How to create a landscape that's ideal for you

Ask yourself these questions to help decide the type of yard that fits your personality and works best for you.

By , Washington Post/LA Times Syndicate

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    Contributing to this garden's appeal are a water feature and its eye-catching use of color.
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Even if you have some horticultural knowledge, you probably consider landscape design abstract. It's difficult to visualize an entire garden rather than a single element, such as a flower, tree or trellised vine. Hence, the big picture should be broken into smaller parts to better understand it.

About 25 years ago, I developed a system called "lernscaping" to assist homeowners in creating a garden that reflects their personality. This approach will help you communicate with garden center personnel or a landscape professional before digging soil to one spade's depth or purchasing any nursery stock.

There's no way to include the entire lernscape questionnaire in this column. However, here's the essence of the checklist, which should give you some basic idea of what sort of landscape fits your desires, personality, and budget:

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Reflect on your childhood. You probably identified a preference for certain landscape elements at a young age. Maybe the sounds of a babbling brook remind you of fly-fishing with your dad or walking along a stream with a friend. Perhaps your favorite recollection of springtime is picnicking — the fresh smell of the green lawn, the crunch of leaves underfoot, and the musky smell of woodland.

Consider elements that stimulate your senses in the garden: sculptures, colors, rocks, fragrances, paths or textures of paving. What themes do you prefer? Formal fountains or water cascades over rocks? Symmetrically geometric paving on lawn or curved, sweeping patios surrounded by planting beds?

Let these thoughts and images form the framework of your design.

–  Get to know your outdoor space. Pay careful attention to dimensions of the property, compass aspects, drainage patterns, and location of underground utilities. This will ensure that your garden is usable and that plants grow.

By becoming familiar with all features of your property, you'll save time, money, and aggravation in the later stages of landscaping.

Make a list of your garden's vital statistics. It should include measurements of design areas, compass points and hours of sun, pleasant and unpleasant views, drainage patterns and underground utilities. Before you dig, call 811 or go to the Miss Utility Web site, www.missutility.net, to find lines and avoid fines that come with damaging or cutting them.

Consider each aspect of your outdoor space, including favorite colors, seasons, plants, building materials, activities, entertaining, and children. How many hours do you spend in the garden, and how much do you want to spend for it? Do you want screening, seating, lighting, or water?

Think about elements you want incorporated into the design. For example, a client once asked me to make a clothesline blend into a natural garden that we were installing.

Think about what features are worth keeping and other property characteristics. There may be meadows, old rock walls, or windrows.

Sit, read, work, and relax in your planned garden area at different times of day and night. Watch how the sun traverses your property and when it casts shadows or creates hot spots. Note the most pleasing places to sit, and which direction you like to face for maximum comfort.

Look to the horizon. Check views from every possible angle. Keep in mind the aesthetically pleasing vistas. Often these views are lost when developers clear land, so you have to create your own beautiful vistas.

Heat pumps, highways, and smokestacks are features you might want to screen. Beware, however, that planting in or fencing off an ugly feature might call more attention to it. Your goal should be to distract viewers as much as to hide eyesores.

For example, in the case of a heat pump, you might use benches with ornamental qualities and face the viewer away from the objectionable apparatus. Plan for something colorful and interesting on the opposite side of the garden. If using shrubs or a trellis to screen the object, repeat this plant arrangement elsewhere in the yard.

For an unpleasant distant view, plant large pines, spruces, cedars or hollies in masses of three or more. When planted strategically, these evergreens, which grow full all the way to the base, will serve as year-round cover and focus the eye inward toward the garden.

Highlight existing features. Develop designs that retain and enhance on-site native wildflowers, streams, rock outcroppings, native woodland plants, windblown junipers, and existing trees. Decide whether a tree trunk that was never cut down is worth keeping. It could become a support for a vine or a hammock. The extra thought is worth it.

You may look at natural features as liabilities and not want to keep them. For example, if you want a vegetable garden, rock outcroppings could be a nuisance. A windblown eastern red cedar or pine would be in the way if you preferred a formal garden. Pyracantha and hardy orange are desirable plants that provide food and shelter for birds, but they're too thorny to grow near a play area for children. These choices are yours to make.

Sculptural elements, seating, fountains, and water gardens are a welcome addition to most landscape designs. At least one of these elements in a private corner of the yard, tucked into some background shrubs and surrounded by perennials, can add interest to your garden.

Ultimately, budget will determine the size and quantity of plants that are installed. However, cost shouldn't hold you back from creating your ideal design. What's more important at this point is establishing a preliminary budget. A rule of thumb to determine your budget if you're going to completely redo your outdoor space: about 10 percent of property value.

There are always ways to cut costs. The most grandiose design can be broken into its smallest parts — paving this year, planting trees next year, then shrubs, and so on until you've reached a point of satisfaction. Installing a garden is about the journey. There is never a finishing point.

The most notable gardens are the longest in the making. The gardens in the Japanese city of Kyoto, for example, have taken centuries. One of my favorites in North America is the 83-year-old Les Jardins de Metis on the Peninsula in Mont-Joli, Quebec. Elsie Reford started it in 1926; the garden continues under the direction of great-grandson Alexander Reford.

Understand that installing a garden is an ongoing process that takes at least a decade. At that point, your garden begins to become a work of art.

Joel Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md., and author of "Anyone Can Landscape." Contact him through his Web site, www.gardenlerner.com.

Editor’s note: For more on gardening, see the Monitor’s main gardening page. Our blog archive. Our RSS feed.

You may also want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos — and possibly win a prize. Deadline is Aug. 11. Join the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions.

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