Gardens in older neighbourhoods usually contain junipers, and if they’ve been neglected at all they’ve gotten way out of hand and look quite ugly,” says Edel Schmidt, president of Mississauga’s Cloverleaf Garden Club. “But if you trim them back bonsai-style it airs them out, reveals their bark, and suddenly they look like completely different plants, very nice and interesting.” Same thing with most shrubs and lilacs. Prune them back if they’ve spread out of control. Perennials may also need to be replaced if they’ve gone to seed.

Me or my contractor?
But what if you’re starting from scratch, or looking to completely redesign an existing landscape? The easiest solution is to hire a design-build landscaping firm to come in and handle the project from start to finish. The obvious downside, however, is the cost. It’s become fashionable in some of the ritzier neighbourhoods to invest up to 10% of the value of the property—in some cases $100,000 or more—on landscaping. “Frankly, that’s too much,” says Balzer. “You can do a lot for $20,000, even if you’re contracting the entire project out.”

If you’re willing to take on the project management yourself, you can trim the cost down to just $10,000, and if you’re doing everything yourself—from the design to the purchasing to the installation—then $5,000 is a reasonable amount to spend.

There are other reasons, besides cost, to take a more active role in the installation of your garden. Because landscape companies are motivated by profit, they may not have your best interests at heart. “Don’t just accept what the designers want to give you,” says Balzer. “They’re often overstocked with materials, say they have a bunch of shrubs left over from another job that they want to get rid of, and so they try to foist them on you whether they’re suitable or not.”

Adds Schmidt: “Landscapers usually have no interest in working with what you already have, they just want to rip everything out and sell you all new stuff at horrendous prices. Also, because they make money off the plants themselves, they plant everything too close together, and you end up having to take half of them out a couple years later.”

Handling hardscape
That said, there are aspects of a garden installation you really can’t, or shouldn’t, attempt to undertake by yourself—namely, the so-called hardscape, or non-organic design elements of your garden, such as retaining walls, steps, pathways, boulders, bridges and water features like ponds or fountains.

“Hardscape should be the first thing you plan,” says Cadotte. “You can’t easily do it yourself, because the materials are difficult to work with, and there are often drainage, grading, zoning and building permit issues to contend with.”

While labour is going to be costly when dealing with hardscape, however, there is a lot of price flexibility on the materials side. “Look at your budget, and decide if you can afford to spend $60 per square foot on natural flagstone, or whether you want to substitute synthetic Unilock at $20 per square foot,” says Cadotte. “There are a lot of man-made materials that look great, are extremely durable, and mimic natural materials at a fraction of the cost.”

Research before you dig
If you decide to handle the design and planting yourself, the first step should be to undertake some basic research. “Time spent in planning and research will pay off in money saved,” says Veronica Callinen, president of Toronto’s East York Garden Club. “Go to the library and look through some books and magazines. Join a garden club or horticultural society. Watch Home and Garden TV, which can be quite good for getting ideas. With a little knowledge you can prevent a lot of mistakes, like planting a particular variety of rose that won’t grow in your climate or conditions. When you do that you might as well wad up your money and throw it away.”

Once you’ve done some research and have an idea of the kind of landscaping that appeals to your taste, consider calling in a trained professional. “Every city has garden coaches and consultants, and they don’t have to cost an arm and a leg,” notes Balzer, who charges $120 per hour for consultations. “A good consultant can size up the potential of your property, look at the pages you’ve earmarked in gardening magazines, and come up with some ideas that will suit your taste and budget.” She says word of mouth is the best way to find reputable people. “Ask around. You can even knock on the door of someone whose garden you admire and see if they used a consultant.”

Measure twice, plant once
Draw up a plan. Plot your plot. Figure out where everything’s going to go before you hit the garden centres. “You need to plan every single square foot,” says Cadotte. “That doesn’t mean you have to undertake everything at once. You can install the garden over time, in stages. But you need to work from a plan. If you just start digging holes and dropping in trees, shrubs and flower beds, you’re going to end up ripping a lot of it back out later, and that’s costly in time, money and effort.”

Laying the groundwork
What kind of soil do you have? If you don’t know, you’d better find out—before planting. “If you’re in an old house, your soil’s probably pretty good, because it’s been built up over the decades,” says Balzer. “But if you’re in a new house, you’re probably dealing with four inches of not-very-good soil, and that’s not enough for most plantings.” Shrubs, she says, require a good eight-to-10 inches of good quality soil, and trees even more. “If you don’t prep the soil right, you spend a fortune on plants at the garden shop, and then next year you’re back buying them all over again because they didn’t take. And eventually you have to rip everything out and start from scratch with better soil.”

The bones in the yard
After you’ve prepped the soil, decide where you’re going to plant the major elements of your garden design: the trees, shrubs and hedges. “They’re the bones of the garden,” says Cadotte, “the things that are going to stay in place for years or decades. You want to place them carefully, because they’re not going to be easy to move, or remove, later, and if they’re planted too close together they’ll end up crowding each other as they grow.”

Speaking of trees, one of the biggest mistakes home gardeners make is buying them too big. “You don’t have to go and buy the biggest tree you can find,” says Balzer. “When you buy a tree with a four-inch diameter trunk, up to 90% of the roots have been cut off, and when you plant them they go into root shock. The end result is that those trees either die, or they don’t grow for the first couple years, as they get acclimatized to their new surroundings. Smaller trees, even trees planted from seeds, will often overtake larger trees within two or three years of planting.”

Minimizing maintenance
If your goal is to minimize the amount of time you’re going to be spending in the garden, perennials, rather than annuals, are the way to go when it comes to planting flowers. You can also largely do away with the weekly ritual of mowing the lawn by, well, largely doing away with the lawn. “With small properties in particular, many homeowners have opted to replaced grass entirely with bark mulch,” says Balzer. “It’s largely maintenance free, and it makes a great-looking setting for a landscape of trees, shrubs and flower beds.”

Thymes, clovers and other forms of ground cover can make for a great grass alternative. “Because they don’t grow tall, they don’t require mowing,” says Callinen. “And in the case of clovers, they attract all those good pollinating insects that are a vital part of our ecosystem.”

5 comments on “Build your own garden paradise

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  4. Thanks for sharing this, I will consider every idea of yours when we start building our dream house, well we are still saving for it.


  5. Guess there's a downside on living in an apartment.


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