For some reason, when thinking about home beautification projects, landscaping seems to fall toward the back of the list behind painting, siding, or just “sprucing up”. Too few families really go all in on landscaping, mostly lacking a full awareness of just how impactful this can be on the appearance of any home.
To do a proper job of this, it is really important to have an eye toward color matching. Many of us do not have this skill, making the job much more difficult, though the most important person to please with the job is you. You are the one that has to look at it every time you come and go from the house, so there is no more important set of eyes than your own.
In this article, we will look not only at plants but also mulch types, border options, and even grass types. We will start with grass, then talk about borders, plants, and finally mulch. I don’t want to get into too much detail with this post so I will provide links to sites that have more detail about each topic.
Like most things related to landscaping, there are a lot of choices here depending on climate, shade, and soil. We will start from the 50,000 foot level and work down. There are basically 2 types of grasses; warm season that thrive in the Southern US, and cool season that thrive in the Northern US. Most of us live somewhere in between. I am in Virginia where it gets into the upper 90’s and dry in July and August and below freezing for weeks at a time in late January and February.
You should find out what type of grass is in your yard for starters, if you do not already know. The most popular types of grass across the country are, in alphabetical order, Bent, Bermuda, Centipede, Dichondra, Fescue, Kentucky Blue, Ryegrass, St. Augustine, and Zoysia.
Here is a very brief summation of each type:
Bent – cool weather grass mostly found on northern golf courses, frequently on putting greens. It needs lots of water and is impractical for home use. Special equipment is used to cut it and maintenance costs can be quite high.
Bermuda – warm weather grass, often found on golf courses through most of the midsection of the country. If properly fertilized and cut short in hot weather, it will spread in runners (also called stolons) and grow in just about any type of soil. It likes full sun and doesn’t do real well in the shade. Very durable. If it does not get enough water and burns up in the sun, it comes back almost immediately with the next rain. Takes awhile to get started from seed, requiring water a couple times per day.
Centipede – Mostly found in the Southeast, it is similar to Bermuda in that it grows in runners and likes to be cut short. It requires a lot of water but not much fertilizer. Like Bermuda, it is quite durable.
Dichondra – This is a Southwest grass, mostly found in California and Arizona. Needs lots of fertilizing and is prone to disease. It also grows in runners and needs lots of water. It really doesn’t look like grass at all but is still very popular in the West.
Fescue – Grows best in cooler areas in the central and northern US. It has a thin blade and likes shade. It does not tolerate full sun and is more frail than the varieties listed above. If it dries out and dies, it comes back spotty and not nearly as nice as it looked in the spring when it was wetter.
Kentucky Blue – Probably the most popular type of grass in the US, it does best in cooler climates and prefers sun most of the day. It has a beautiful dark green blade and is not nearly as durable as some of the runner grasses, but is stunning when well taken care of. Grows well from seeds.
Ryegrass – This is found where Fescue and Kentucky Blue are found. In fact it is frequently mixed into bags of Blue or Fescue due to its quick germination time. It comes in annual and perennial varieties. If you live in the middle swath of the country and want a green lawn all year, you can seed the lawn with winter rye in October (when your lawn is starting to die out for the winter) the day before a good rain, and you will have a stunning green lawn all winter. Even if you get some snow, when it melts the grass will still look great. Of course you might still be mowing the week of Christmas, but your lawn will remain beautiful.
St Augustine – This grass, as you might imagine, is best suited to the warm regions including Florida and the Gulf Coast area. It does not like cold weather at all, and requires a lot of moisture to thrive. This grass also spreads via runners and in the right environment is very robust and hard to control.
Zoysia – Zoysia is an extremely thick grass that grows throughout the middle of the country but mostly in the Eastern states from South Carolina up to Maryland. Zoysia grows very slowly and chokes out just about anything that tries to grow in it. It comes in sod or plug form. The plugs can take years to spread throughout the lawn, and the sod is quite expensive. In cold weather Zoysia turns brown until the weather starts getting hot again.
This should give you a few ideas for where to start with the lawn. If your yard is like most yards, you have a combination of a few of these along with a large variety of weeds, crab grass, and other unwanted things growing in there. If you want to have a nice lawn, you need to identify these things and look up ways to get rid of them. For example if you have a lot of crab grass, you need to put down something called a pre-emergent in the late winter to prevent crab grass from being able to germinate. This is crucial because you will never get rid of it all during the year.
If you have spots where grass does not want to grow, you might need to rent a tiller and till the area to break up the hard ground before seeding, depending on the type of grass you are wanting to have. Some types, like Bermuda, will grow on its own to cover most any type of ground once it is firmly established.
Getting a nice lawn in place is the number one task if you want to improve the curb appearance of your home. It can take a couple years to get things really looking good so try to come up with a plan for it and stick to the plan. Let’s move on to borders.
The border is the thing that separates your lawn from the flower beds and driveway. Beds always look better if there is something delineating them from whatever is next to them. There are not a ton of options with this, and they range from free to moderately expensive. You should consider the overall look you are after before choosing. In most cases you can change your mind and switch to something else long after the fact.
The most common choices for this are a small gully, metal, wood, or stone.
An inexpensive, in fact free, option is to simply dig a little gully between where the bed will go and the lawn using a straight end shovel or spade. To make the gully you push the shovel in maybe 3 inches at a slant, and then push it in from the other direction and remove the soil. You can curving the gully around in any direction you like. This is simple and a very popular method. It works best when your lawn is one of those listed above that do not have runners. If the lawn has runners, it is more difficult to keep it out of the beds since the runners will be constantly trying to grow across the gully.
The next option is metal. You can get 8-foot metal strips that are about 4 inches tall from Lowes or Home Depot for about $10/strip. They come with stakes that hold them down. You slice a thin trench with your shovel and tap the metal strip into it with a hammer, then tap the stakes in to hold it firmly in place. The metal bends easily so it can curve in whatever direction you want your beds to go. Runner grass will try to grow over the metal, but simply weed-eat along the base of the metal each time you mow.
The third option is wood. There are a lot of choices when it comes to wood borders. If you are going to use wood, be sure to get pressure treated wood because you are burying part of it in the ground and you don’t want it to rot away after a couple years. Some people opt for a simple 4×4 or even a railroad tie border. These are attractive and durable but do not bend so they are not ideal for beds that are not square or rectangular. Another option is to buy little sections of wood dowels that are lashed together with either metal or twine. These come in smaller 1 and 2 foot sections and they bend easily so you can put them around a bed of any shape.
Finally we have the stone option. These are typically about the size of a standard brick though usually a little thicker, and cone is a variety of earth tone colors. You can simply lay then on top of the ground around the outside of the bed, but they will move over time if you do this. The best way is to bury them a couple inches in the ground and place then next to each other. You can also place grout between them all if you are so inclined. This creates a strong bond between them to hold them in place and creates a strikingly beautiful look.
This is the most challenging decision you need to make because the options are nearly infinite. Very much depends on where you live and what grows naturally there. As a rule of thumb, you should stick to the plants that are natural to your area. It is the same with grass. If you try to grow Centipede in Illinois you will be sorely disappointed.
We will talk in general about a few different options, but it is crucial to figure out which grow best in your area. You might also walk around your yard and try to determine how you want it to look, not with specific plants necessarily but how you want it laid out. Would a bed around these trees be nice or maybe beds outlining parts of the perimeter of the yard? Would we like bird feeders and if so, do we want them hanging over lawn or mulch? What size and height should the plants be for the different parts of the yard? Before going to a nursery try to have a basic idea of what you want. It will help to keep your search more focused.
Once you have mapped out a plan, the next step is to go to a local nursery and just browse around, looking at both colorful bushes and shrubs as well at different types of trees, junipers, and other non-flowering plants. Ask what grows naturally in your area, show them your plan, and elicit help. They will be able to give you all kinds of ideas if they can see a picture of the layout of the yard and some idea of how you want the plants distributed.
There is no need to show pictures here because there a near infinite number of choices depending on what part of the country you live in.
Presumably your landscaping project will include at least some mulch. Mulch is extremely popular in most parts of the country because it goves the beds a nice dark finished look. There are 2 basic types: organic (typically shredded wood, straw, wood chips, or even chopped leaves or paper) and inorganic (rubber, plastic, or fabric).
The organic type will help plants grow because it decomposes into the ground. However as a consequence, you need to refresh it every year. Inorganic never has to be refreshed, though it will need to be cleaned out because leaves and sticks will still get in it. The inorganic type is much more expensive and not practical for large areas of mulch.
We will first look at the organic ones. The most popular is a shredded or “double shredded” hardwood mulch. This is used widely in commercial and residential settings to beautify flower beds. It helps the plants and keeps down weeds when applied in proper amounts, which is 3 to 4 inches. It can be dyed and comes in earth tone colors ranging from black thru a variety of dark and light tans to a reddish hue. The most common color is a medium brown. You can get the color that works best with your surroundings. You can get this in bags or delivered by the scoop, which is 1 scoop from an excavator. There are probably 10 or 15 bags in a scoop.
Straw is best used for vegetable gardens. It does well at retaining moisture, adding organic matter back into the soil, and controlling weeds.
Wood chips are similar to shredded mulch but instead of soft strands, these are actually hunks of wood. They also come in bags and are practical for smaller bed projects.
If you have a wooded yard, you can shred the leaves to make an inexpensive but very effective mulch. You can simply attach a bagger to your lawn mower and mow through a pile of leaves to wind up with a very good mulch that also puts nutrients back into the soil.
Sometimes newspaper is put down in the beds and mulch placed on top of the paper. This helps keep down weeds and the paper degrades over time.
Rubber is nice because it lasts forever and the color does not fade. It is less effective at managing weeds than the organic types and of course does not add anything to the soil in terms of nutrients.