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I need to design the landscape of a small back yard. Any tips?

I see a lot of books on designing large gardens, but we live in California and have a very small back yard that we'd like to liven up (right now it's just mulch). Is it worth hiring a contractor? Is there good landscape design software we could use to help do it on our own?

Details:

  1. Software may exist but it may be expensive. In my opinion the best place to start is by choosing the location of your patio. Consider the location of windows and doors on your house, as well as on neighbor homes for privacy. Also consider the orientation of your backyard to the sun. For example, if your backyard faces south, you will probably want to plant trees on the south side to shade the patio and house. After placing your patio and determining how large you would like it, take note of how much space remains around it. Plant trees to block the sun on the appropriate sides. Be sure they have enough room to grow (choose species with upright growth patterns if it is a really small backyard.) Don't plant tall growing trees underneath powerlines (housedrops). After your trees are planted, fill in gaps with decorative stone, shrubs, and flowering groundcovers. I like to look through magazines to get ideas for species and how to use decorative stone to accent plants. If it is easier, design and build the backyard one step at a time, over multiple weeks or months. First the patio, then the trees, then some shrubs, then groundcover and rock. Alternatively, some nurseries will assist in completing a landscape plan, so ask around. Or have a contractor design something for you. You will save a lot of money implementing their design yourself, plus you can make sure things get planted the correct way.
  2. HGTV offers an online tutorial. If you are cramped for space. I'd plant vertically...Tall, skinny shrubs, climbing plants, hang baskets from fence, house, etc. Save all the ground space you have for you to move around in and enjoy. Potted plants offer lots of versatility. If you get tired of where they are or need that space later, just move them. P.S. Keep the mulch away from the foundation of the house. It give bugs easier access to basements and crawlspaces.
  3. I've actually been contemplating undertaking a similar project with my wife. We already have a built in patio made of cement (with brick accents) and definitely don't have the money for a contractor to redesign the entire concept. We want to keep costs under 2 grand including plants and other materials. My wife teaches art in elementary school so she's already been using a diagramming tool called SmartDraw to do some lesson plans and illustrations, but it also does floor plans and landscape designs. It's not 3D, but you can import photos into it so you can make it fairly realistic. I've found it's been good for designing general layout of different areas and even experimenting with what kind of colors and plant types I want to put where. To give you an idea, you'll probably end up with stuff that kind of looks like this: http://www.smartdraw.com/examples/preview/index.aspx?example=Residential_-_06 You can download SmartDraw from http://www.smartdraw.com but it might be pricey if all you're gonna do is landscaping. An additional tip that I just learned is using curved lines and circles instead of just straight lines helps spaces seem bigger. I think if you have a small space like us, it's tempting to preserve as much of the open area as you can by concentrating plants along the edge in a straight line. But I have a designer friend, who just had their garden done who says I have to try planting things a bit irregularly or in curves and I'll like the results.
  4. First level your yard and make sure all fences/boundary plantings are in place then put in any paths, decks, patios or other permanent fixtures or buildings. Next plant trees or any large shrubs. You then will see how much yard you have left to make gardens or lawns. When planting gardens my experience has been trial and error. Meaning your flower gardens are always a work in progress and you should feel free to try new plants. If something doesn't seem to work for you try moving it to another spot. I think as long as you get the "bones" of your garden in place the rest gradually happens over time with beautiful results.
  5. Before you spend any money on a contractor or software go out to a few nurseries of places like Home Depot to get some ideas from the people that work there about plants and materials. I would try to give you some ideas but in NY we might be using different plants and materials based on what will gro well.