What Is Landscaping?

How We Define Landscaping

Image of garden bench with coreopsis and zinnias.
Sit down in style: garden bench landscaped with coreopsis, salvia, and zinnias. David Beaulieu

By definition, to be properly said to be "landscaping" (verb form) a property, you must be making improvements (or maintaining past improvements) on that property's grounds -- either in a practical or in an aesthetic  way. In an extended sense, everything on your property that stands outside of the home itself is part of a property's landscaping (noun). A related word is "landscape." When you landscape your yard, you are engaging in landscaping.

Simply put, if you can look out your window and see a fixed feature in your yard affecting the overall aesthetics or practical functioning of your property, then that feature is part of the "landscaping" of the property. Note also that some practical features of one's landscaping, such as underground drainage systems, are of critical importance even though they exist unseen. 

House and Landscaping: Living in Harmony

While the above furnishes a straightforward, working definition of the term, "landscaping," first-time homeowners will often profit more from an overview of the kind of work that they can do (or hire a professional to do) in order to improve their yards. So below, I will offer a quick glance at some of the different kinds of landscaping features you can install on your property. Not every homeowner will want to include everything discussed below, but most everyone will want to include at least some of features on this list.

Before we begin, there is a fundamental question to ponder. Should a house and its landscaping be harmonious with each other? I'm not talking about practical concerns, such as planting shade trees to the south of your home to reduce energy costs. No, I'm talking about appearance. Should the way your house looks influence landscaping decisions such as plant selection and arrangement, or whether to build a wooden deck versus a brick patio?

Some homeowners like to color coordinate their house and their landscaping. That is easy enough, but how far should you go in harmonizing house and yard aesthetically? For example, if the style of your home does not qualify it as a "cottage," can you still landscape in the cottage-garden style? I would say yes, but only you can decide on the degree to which you should strive for such harmony, because everyone's taste is different. There's no doubt that some types of hardscape features fit better with some houses than with others. A rustic-style deck, for example, will look much better attached to a log cabin than to an ultra-modern contemporary. 

Achieving harmony is sometimes possible intuitively. But if you are more serious about complementing your house with your landscaping, you really need to take matters to the next level: landscape design, which is essentially an art form (although this discipline never loses sight of practical considerations, as well).

Types of Landscaping Features

Here are some types of landscaping features.

Don't feel obligated to include each and every one of these in your own landscaping! There are wonderful landscapes that leave out half of these (or more). The following is just a quick sampling.

Before You Start Landscaping

You now have some idea of the scope of landscaping. But what else do you need to consider before you do anything drastic to your yard?

The very first question that you have to ask yourself is this: Do I plan on staying on this property forever, or will I be placing it in a real estate listing at some point?

Answering the question will clarify your priorities and help establish an overarching idea for your home landscaping projects. If you are home landscaping for yourself as a lifelong resident on the property, you need only consult your own tastes. But if your property is fated to be a real estate listing, you need to think in terms of "curb appeal": You are essentially landscaping for other people's tastes -- namely, the tastes of potential real estate buyers.

Avoid Costly Landscaping Mistakes

As in other aspects of your life, some of the best home landscaping decisions result from learning what not to do. For example, some do-it-yourselfers who are excited about the idea of starting from a blank slate decide that they will begin a home landscaping makeover by removing a large tree from their landscape. The American Nursery & Landscape Association, however, points out how bad an idea this can be:

"In one study, 83% of Realtors believe that mature trees have a 'strong or moderate impact' on the salability of homes listed for under $150,000; on homes over $250,000, this perception increases to 98% (Source: 'American Forests, Arbor National Mortgage')."

So let's look at some strategies for acquiring information about enhancing real estate value through home landscaping.

A spiffy home landscaping design increases real estate value. By how much? Well, the average figure yielded by studies over the years is a range of from 7% to 15%. Let's just use the 15% number as an example, even though that figure is on the high end. Putting that percentage increase into perspective: for real estate valued in the $200,000 - $225,000 range (before considering its home landscaping), an effective home landscaping design could add $30,000 to its value.

How often do you get to make a $30,000 decision? It's important that such decisions not be based on a whim. In making a $30,000 decision about a stock investment, you'd want hard facts to guide you, right? At the very least, you'd like to hear some expert opinions. You should seek the same kinds of guides in the matter of home landscaping design.

But what might those guides be? And how do you ascertain what kinds of home landscaping represent the current trends for the real estate market? Fortunately, the resources for home landscaping design ideas are so numerous that your challenge will be not in finding the ideas, but in sifting through all of them and prioritizing. In addition to the selling trends, you'll always want to provide your home landscaping with as much potential as possible for fall color and beautiful winter scenes -- because this never goes out of style.

Where to Find Good Landscaping Ideas

Below are just a few tips for finding home landscaping ideas:

  • Observe what other people are doing with their home landscaping designs. When possible, discuss with them the reasons behind their choice of home landscaping elements and the intentions behind them.
  • Magazines, books, television and the Web all provide an abundance of information on what kinds of home landscaping designs are currently "selling."
  • Consult with a professional in the landscape design field.
  • If you don't want to pay for a landscape designer's advice, at least try to mine some ideas from your local nursery.
  • Real estate agents see the reactions of potential buyers to home landscaping day in and day out; consult with them on trends.

Remember, potential buyers may not share your personal tastes - that's what necessitates all this research on your part, as the seller. For instance, you may not mind spending time puttering around outside, may have no desire for water features on your landscape, and may not care about winter color. But the trend has been for homebuyers to seek:

  • Low maintenance home landscapes. For instance, if there's a choice between a dwarf version of a tree and a larger version, choose the dwarf tree-- it won't need to be pruned as much.
  • Artificial ponds, fountains and waterfalls. The most striking landscape designs have a focal point, or accent. A well-executed water feature is a focal point that can set your property apart from the rest.
  • Year-round visual interest. Evergreens and many berry-producing shrubs are excellent antidotes to winter bleakness.

Make Your Landscaping Beautiful Year-Round

The trend mentioned earlier toward home buyers seeking year-round interest is worth expanding upon. Visual interest goes beyond color. For instance, you can create winter scenes through the employment of hardscape design elements such as stone walls, gazebos and arbors. To soften up such hardscape features, include tall ornamental grasses or other graceful elements. In fact, even without the hardscape elements, the tall grasses can provide you with wintertime beauty in the yard.

Incidentally, don't think that just because it may be a hot and humid day at the time you happen to read this article, talk of "winter scenes" is out of line. The time to work on furnishing your home landscaping with the potential for winter scenes is not when it's cold outside and two feet of snow lies on the ground. It's your spring and summer work that will determine how good your landscaping looks in winter. After all, it's pretty hard to plant ornamental grasses in the winter! Much of your hardscape design work also should be done in good weather.

In addition to providing winter scenes, don't overlook ways that you can inject maximum color into the spring and fall landscapes, too:

  1. If you plant bulbs in the fall, you won't have to wait until May for spring color.
  2. Some perennials, if cut back properly after their first blooming, will produce a second set of blooms later in the summer or in early fall.
  1. While trees such as maples receive all the accolades for fall color, don't neglect to plant some of the shrubs and vines resplendent in fall color, as listed in The Top 10 Shrubs and Vines for Fall Color.
  2. Don't pass up 2-for-1 deals. Euonymus alatus, or "burning bush" doubles as a plant valuable both for fall and winter scenes. In the fall it is valued for its foliage. A deciduous shrub, its potential for winter scenes lies in its bark. Protruding from Euonymus alatus stems is a corky membrane that gives them an oddly squarish shape. This shape traps and holds snow, making for some terrific winter scenes. Because burning bushes are invasive plants, however, make sure you keep in under control or look for alternatives.

Where Do I Go From Here?

Now that you have read my overview of the different kinds of landscaping work that you can do to improve a property, you may be interested in consulting the following articles for related information:

  1. Create a Beautiful, Functional Yard to Enhance Your Property's Value
  2. Balancing Aesthetic and Practical Needs in Your Landscaping