Here are some steps to take to upgrade the landscaping of your home

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A beautiful yard can transform a plain house into a cozy setting, but the cost of hiring a landscaper is enormous. That's why many people are studying the art of landscaping and learning to do it themselves.

To study landscaping you do not have to enroll in a gardening course. Your best "classroom" is observing yards you like and watching new techniques in planting shrubs and positioning accent objects. Such accent objects would include split-rail fences, large rocks, railroad ties, and steppingstones.

It's something you can do this winter and then be all set to go ahead with the landscaping project next spring.

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A yard does not have to be crowded with costly plants to have a good effect, either. You can create a work of art for a fraction of what landscapers would charge by doing it yourself. The total cost of having your yard landscaped by experts may run from $1500 to $2,500 if you have just built a new home. To upgrade your existing landscaping could easily cost $700 to $1,000 or more if you hire the work done.

How much can you save by doing the work yourself? At least half of what you would pay a landscaper. Many places have a minimum planting charge of $25 per plant or shrub. Even a rose bush would cost you its initial price, plus the $25 fee.

Some companies charge by the size of the tree or bush. lt can easily run up to $100 or more, including the price of the plant. In some parts of the country there are a few nurseries left that will plant, mulch, and fertilize anything you buy for half the plant's cost. But these places are rare these days.

Working from a rough sketch of your house, you should pencil in trees and shrubs. Draw the house from different angles. Position the plants so as to direct traffic flow in the yard, accent an area, or serve as a screen.

Think about placing trees to provide shade as they grow larger. If your budget calls for thrift, concentrate on the front yard first, but go ahead and design an overall plan for future reference.

If your house is brand new with no landscaping at all, you've got to think about grass. After all, grass is the basic covering of the yard. Landscapers charge from 6 to 8 cents a square foot to do a first-class job of hand-raking the soil, seeding, fertilizing, and putting on straw. You may prefer to hire this done and only do the shrubs and trees yourself.

The best reason to hire first-time grass seeding is that professional landscapers will work out drainage and contour problems. They have lots of equipment to work with as well. However, if your builder has rough-graded the yard with good contours and put on good topsoil, you can save at least $200 by doing the work yourself with a lawn spreader.

Investing in a lawn spreader is a good idea, anyway. You can use it to reseed your lawn throughout the years and apply fertilizer. Too much seed can be wasted by hand-throwing it rather than using a good-quality spreader. Fertilizer that is not applied evenly with a spreader can burn up your grass, too. A spreader costs about $25 or $30 for the most inexpensive kind.

If you are working with a yard that already has grass, you may want to get the grass in good condition as you plant more trees and shrubs. Talk to the most reputable nurseryman in town. Ask him what type of grass to get for your area and what type of fertilizer he recommends. Lots of water will make your new grass grow faster than anything.

How much shrubbery you will need depends on the size of your yard, but accenting the front entrance alone will take from 10 to 20 smaller plants. These can be placed in groups or rows. Most yards need a minimum of two to five evergreen trees and five to 15 deciduous trees for the best effect, depending on the size of the yard.

Small shrubs are your best value for accent because they are fairly inexpensive.

A new house, with no landscaping at all, could easily use 25 to 50 various plants. An established yard can be upgraded with as few as 10 plants if they are strategically placed. You can add more throughout the years. If you plan to make a row of 10 or more evergreens you should ask for a discount at your local nursery.

The kinds of plants to buy will depend largely on climate and trends in your area, but steer clear of exotic plants that will, not hold up well without lots of care. Strive for a yard that is easy to care for unless gardening is one of your hobbies and you have the time for it.

Trees should be chosen mainly for shade and beauty. Maples and oaks will grow into good shade trees, but your nurseryman can point out varieties that will grow faster than others. The dogwood will give lovely blossoms in the spring, but it will never be an ideal shade tree because of its size. Buy trees such as dogwoods to accent certain areas.

Choose trees and shrubs that will give the feeling you want. For a woodsy feeling, you can buy evergreen conifers--creeping junipers and pine, fir and hemlock trees. To get a tropical feeling, plant broadleaf evergreens. Popular kinds are rhododendrons, azaleas, and bayberry shrubs.

Using natural materials such as wood strips, bark chips, and small white rocks can give your do-it-yourself landscaping a professional touch.

Always use black plastic around shrubs before you pour on bags of white rocks or bark chips. It's best to use edging, too. Outline the area with strips of redwood or plastic eging tapped in the ground. Use a shovel to dig the area down at least two inches first. Cut the black plastic to fit the area and force it under, the edging. Punch holes in the plastic so water can soak down when it rains.

If you fail to use black plastic, weeds will grow up between the rocks or bark chips.

For a more dramatic effect, outline an area with railroad ties, or buy 8-by-8 -inch beams. Railroad ties can be used for steps or set on end, side by side, to act as a retaining wall. Split-rail fencing can be used in the corners of the yard to hold climbing rose bushes. Steppingstones placed on a bed of bark chips can make a beautiful walkway leading out from a back door. Frame the sides with wood to hold the bark chips. A steep hillside that is difficult to mow can planted in ground cover. Add flowering plants in the ground cover for accent.

How to place your plants in relation to the house depends on what type of house you have, the contours of the property, and the sun's position in relation to the house.

A two-story house usually looks best with trees placed in the far corners of the yard, thus giving a spacious feeling. A ranch house should look more "nestled" among greenery.

Trees can be planted as close as eight feet from the house so they will appear to envelop the house in years to come. A house with steep roof angles, similar to the charlet design, is best accented with lots of evergreens, such as spruce and pine trees. These evergreens should be fairly close to the corners of the house if you're working with only a few trees.

Before shrubs and trees are planted, set them at the yard and trust what your eyes tell you. Go with the layout that looks best to you from different angles. Plan for shade where the sun will be strongest in midafternoon by putting deciduous trees in the sunny area.

How much money should you spend on landscaping in relation to the value of the house?

On a house you are building, most experts say you should allow about 10 percent of what your house costs for complete landscaping. But that figure, which sounds high, includes everything from initial excavating of the property to plants to driveways and sidewalks. For a $70,000 house, that would be about $ 7,000 if you hired the work done.

By doing some of the planting yourself you should be able to knock off at least $500 to $600, and maybe a lot more. from the figure.

In terms of the greenery alone in your yard, its value, including, grass, should be equal to at least 3 percent of your home's value. If the cost of landscaping seems high to you, remember that $500 worth of trees and shrubs, added to what is already there, could increase the value of your home by up to $ 3,000.

Upgrading existing landscaping to look more contemporary is one way to keep your house from looking too dated. Fresh ideas incorporated into the landscaping will give it a much-needed facelift if nothing has been done for the last 10 or 15 years.

Move larger shrubs out and away from the house for replanting. Put small shrubs in the ground aiong the foundation. Also, make sure the front entrance isn't hidden by bulky growth. Avoid the "overgrown" look and try to bring in more light by moving any large bushes away from the windows.

Try to incorporate bark chips, pine mulch, or small stones into the design, if you can.

Do-it-yourself landscaping is a lot of work, but it can be spread out over a period of time. If you can recruit a few helpers, the work can actually be fun. Even children can help with some of the lighter chores, such as spreading Straw. They'll enjoy being part of the action.

A brother-in-law might be a good guy to have around. And if he owns a dolly for wheeling the bushes around the yard, you're far ahead.

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