Chapter 3

Landscaping is one of the few areas of your house that can get better with age. A well-planned and maintained yard will add to the value of your home as it matures, and a patio or deck can serve as extra living space in good weather. You can define the space and provide a transition from the yard to your house that protects the interior and enhances the usefulness of the exterior. Spend some time in your house looking out the windows--as well as looking around the yard when you are outside--to get ideas for improvement. Plan early for the landscaping projects that can revitalize your yard for many years to come.


Start by looking at your "hardscape"--the permanent fixtures such as fences and patios. Since sidewalks, patios, planters, and other such projects often require some activities that tear up the area (digging, pouring concrete, etc.), it is wise to attend to these projects before you plant expensive new landscaping. The challenges can be greater with existing yards than new lots, because you may be faced with deciding whether to actually remove plants, sidewalks, or even trees.

Good landscaping can also greatly reduce the amount of dirt that is carried into your house by the breeze or your shoes, and can provide needed privacy. Once planted, your landscaping can grow and mature into a real asset to the overall appearance of your home.


Remember the weather-cycle diagram in your science class, that showed the rain falling on land, flowing downhill, and returning to the sea? Well, the land around your house is part of the process. When more rain falls than can be absorbed by dry soil (or concrete, asphalt, and the structures that have been built on the land), the excess water flows downhill. If it is blocked, it can form puddles and create flooding. Erosion occurs when the water flow carries dirt particles with it. You should understand how important good drainage is to the well-being of your house; water can be one of nature's most destructive forces if it is not controlled.

Site drainage is difficult to assess under normal conditions unless the slopes are obvious. In relatively level subdivisions the developer should have created lots that drained to the rest of the area's storm-drain system. However, changes in other areas can affect the drainage in your area. Clogged drains can cause water to back up into normally dry areas. Occasionally heavy rains can exceed the capacity of the existing drains for short periods. If your yard was never correctly graded, you may have frequent drainage problems. You should correct these problems before you invest in additional landscaping, as grading, trenching for French (or "curtain") drains, or adding fill dirt will all disturb the yard to some extent.

Poor drainage can result in damp basements (as can a rise in the subsurface water table). In some cases water can flow under a concrete slab foundation and cause moisture to come through the slab into your carpets. If water stands under a raised foundation, it can cause the formation of wood rot. Standing water, such as puddles, creates a breeding-ground for mosquitoes. If you have drainage problems, consult a landscape specialist.

It may be necessary to use a transit to determine the elevations and slopes, but it is worth it to get rid of excess water properly. Regrading and creating swales, ditches, and drains can help. In some cases the addition of a retaining wall may be required. You may be responsible for the water that drains from your house onto your neighbors' property, so it is wise to have professional help if you need to correct a drainage problem.


You don't want to track mud or dust into your house. Consider keeping your shoes and floors clean by purchasing and installing precast stepping stones if your sidewalks are inadequate. Your lumber store will carry these, and a few well-placed steps will save you a lot of shoe-scraping. For more traveled areas pour a new sidewalk in place, or use brick or stone to create a walkway.

There are many different paving surfaces available, including brick, stamped concrete, exposed-aggregate concrete, and interlocking pavers. If you are adding a patio or walkway, be sure that the new construction doesn't interfere with the natural drainage of your site. If you already have drainage problems, this is a good time to correct them.

Patios, Decks, Gazebos, and Sheds

Adding a patio or deck creates outdoor living space. Even if your yard is small, it's important not to skimp on the size of your patio. Do you want this space to extend your kitchen, or resemble a living room? Remember, if you build any kind of new wood structure adjacent to your house, never allow the wood to touch the house. This "earth-to-wood contact" can create a perfect way for termites to enter your home. This goes for fences, decks, and stacks of loose wood. Do not let them touch the ground and your house at the same time. Most decks are supported by a concrete pad or pier blocks, which should extend at least six inches from the soil before the wood supports begin.

It is important for your deck to be properly supported, especially if it extends over a slope or is at the second-floor level. The deck should be constructed with proper vertical supports to carry the weight of the people standing on it, and it should be designed so that it will not collapse sideways (visualize the support posts all falling over in the same direction like dominoes). There should be some kind of lateral bracing to prevent this from happening. Many decks are built by persons who are not familiar with engineering standards, and some of these decks can be hazardous. If you wish to add a deck, be sure to make sure your design conforms to the building codes.

Garden structures such as sheds and gazebos should be approached with the same care as planning any other construction project. Assume you will need a permit to add such a structure, especially if you are including a spa. Check with the building department to see what is required. Even if you don't need a permit, don't skimp on the design or construction. Lightweight structures can be heavily damaged by wind that does not affect your house at all. Patio covers are even more subject to damage because the wind can lift from below as well as blowing over the top.

If your house already has a garden structure, check to be sure it is properly secured to the ground and that any electrical wiring was done correctly. It should be in conduit, with weatherproof boxes for switches, lights, etc. Maintain these structures as well as you maintain the rest of your home--they are an asset to the property if they are functional and attractive.

Fences In some parts of the country fences are a must, but not all new houses are sold with fencing complete. Existing fences can be a casualty of high winds and wet soil. When the posts have begun to break off at the base or the fence is leaning, it is time to repair or replace it. Whether you plan to build it yourself or hire someone, there are some basic facts to consider.

* There are several styles of wood fences to choose from, but the most important part of a fence to consider first is the posts. They should be eight feet apart or closer, to properly support the rails and fence boards. Redwood four-by-fours are common, but pressure-treated four-by-fours will last longer.

* It is also important to dig a deep enough hole. Try to dig at least two feet down (don't fudge, use a tape measure), and use a level to make sure the post is set in straight. Pouring concrete around the posts is less important than setting them deep enough, but can help increase the stability of the fence.

* Choose redwood fence boards with as little yellow color as possible--and as few knots as possible. See your local lumber stores for samples of different styles of fence boards. If your damaged fence is between you and your neighbors, approach them about splitting the cost before you do any work. People are less inclined to contribute for something that is already in place.

If your fence has a gate, be sure it is in good working order. It should latch securely, and not drag on the ground. If your gate is sagging it can probably be rebuilt at very little expense, since you may be able to reuse most of the wood. Sometimes a gate can be replaced using a different style, such as wrought iron or a decorative shape, to add interest to a garden area.

You may want something other than a wood fence, such as chain-link (often used around swimming pools), brick, stone, wrought-iron, or some other decorative style. You may have more than one style in the same yard, such as a see-through wire fence to control animals (such as a dog pen) along with a solid board fence for privacy. If you are fencing your property, be sure you know where the property lines are. You can't assume that the old fence was in the right place, and misplaced fences have been the cause of many disputes between property owners.

Irrigations Systems: Sprinklers and Drip Lines

Many projects will be most successful if done during the time when the ground is no longer fully saturated, but still not dry. If you do not have underground sprinklers, this is a good time to add them. The ground is soft, and plastic pipe is cheap. Lay out a simple pattern on the ground before you dig, to see if the spray heads cover the total area. See a professional landscaper if your project is ambitious. Underground sprinklers make yard care much easier, especially if you are establishing new ground cover or revitalizing an old lawn. Anti-siphon valves are a must, and timers are wonderful if properly set. If you live in an area subject to drought or where water is expensive, consider a drip system.

Plant Selection

Get the advice of a local nursery for selecting the plants for your yard (there can be variations in soil conditions even in the same city). Landscaping will add to the beauty and function of your home. Properly cared for, it will get better as the years go by. Plant trees carefully so they aren't crowding other trees or your house as they get bigger. Mature trees can provide shade that will help keep your home cooler in the summer.

Beware of plants that actually come in contact with your house. Vines growing on a house can cover signs of damage, and interfere with proper maintenance. Worse yet, they can actually cause damage by creeping into cracks, under shingles, or between bricks. Shrubs can prevent proper inspection and maintenance of the foundation area, and can rub on the siding and damage the finish. Tree roots can uplift sidewalks and driveways as well as other structures if they are too close. It may be wise to remove such plants to prevent future damage.

Your nursery will be able to give you suggestions about what to plant in the different areas of your yard. Consider how much time you wish to spend maintaining what you plant so you don't lose your investment. Know the extremes of temperature in your area and plan accordingly. A landscaping contractor will be able to help you with comprehensive projects. Spring and fall are typical planting seasons, so plan ahead.

Next Chapter: Should You "Do-It-Yourself"?
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