My husband Brian and I have installed three gardens in my over 20 year career as a landscape designer. I wrote this article in 2004 while we were installing our third and present garden. I learned a lot from that experience.

Before we started our garden renovation

Before we started our garden renovation


Grading the soil.

We are now in our second month of the full landscape makeover. The grass, shrubs and trees are almost all gone. I’m down to dirt and have realized I’ve made a major mistake. I amended the soil before I did the grading. (Layman’s terms: I tilled garden mulch into the soil before I had someone move the dirt around with a big machine.) The result was I had way too much dirt in the front yard to go behind my two retaining walls. (I planned on using some of it to fill the raised beds in the back yard but the new driveway produced much more soil than expected and took care of those needs.) By the time the excavator got the front yard down to the correct grade, all my amended soil was in a big pile in the side yard. My dear husband’s frustrated response to this dilemma was, “You design the project, but I have to implement it!” and I think to myself “Well yea! That’s what I do, design. I leave the rest of the work to the homeowner or contractor.” The truth is that’s just what I’d love to do; have a contractor come in and install the perfect yard. However, I would miss out on a major learning experience that translates into helpful information and humorous anecdotes for my clients. So instead of whining, I sought out advice from an expert and then came up with two solutions:

  1. Rent another tiller and amend the soil again and end up with even more extra soil.
  2. Go back to the drawing board – add a third retaining wall along the sidewalk so I could accommodate all the extra soil, and while I was at it, reduce the lawn so I’d have more room for all my plants. Choice number two won. It sounded easier and so far looks great!

Finishing the walls.


A few years later.

So what did I learn this week?

If you don’t know what you’re doing, find an expert and use them! This applies double to “do it yourself projects”. It’s great to do the work yourself. But it’s even better if you know you’re doing the work correctly and in the right order. After consulting a landscape contractor I trust and picking his brain about procedure and order, this is what I’ve learned:

  1. Remove all unwanted shrubs and trees
  2. Grade the property
  3. Install the walls, boulders and other hardscape or structures
  4. Install the irrigation and wiring for lights
  5. Amend the soil
  6. Plant shrubs
  7. Install drip irrigation if it’s being used
  8. Put in the sprinkler heads and adjust them
  9. Install outdoor lighting
  10. Mulch the beds
  11. Seed or sod the turf
  12. Have a party!

This is the second time in three years that we’ve moved and installed a new landscape. The last time we installed a cute but simple landscape. I learned a lot of valuable skills I could pass on to my clients from that project such as installing a flagstone path and seeding a lawn. This time the design is much more complex. It includes a new RV driveway; three retaining walls; a new fence with arbors built into it; raised beds, and a gravel patio. I’m also planning to add a new sunroom to my house. That should really complicate things! Order and timing are my biggest challenges; figuring out all the steps and executing them in the right order. If you think about it, you’ll realize that each of the twelve steps I’ve listed has its own set of steps and procedures. The only one I’ve got a real handle on is number 12! When we’re through I’ll have a new fist full of skills to share and a great yard!