Feb 29, 2008

Where to Landscape First?

A small space can still make a big impactA small space can still make a big impact.
Kelly in Atherton recently asked:
"We've got a large lot but not a huge budget. Should we start our landscaping with the front yard or the back?"

Kelly, the short, and probably unhelpful, answer is: it depends. I wrote a while back about the psychological differences between front and back yards, which boils down to this: your front yard is your "public" face, while your back yard is your "private" space. Determining which is more important to you will be the first step in making your decision.

Your landscape designer should have some way of helping you prioritize what you will want and need from your new garden spaces. Sometimes this is done with a simple questionnaire; these are usually good for helping determine the functionalities your yard will need to support (e.g. a vegetable garden or swing set), or "macro" preferences such as favorite colors. However, often they ask you for answers you just don't know yet (isn't it the designer's job to help you determine whether your soil is compacted?).

Other times, the designer delves a little deeper to find out what a garden means to you, not just what parts you envision it containing. The intimacy of this approach can yield powerful results: scents that return you to the best memories of your life, symbols and metaphors that inspire you, and perhaps just as importantly, an awareness of elements that will be best avoided.

One crucial consideration to which you've already alluded is your budget. The good designer is a steward of your money — our job is to help fulfill as many of your most important wishes as possible with the money you have. (For that reason, it's important to not understate your budget: our designs can only be as good as the information we're given.) In your case, you might have two options: develop the entire property to a lower level of finish (e.g. using concrete for a patio instead of natural stone), or develop one area of the property at a time.

In the latter option, my approach would be to develop a master design concept for the entire property, then develop more detailed plans for the areas that are most important to you now. So if you know you'll want an outdoor dining room for entertaining, we'll focus on that area and its related spaces first — but we won't lose sight of the bigger picture in the meantime, and can pick up where we left off when you have the budget to develop your second most important area. What's more, this gives your contractor a sense of the ultimate plan for the landscape as well, which may allow them to help you realize some efficiencies in construction (e.g. placing conduit beneath hardscaping for future landscape lighting, or installing capped irrigation lines for future planting areas). It's been my experience that most contractors are also happy to discuss the potential costs and phasing of master concepts, and to offer ideas to make sure you'll actually be able to afford those brilliant ideas.

It sounds obvious, but ultimately you're the one living with your yard day after day. Figure out what spaces absolutely must be transformed to improve the quality of your life at home — maybe a beautiful approach to your front door is more important that that dining space after all — and you'll be well on your way to knowing how to spend your money most wisely.

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