DIY Landscaping Approaches

April 4, 2011

Landscaping is one of the most common do-it-yourself projects out there. Almost everyone has planted a tree, shrub or flowering plant, and the DIY shows on television make the whole process look simple and doable in a weekend. Although landscape design and installation doesn’t require the same precision as brain surgery, there are still some really important underlying principles that need to be considered for the landscape to be successful. It would take far more space than this blog allows to cover them in detail, so I have simplified it to 5 key points and provided a few references at the end for more information.

1. Planning
Just as with most successful projects, good landscape design requires planning. The planning involves first analyzing the site where the new (or renovated) landscape will be installed. Included in this analysis is determining the environmental factors that will impact plant growth such as light conditions, soil type and drainage patterns. You should also note if there are existing features on the site like plants, buildings, or walkways that will need to be designed around.

2. Determining Function
Once you’ve decided what you have to work with on the site (soil, light conditions, etc.) the next step it to decide the function of the new landscape. Is it simply for aesthetics, maybe to highlight the entrance to a facility or building? Does it need to screen something or direct traffic around an area? Will it serve as a windbreak to protect an area? These are just a few examples, but there certainly are many more. In many cases the function of a landscape directly determines plant selection for the project.

3. Design Consideration
After the environmental factors have been considered and the landscape’s function determined, the design process can begin. During this phase the basic elements of design such as shape, texture, and color should be considered, in addition to the specific principles of landscape design. Understanding and implementing the complete array of landscape design principles is particularly important when large-scale designs (like a site master plan or residential backyard) are being created. On the other hand, for smaller individual projects which are more likely the type to be done on a golf course or municipal park, focusing on the shape of the planting area and the plants, as well as the texture and color of the plants and hardscapes will likely be sufficient.

4. Hardscape Selection
Hardscapes are any non-plant part of the landscape and include such things as concrete pavers, natural stone, poured concrete and wood. There is a whole range of hardscape materials that can be used in our climate and often the selection of a particular product is based on its aesthetic qualities (color and texture), price and availability, and ease of installation. Another consideration I suggest is the product’s sustainability. Is it made from recycled materials? Or, is it a permeable material that allows rainfall to pass through it and reenter the groundwater supply? There are a number of great resources available that describe pros and cons of different hardscape materials and they can be used to direct decisions about hardscapes.

5. Plant Selection
Matching a plant to the growing environment of the landscape site is the most important step in plant selection. Once this is addressed, then you can narrow your selection based on aesthetic features of a plant such as form, texture and color. One way to maximize the visual appeal of a landscape is to mass plants together in groups. The mature size of the plant impacts how many plants should be in the mass. Larger plants such as shrubs can have fewer plants, while a group of smaller perennials really need to have more plants (5-7 or so) in order to provide enough visual appeal. Combining plants with different sized leaves creates a nice contrast of textures and this adds visual interest. And certainly choosing plants with a long blooming period can provide lots of color in the landscape. Instead of relying just on flowers for color, be sure to include plants with unique and colorful leaves since the leaves will be persistent in the landscape all season long and provide color even when plants aren’t flowering.

Below are some examples of landscape plantings





Here are a few resources for more information:
Iowa State University Extension publications available at:
Landscape Plants for the Midwest (PM 0212)
Perennials for Sun (PM 1914)
Perennials for Shade (PM 1913)

Ortho’s All About Landscaping, by Kellum and McKinley

Ann Marie ZanDerZanden
Professor & Associate Director for ISU Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching
Iowa State University