Landscape planning help?
August 23, 2021 8:29 PM   Subscribe

What are the steps and priorities to landscape a back yard? My spouse and I bought a house this summer. We have a small yard. But I am still a little overwhelmed thinking about transforming the backyard. How should we approach this?

What are the steps and priorities to landscape a back yard? My spouse and I bought a house this summer. We have a small yard. But I am still a little overwhelmed thinking about transforming the backyard. How should we approach this?

We live in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The back yard is small; I guesstimate 15 x 40 feet. It has zero vegetation and is covered with river rock.

We both envision something low-maintenance but possibly growing some food.

My spouse is thinking of xeriscape near the block fence, then some vegetation closer to the house, and a bit of raised beds. I envison some permaculture but don't know much about it and have never grown anything. We are considering one or two trees. My spouse also likes Russian sage.

I am also interested in composting, rainwater harvesting and possibly graywater harvesting. We don't have rain gutters yet.

We like the idea of a butterfly garden, or to draw other small wildlife. Our neighborhood has rabbits, though it is in suburbia.

Our patio is small, sized for only a couple of people. I would like room for a four-person table and a grill. My spouse has suggested expanding the patio. But the patio is on the side of the house and the aesthetics are not working for me. A bigger patio will likely be pretty close to the block wall and not be as private as we would like, but the patio is already close to the side walll (but those neighbors aren't out as much). Also on the table instead of a concrete patio is either a deck or pavers.

No children are in the picture.

We do plan to go to the local botanic garden and garden club soon.

We will be on somewhat of a budget. We will probably do at least some of the work ourselves and for everything to be done in stages. But it would be nice to have a bigger patio and some greenery by next summer. We did just get a plant in a pot.

Also, all of our side windows look directly on to the block wall, with no vegetation.

So we are considering one or both of some kind of vine or decorative window film.

The front yard is OK.

We are considering a few landscape designers but haven't talked to any of them yet.

We expect to get a few relevant books soon. But where to start? There seems so much to plan ... and to do and pay for.
posted by NotLost to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Go check out a native plant nursery. Here's one.
posted by mareli at 1:03 AM on August 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

If you don't need to rush I suggest living with your space for a while, a whole year is good, try to experience when it's; hot, cold, cool-breezy, wet, where snow drifts, where frost stays or leaves early or doesn't freeze at all*, where the sun rises and sets. Where is comfy at thru the day and years .. and where is not. Also learn how to use your house and think about spaces you like, or don't like so much.

People often ask me to "transform our garden", most want it all done and dusted, and frozen in time for another 30 years, but it is seldom satisfying in the long-term.

I sometimes set people up with raised 'roofing steel' planters (they're ~a ¼ of the price of timber ones), then they can start growing atop the ground and learn how their space works, and formalise things over time.

If you get a designer interview several, you want one who really knows their plants - many only know about hard elements, or work off a palette of a 100 plants, with a xeriscape this is truer still. Sometimes I 'coach' people in how to garden - you'll probably be able find someone who does this.

I had a house where -10°C was common, but some quirk of geology meant one area never froze.
posted by unearthed at 3:33 AM on August 24, 2021 [6 favorites]

Could not agree more about living with your space first, and mostly to see where the water goes. Job one with any landscape design is managing water flow.
posted by spitbull at 3:47 AM on August 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

High Country Gardens Is a great place to browse and get ideas. Originally a New Mexico company, I’ve had great success with their plants for 15+ years in both Utah and Northern Arizona. Their preplanned gardens are lovely and provide a great starting point for a xeric and flower filled garden that bees and hummingbirds love. I’ve learned a ton from their videos and write ups. Local nurseries and designers are also great resources.
posted by chuke at 7:31 AM on August 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

How much is your budget? My 8X20 basic concrete patio recently done was $2300. Gutters down the backside of your house would probably be $500-$1000, depending on how big your house is and how much of the rest you do. I would do that stuff first, so you can plan irrigation. You can plant trees in the fall if you have some in mind. Plant small ones now and if you don't like the location, rip them out later. Small trees generally are not expensive. You may find you don't like them.

Check this place out:

Osuna Nursery
If your yard is rock, I'd bet water isn't much of a problem and since it doesn't rain much in Albuquerque, you do need to focus on collecting as much as you can if you want a decent garden.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:40 AM on August 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the ideas so far. I was hoping for more of a beginning plan of attack: Such as do A, then B, then C. And A, B, and C could be anything ... such as wait and study the yard, read this, look at that, install this, plant that, discuss and decide so-and-so.

There are many available ideas and sources of inspiration and information. But how to put them in order, and to move from that to action?
posted by NotLost at 7:41 AM on August 24, 2021

Take walks around your neighborhood every day for the next year, and look at all the landscaping, and see which plants and arrangements make sense for your yard and get you excited to see them.
posted by aniola at 8:43 AM on August 24, 2021 [5 favorites]

Ask the neighbors about what they like and don't like about their own yards. Ask about wildlife and pests, climate, weather extremes, etc.
Drainage. Drainage. Drainage. Be careful about changing things near the house footings. Be careful about trees and shrubs with invasive root systems. Know where the utilities enter the house.
Get the utility companies out to flag and paint the lines for water, sewer, electricity, natural gas, underground telephones, etc.
Know the setbacks for access to utilities.

Know the mature height of the tree and do not plant where it can fall on your house or the neighbor's property.
Removing rock and gravel is a pain. The ground cover holds in heat, but may make drainage easier.
There may be good reasons why the previous owner put in a rock bed. Don't be in a hurry to change It.

Try raised beds, a lattice on the block fence that holds some small plants, and some awnings for shade. Add a portable water feature for wildlife. Consider plants that look their best at night.
Think vertical and multiple small planters of similar things.
posted by TrishaU at 9:38 AM on August 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Seconding the "watch and plan for a year". But that isn’t passive! Take notes and pictures, and draw sketches of where you think things can go. You’re going to be comparing what you want to do with each spot through the seasons. Some people can balance this automatically but most of us over-optimize for the beginning of our planting season because we’re so excited.

But you can get containers and plant annuals RIGHT NOW without wasting *anything*, you can always use the containers later to make a pretty corner or plant things that want really different soil. Find out how thrifty people water containers where you are - subirrigation? Drip?

I have an aunt in Santa Fe with a waffle garden, which is a veg garden optimized for high and dry climates, and it took her a while to get it going but it’s lovely. And wow the tomatoes!
posted by clew at 10:01 AM on August 24, 2021 [4 favorites]

Albuquerque traditional demonstration garden, and a blog post that starts with an admission of the hard part of waffles (digging in caliche) but likes them anyway and ends with a whole lot of links.
posted by clew at 10:12 AM on August 24, 2021

I second the advice to give it a year of observation & consideration before attempting any major landscaping.

In the meantime, you should absolutely check out your local Cooperative Extension -- they will have tons of free and low-cost resources to help you learn about garden options suited for your specific climate. Your local extension is Bernalillo County, which looks like it has an active Master Gardeners program (including a hotline you can email for advice and a very useful-looking manual on gardening in the county).
posted by ourobouros at 10:46 AM on August 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

Fall is a good time to plant shrubs and trees ... I'd start with a butterfly bush. They do well in ABQ and can be moved later if the original location doesn't work with your design.
posted by cyndigo at 12:50 PM on August 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: 1.) make a list of all the things you need, want, would maybe enjoy in your garden.

2.) when you walk or ride or drive around your neighborhood, take photos of things you like or are interested in. Plants, materials, textures, colors.

3.) If you can go on some garden tours do it!

4.) spend time in your garden, even if there's nothing there. Get a chair and sit in it in various places while you drink your coffee.

5.) visit your local garden center and take more photos of plants you like, and a photo of their label. You don't have to buy anything :) Think about the type of plants you'd like: all natives? All drought tolerant? Bird and bee friendly? Ask for some examples at your nursery.

6.) talk to several garden designers. Show them your lists and your photos. Ask them to explain the way they work (for instance, I do consulting/coaching for a fee for people who want to build, work, and learn in their garden. I also do finished designs and planting plans for people who want to hire a pro to do all the installation. Design process for me is to do three plans after initial discussion, show them to the client in another meeting, we discuss and they choose bits and pieces of the various plans to make into one final plan. There can be a plant list and planting plan as well). Choose a person that feels good to work with. They will help you sort out what your priorities, needs and wants are.

Oh, and if you feel uncertain about your choices and the future, ask for materials that are green, and construction that can easily be reversed or moved. For example, "dry set" stone patios are set in sand rather than mortar. If you thought you wanted to move it in in three years you could do so and reuse the materials.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:31 PM on August 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: oneirodynia, thank you for an actual list of steps! And advice on hiring a designer. And novel tips that i hadn't thought of, especially in your last paragraph. :)
posted by NotLost at 8:34 PM on August 26, 2021

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