NEW IPO Logo - by Charles Larry Home Search Browse About IPO Staff Links

Landscaping basics DO's and DON'Ts

Dave Robson

April is the start of the gardening season, the time to physically start working the soil, planting trees and shrubs, and thinking about fertilizing the lawn. Hoes, rakes, spades, shovels, mowers and tillers are cleaned and sharpened in anticipation of the months ahead.

It's also time to take some of the landscaping concepts and incorporate them into the surroundings. Landscaping concepts aren't hard and fast rules. Think of them as partially set concrete there is some foundation, but still some give and take.

We're going to take a look at the front yard or the so-called "public" area. This is what people see traveling down the road or street. Landscaping is more formal. The yard really isn't used for recreation or relaxing.

Below are some of the common rules, and some of the common mistakes. Take no offense if you are "breaking" one of the following rules. Keep an open mind and consider the reasoning and alternatives.

Soften the edges of buildings. This is really the basic reason for landscaping.

The human eye enjoys curves more than straight lines. There are lots of analogies other than landscaping, some of them pretty darn close to being sexist. But it's a known psychological phenomenon curves are more pleasing than straight lines. It has to do with rhythm, which was mentioned in previous columns. Curves indicate movement, and movement is rhythm. There are degrees of curves and thus degrees of rhythm.

Buildings are essentially vertical and horizontal lines. Plants are used to soften these lines, giving the landscape more of a natural appearance. However...

Avoid the so-called "bird dog" landscaping approach. This is one of the common landscaping practices as we try to emulate our neighbors who we think know more about landscaping than we do, and actually don't.

Bird dog landscaping is setting tall, pyramidal forms (junipers, pines, firs, spruces and some yews) at the corners of the house and low growing plants (again, probably yews) in the front. What you end up with are plants that are "pointers" and "setters."

Pyramidal forms have strong vertical lines. When the goal is to soften the corners of the house with rounded forms, why would you use a pyramidal shape? A better choice would be to go with a small rounded tree such as a crabapple or a large rounded shrub such as a viburnum at the corner of the house. Of course this requires you to... Consider the "front door - eaves" rule.

Find the bottom center of the front door. Draw an imaginary line two-thirds to three-quarters up the side of the house to the eaves.

When plants are mature, they shouldn't be above this imaginary line. For trees, we view the center of the crown, canopy or limbs as

David Robson is an Extension Educator, Horticulture, at the Springfield Extension Center, Cooperative Extension Service, University of Illinois. You can write to Robson in care of Illinois Country Living, P.O. Box 3787, Springfield, IL 62708. Telephone: 217-782-6515. E-Mail:


the top part, not really the top branch. For shrubs, we consider the top of them.

This doesn't prevent you from using "setters." It allows you to vary the heights of the plants. You can use some yews as hedges, but can add other plants as well. Remember. though...

Keep it as natural looking as possible. The landscape shouldn't call dramatic attention to itself. The land, house and plantings should appear as one. This is difficult to comprehend at times.

Extend some plantings out from the corners. You might put some groundcovers or low growing shrubs under a tree or stemmy shrub at the corner of the house. The object is to keep the eye moving around or away from the house. Extending a row of yews past the corner softens the edges.

There is no written law that evergreens have to be used in the front. We tend to choose them because they provide some greenery throughout the year. Consider incorporating some small deciduous shrubs for variety, but...

Don't cover the foundation entirely. Sometimes leaving gaps in the landscape so people can see the foundation gives the landscape a more informal approach. More importantly, it avoids the "floating" house syndrome. The foundation ties the house to the ground; blocking it completely may make the house appear on air.

Usually, not blocking the view of the front steps is enough to keep the house tied down. Stand back in the yard and look at the house. If it floats, consider removing or replacing some plants. If the front steps are old and in poor condition, consider replacing them. The same applies with sidewalks.

Another key aspect of naturalizing the surroundings is the placement of rocks and boulders. Neither is found lying on top of the ground by itself. Usually, large stones are partially buried and in groups. Try to do the same. It may mean digging a shallow hole and backfilling, but the look is more pleasing. Whatever you do...

Don't use white rock in the landscape around plants. Ever. I'd like to say avoid it altogether, but that's difficult considering rural roads and driveways.

White is the most dominant color. Close your eyes in a restaurant sometime and then open them. The first color you see is white, whether it's the napkins, tablecloths, plates, clothes or food.

Is the point of landscaping to see white rock under plants? Hardly. We don't want to call attention to the rock. Besides, the white rock usually starts altering the soil pH, leading to chlorosis and death of plants.

Limestone is relatively cheap and easy to come by, hence the reason we use it. Marble chips are just a fancy form of limestone and eventually do the exact same thing.

If you are going to use rock, use river rock or pea gravel. The grays and browns of the rock are more natural looking and less likely to affect the soil chemistry. The cost isn't that much more for landscaping purposes. Before you start digging, locate all gas, electric, water, sewer, septic, telephone and other utility lines. That may mean calling JULIE at 1-800-892-0123 to get the utilities to locate the lines for you. Don't rely on your memory. (Next month, some more rules, and landscaping the backyard or private areas.)


|Home| |Search| |Back to Periodicals Available| |Table of Contents| |Back to Illinois Country Living 1996|
Illinois Periodicals Online (IPO) is a digital imaging project at the Northern Illinois University Libraries funded by the Illinois State Library