Installing Ornamental Landscapes
The information below should help you install an ornamental landscape yourself (DIY) or provide you with information to help you understand what a contractor should be doing. Proper site preparation, hardscape construction, and plant installation will ensure a successful landscape outcome.
This is your landscape, you have the right to specify particular things — like type of soil and/or mulch. You need not take what a contractor has on hand from a previous project. It may have been right for that project, but is it right for yours? Don’t be wooed by cheap. Is it the right soil? The right compost? The right mulch? The right gravel or stone? The right plant for the right place?
If you have questions about what is presented below, or about what a contractor is telling you they will do or provide — particularly if it is contrary to what is presented below (or on your plan), please feel free to contact me. I might not know all about construction, but I know a LOT about plants, and I might be able to find other answers as well.
Also, though I’m not a contractor, you might consider having me do project coordination or plant procurement for you. I can do either or both of these things at my coaching hourly rate. Contact me to discuss these options.
DIY or Hire a Contractor?
Decide how much, if any, of the installation you will do yourself. Hopefully, you did this before I created your design. But now is a good time to think about this again.
If you want to do at least some of the work yourself, do research online or at the library or otherwise seek out information and guides from reputable sources that will help you know enough to ensure success. Be realistic about your skills. Some contractors are willing to work with a DIYer, others are not.
Working with Install Contractors
If you want to hire contractors to do parts of the installation, use my resources list as well as recommendations of your friends or other trusted entities to create a short list of contractors to contact. I don’t like to specifically recommend any one contractor, but I do in some situations because I may know that a specific contractor would be just the right fit for your needs. And of course, I’m biased, and have my own favorite contractors. And yes, I will be happy to refer you to who I like best. :-)
I recommend getting at least 3 bids for each part of the project you are hiring out. General contractors can usually do all parts of an install project. They may be more or less expensive, but it will be one entity coordinating all phases of the project, and that very often makes a job progress smoothly. Specialty contractors can be extremely good at doing their special thing. They, too, may be more or less expensive, but having to coordinate several contractors may be a daunting task.
Communication Is Paramount
Your contractor can’t know what you want if you don’t tell him/her. Everyone’s interpretation of the drawn plan will vary from slightly to a great deal. If you want your stream, or patio, or deck, or whatever to look a specific way, show the contractor a photo that closely represents your idea. Chances are, I supplied inspiration photos with your plan for this purpose. So you have images that describe our design vision to show the contractor (or to remind you if you are your own contractor). You might ask the contractor to show you photos of possibilities or samples they’ve built. On the plan I create for you, I may write things like natural looking dry stream, but your idea of natural and the contractor’s idea may be completely different things. Photos can really help them see your vision.
On many of my plans, particularly concept plans, I give you (the homeowner/client) choice over some plant selection. If you see client choice next to any plant name on the plan, it means you (the client) are going to choose the specific plant, or cultivar, or color, etc. For these client choice plants, refer to the plant list sections of this knowledge base and browse until you see something you like. Example: In the case of creeping/filler plants, you are to choose the plant you like. On this website, you consult the category called Plant Lists—General and find a list called Creepers. Check it out; view the slide show. Print out the photo or write down the plant’s botanical name from the list. Give it to the contractor so they know what to order.
Here is a case in point. A client was concerned that the contractor she hired wasn’t planting the heuchera she had chosen. He brought in a different cultivar. She showed me the photo and data sheet she’d printed from the internet after she’d searched to find just what she wanted. I asked her if she’d given the contractor a copy of that data sheet with her selection noted. No, she said, he didn’t ask for it. So I asked the client if he had asked the client what was her choice of heuchera when he saw the notation your choice on the plant list next to the word heuchera. He said, no, he thought it meant he could supply whatever he liked. OK, that was a learning moment for me. I have changed my verbiage from your choice to client’s choice. But in my defense, the plan had the client’s name on it. If I’m preparing a plan for a client, not a contractor, isn’t it implied that the word your refers to the client? I guess not. So the client and contractor didn’t communicate, and it paved the way to hard feelings.
Communication is absolutely key to getting what you want. Many contractors will try to do the bare minimum of what they perceive is being requested. Or they may simply interpret the plan unlike you do. Incredibly, many contractors don’t really know plants and horticulture all that well. They may think any heuchera will suffice. Same thing goes for all plants where there are many varieties/cultivars from which to choose — roses, hostas, Japanese maples, hydrangeas, red-twig dogwood, ferns, etc.
So, when you are showing your plan to the perspective contractor for getting their estimate, if they don’t ask you for your supplemental list or photos for items that say client’s choice or see photos, then you either want to find another contractor, or be proactive and have the things that are your choice already printed out and ready for contractor to take with them. They need this information to make a good estimate. You need to be explicit about what you want. Please speak up. Ask questions. Make demands. It’s not being demanding. It’s part of the process.
Site Preparation, Hardscape, and Irrigation
Site preparation includes clearing, grading, and drainage remediation as necessary. If you will be using in-ground sprinkler irrigation, your contractor may want to do that install during this site preparation phase. If you opt for drip or soaker-type irrigation, chances are it will be installed after the plants are in the ground and before the final top-dressing of mulch is laid. Some landscape contractors can install irrigation, but some prefer to leave it to specialists. If you want irrigation, be sure to include it when you are getting installation bids.
Rather than bringing in a lot of new soil, use earth-moving equipment to move existing soil from some areas (like where hardscape will be installed) and build up other areas where mounds are indicated on the plan. Of course, if you have really nasty or damaged soil, you may be faced with needing new soil, but I’ve found this is not usually the case.
CAUTION! Do not work overly wet soil of any type, but particularly if it’s clay! If we are in our winter wet cycle, you will be doing yourself a favor to wait until it dries out. Only bad things can come by working overly wet soil. So plan site preparation according to the weather.
Preparing for hardscape areas
Areas for patios, paths, dry stream features will be excavated about 2″–4″ lower than their finished heights, depending on what is being built. Walls and raised planters (that might be necessary to solve problems with extremely hard or impermeable soils — see next section for more information on this) should be constructed and back-filled with gravel and existing soil. You’ll need to bring in gravel, sand, stone, concrete, landscape fabric, etc. for building these hardscape elements. This is likely the time when you’ll at least begin any other build structures like fences, arbors, pergolas, sheds, and water or fire features.
Preparing for planting areas
Build mounds of exiting soil or clean fill to within about 4″–8″ of desired finished height. The additional height will be gained once the planting soil and mulch are added. Don’t build planting mounds out of planting mix and/or compost because as those soils compact deteriorate, it will cause the mound to lose up to half of its height. This will adversely affect not only aesthetics, but drainage and planting depth (which is particularly detrimental to woody plants).
If your existing soil is very rocky or hard pan soil that is so hard you can’t break it apart with a pick axe (and it usually doesn’t drain well either), you will need to create mounds or raised planting areas with new soil. Since the existing soil is too hard or too poorly-draining, you’ll be adding soil to a depth appropriate to plant whatever is planned for that location of your garden. It is often advisable to blend the existing and new soils together where they meet, to a depth of a couple inches. At the very least, rough up the hard or rocky soil.
Then shape mounds or partially fill the raised beds using clean fill soil — not fluffy planting mix. Essentially, you are creating the same planting areas base as described 2 paragraphs ago, only you’ve had to bring in the soil rather just moving existing soil. Choose clean fill has good bit of clay content, so it will be heavier, moisture retentive, and a good base that will not shrink in height over time.
Remember, do not work overly wet soil of any type, but particularly if it’s clay!
Amend Poor Soil for Planting Areas
This step may or may not be necessary. You can skip this step if you have lovely sandy loam existing soil. If you have such loam, do your site grading so that the mounds are of correct height. You will only need to plant, then top off your garden with a thin layer of compost followed by another layer of weed-preventing mulch (like leaf mold). You may or may not need to bring in additional soil to build the planting mounds.
Similarly, you can skip this amendment step if you’ve specified that I select only plants that are suited to your site’s existing soil. But if you’ve not made this stipulation and you have either heavy clay soil or extremely sandy soil, it’s very important to add compost to entire planting areas, including raised beds or mounds. Compost improves texture and fertility of all soils. It will make clay soil faster draining and also make sandy soil more moisture retentive. Compost is amazing stuff!
You may not have to amend, and some schools of thought are now saying it’s really not good to amend. But in my opinion, if you have urban or suburban property, it has been brutalized by humanity, and is in need of amendment. And studies have shown that amending entire beds is better than amending only the planting hole — particularly in the case of clay soils.
Please read about amending soil, compost and mulch. If you’re going to amend, I recommend using compost either right on top or incorporated into the soil to improve texture, and topdressing with leaf mold mulch. Stay away from composts designed for vegetable gardens because they generally contain sand which is used to help with drainage in blended soils. That is fine for a planting mix, but when sand is added to clay, it makes concrete! You are adding the compost to lighten the poorly draining clay, not make it harder and MORE poorly draining.
There is usually no need to till the compost into the soil. I’d say the exception is badly compacted or hard pan soil. Just spread it on top and let the rain and worms till it for you. If you’ve got really poor soil, gently till a layer of about 1″–2″ of compost into the poor soil to a depth of 4″–6″. You are trying to create soil with about 10% compost content by volume.
CAUTION! Do not work overly wet soil of any type, but particularly if it’s clay! If we are in our wet cycle, you will be doing yourself a favor to wait until it dries out. Only bad things can come by working overly wet soil.
Prepare Planting Areas
Bring in planting mix appropriate for the types of plants to be planted. Most 2-way or 3-way blends will suffice, or simply use clean sandy loam soil. If your poor soil has first been amended with compost, then about 4″ of planting mix is generally enough. Spread it everywhere except where there will be hardscape, walking paths, or rocky stream features… areas that will have no plantings. During the grading process you will have already created any mounds and valleys of the poor soil. cover all of these undulating features that will receive plantings. If your poor soil has NOT been amended with compost, you should use a bit more planting mix in the areas where there will be more deeply rooted plants (trees). What is to be avoided at all cost is digging holes into hard clay soil then amending that hole as it receives it’s plant. What this scenario creates is similar to a clay pot with no drain hole in the bottom. Two things can happen. The plant may grow until it’s roots hit the cold, wet clay (or hard dry in the summer) soil and decide they don’t want to go into that inhospitable area. Then they will circle around and eventually they will become root-bound. The other thing that can easily happen is that during times of much watering (our winters) the planting hole can fill with water. Very many plants intensely dislike having ‘wet feet’… their roots being in standing water. For many plants, having a too-wet root zone is a death sentence… death by both drowning and smothering.
When to Plant
It perplexes me that in our area (Western Cascades Pacific Northwest) Mother Nature provides the best environment for baby plants to take hold and thrive in the fall, but the nurseries provide most plants in the spring. I sure wish they’d obey Mother Nature a little better. So if you have the luxury of time and a place where you can create your own small nursery in an area that is protected from summer’s harsh afternoon sun (from the west), go ahead and buy when the pickings are good in the springtime. Then wait until fall to do your construction/planting. Or… if you don’t mind spending time being home to both weed and water often during the summertime, you can plant in summer (but not when the temperatures are much over 75°). The main liabilities for summertime planting are the investment in water and your labor in keeping the weeds in check. There WILL be weeds after installation. LOTS OF WEEDS. I like to warn people that they will weed like they’ve never weeded before for about 3 years after their installation. This is because turning or disturbing the soil ‘plants’ all the dormant weed seeds that are sitting on top of the soil just waiting for their opportunity to grow. And believe me, they will grow… and grow… and grow. You will still get weeds in winter, but fewer… somewhat fewer.
Choose a nursery from which to order the plants on your plant list. I list nurseries and a few plant procurement companies whose job it is to locate the plants for you. Some may give you close to a wholesale price (others may not), but they will all charge a fee for acquiring the plants. The good thing about using plant procurement is they have many resources on which to draw… and they keep tabs on who has what in stock. Two of my favorite procurement resources are All Season Plants & R&M Plant Procurement (see my resources list for contact info). They sell to contractors, designers and DIYers at prices most retail nurseries can’t beat. And they deliver! Nurseries may make for more fun shopping, and they can sometimes answer your questions and make suggestions. But one nursery may not have all of the plants I’ve included on your plan so you need to be prepared to shop around. This is one way a procurement house makes your life easier. Both of the above procurement companies are good at suggesting alternatives if they don’t have what is on my plant list. Please feel free to contact me to approve a plant substitution they may suggest. Substitutes can be fine, but if the plant is in the plan to serve a specific function or be of a very specific size or color, then waiting to see if it’s available elsewhere may be warranted—even if it takes a while.
You can hire me to procure plants for you. The good thing about letting me help you is that since I know what I intended when I designed your garden. I know what will make suitable substitutions when what I specified is not available. I also will immediately be able to tell if a specimen is formed to my desired vision—and other such aesthetics. I do such procurement for my usual coaching fee, and transfer the nursery’s prices directly to you without further markup (you can even pay and make the formal order with me just doing the work of choosing).
Transplanting Existing Plants
Transplanting is a shocking experience for most plants. Many plants intensely dislike their roots being jostled or exposed to air or heat. And essentially, when you are planting potted plants from the nursery, you are ‘transplanting’. It’s not quite as shocking for the plant as being ripped out of it’s happy home in the ground, but it still is stressful.
It’s best to plant or transplant when air temperatures are below 75-ish and on a cloudy day. Even better if the next few days after planting can the beneficiaries of gentle, penetrating rains. As much as plants don’t like being moved when it’s very hot, most plants also don’t enjoy going into cold or wet soil. Planting in late fall, winter or early spring is ok so long as the soil is not waterlogged (which it often is here on the west side of the Cascades in winter), and the temperatures aren’t close to freezing.
You will find the best plant selection at nurseries in springtime. But the very best time to plant in our area—Pacific Northwest west side of the Cascades—is mid-fall just as we start our fall/winter rain cycle. Because of our mild winters with good water supply, very many plants continue to grow roots all winter long. This causes them to have lush, full top growth in the spring. And it lets them get acclimated to their new home when they only have to worry about growing roots—not foliage, too—and there is plenty of water.
At planting time, if you aren’t ready to install the plants when they arrive from the nursery, stage them in a protected, shady area, and water them if it’s a hot day, or if they are dry. If you are ready to plant, make sure the plants are well-watered in their pots, then move them to their planting locations and get into the ground before their soil dries out. If they can’t be planted before the soil dries out, or kept out of direct sun (particularly in summertime), and water them occasionally until they can get planted— particularly if it’s a hot day.
How to Plant