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Start with the big stuff
Begin your planning by establishing focal points. These can include trees, big shrubs and tall ornamental grasses, as well as structures such as a gazebo, archway, pond, trellis or statue. Once these are in place, the rest of your landscaping can fill in around them.
Include your house in your planning
The house and yard should work together in terms of style, scale, colors and materials. Use trees to frame a house, not conceal it or overwhelm it. Shrubs and flowers should form a welcoming approach to your home's entrance. Create foundation plantings that are more than just a line of shrubs around the house -- try varying levels of plants, deep borders and curves.
Sit at the kitchen table or in the den and look out at your landscape-to-be. What would you like to see? Plan views from the inside looking out so you get as much pleasure from landscaping when you're in your house as when you're outside.
Study your space
Look at your yard at different times of day, from different angles and in different weather conditions. Take pictures to help you remember what it looks like. Learn where the sunlight falls, where the shade pockets are, where the rain pools. Choose plants adapted to your yard's conditions and your area's hardiness Zone. Here, hostas thrive in the shade of big trees.
Think way ahead
It's sunny now, but will it be in a few years? Once the trellis is built, the garden shed goes up and the trees get big, will you still have sunshine where you want it? That sunny wildflower patch you envision by the fence won't work if you plant trees there now. You can move some plants later, but your basic layout should incorporate changing shade patterns.
Landscaping -- labor, plants and materials -- may be much more expensive than you think. Do some comparison-shopping at local garden centers, and check prices at online nurseries, too. Create a budget and a priority list if you're not able to afford everything at once.
Be realistic about your commitment
Almost anything can look good on paper, but a year down the road, cool ideas can become problems. Will you really prune that rose or aggressive vine? Will you keep the fence painted and sealed? Will you clean and maintain your pond or fountain? Plan plants and features you know you can handle.
Light up your yard
Make lighting an integral feature of your deck, patio, paths and other landscape areas. It's not only beautiful; it's important for safety, and it will allow you to use your yard past sundown. There are so many types of lighting available, you can find lots of options that meld with your garden's style.
Make an entrance
The landscape begins at the edge of your property, not the edge of your house. Professionals often use some element -- a gate, an arbor, a small fence, a hedge or a border garden -- to create a sense of entrance from the front or side yard. Here, roses and honeysuckle drape a backyard gate.
A garden path allows you -- and visitors -- to enjoy your landscaping. It also creates a convenient route for plant maintenance. If your yard is large, plan paths at least 3 feet wide so people can walk together. Allow extra space for plants to spill over the sides, or for a bench.
Consider mature plant size
Don't worry if the garden bed looks skimpy when you plant it. Consider ultimate sizes before you buy plants. This is especially important with trees and shrubs, which may overgrow windows, power lines or views. A tree will be only a few feet tall when you buy it, but varieties such as the Colorado blue spruce at left typically grow up to 50 feet high and 20 feet wide.
Throw some curves
Curves, angles and free-form, flowing edges add interest to landscape design. Use curves -- such as paths, fences and edging -- to draw attention to a special place (such as a gazebo) or a special planting. At left, feverfew, 'Hyperion' daylilies and yellow Marguerite daisies line a curving path to the front door.
Integrate vegetables with other plants
It's OK to have a separate vegetable garden, but it's not essential. A vegetable garden mingling with flowers or disguised as one more flowing border garden can be just as fruitful and more aesthetic than a rectangular plot plunked in the middle of a lawn. Here, red Crocosmia and orange cosmos spice up a bed around a cucumber vine.
Add small touches
Focal points in a garden don't have to be big and expensive. A hand-painted birdhouse finds a home among coneflowers and other bright plantings. A small fountain might be just the tonic for a bland patio. Drop some garden art in the middle of a flowerbed.
Mass colors for impact
Cluster several of the same plant variety together for more color clout. If nearby plants will bloom at the same time, check plant tags or references to make sure the colors will complement or contrast, rather than clash. The many layers of this garden include lilies, feather reedgrass and conifers.
Fall for foliage
Include plants with variegated and colorful foliage to give seasonlong color to your landscape. A burgundy-tinted leaf doesn't fade like a flower blossom; it lingers all season. Some plants, such as ornamental grasses and red-twig dogwood, also provide visual interest even through a long Midwest winter. At left, hostas, ferns and other shade-loving plants lend lush foliage.
Play up contrasts
The eye loves contrasts. Texture, color and shape can all provide contrast in a garden. Here, salvias, azaleas, miniature bearded irises and Euonymus shroud retaining walls.
Give plants the right TLC
Make sure you understand what kind of care your plants need. Many require special attention in the first couple of years, then can thrive even with some neglect. Avoid overwatering and overfertilizing plants.
Diagnose problems quickly
If your lawn or plants suddenly develop problems such as spots, holes or discoloration, identify the culprit. Look into soil conditions, sunlight, watering, fertilization, mowing, pests (such as the beetle damage shown at left) and diseases. If you're unsure of the problem, contact your county extension office or visit a local gardening center for help. Quick identification can save your landscaping.
Do your own thing
Although you can borrow an idea or two from your neighbors' landscapes, don't copy too much. Your soil, site, conditions and taste will differ. A landscape should be personal, and you'll enjoy it more if you do it just for you.