The garden guru: Design your landscape step by step, element by element

When it comes time to design (or redesign) a home landscape, think of it incrementally. Start with the most general areas that by necessity, have to come first. Then, as time, money and energy allow, work your way to the finish line. Let's try to bring order to the process.

Turf has to come first. You really don't have a landscape if you don't have some kind of planting covering the bare ground. Sure, you may use ground covers over a portion, but it's a lawn that usually fills the biggest voids and does so most easily. Determine where it is that you need to have lawn grass, then be sure that it's successfully growing there.

Shade trees are next. They may take 5 to 10 years to develop, so get them on their way as soon as you can. Choose their planting sites carefully. Use them to frame the garden, planting off to the sides and away from center points of the yard. Be sure they don't align with other trees up and down the block. Choose healthy vigorous specimens, and, whenever possible, plant them in late fall or winter, to allow them the maximum time to become established before the summer heat. Choose quality. Let a certified nursery professional advise you of the best type for your needs.

Large shrubs are your third highest priority. They form the framework of your entire garden design. Odds are that they'll go in at the same time as the turf grass and shade trees. Use them to frame the corners of your house and, if needed, as a privacy screen along the boundary. Choose dependable types that will grow to the height and width you need, but not beyond. Avoid formal shearing to lessen your workload. Again, a local fulltime nursery professional can offer good options.

The rest of your shrubs will be next in the chain of planting events. Again, choose types that suit the space you have available for them. Avoid shearing to keep plants in bounds. Know how tall and wide each plant needs to grow, and choose accordingly.

Vines and ground covers finish off the woody parts of your landscape plantings. Compared to shade trees and large shrubs, these tertiary plants grow to their full mature forms much more quickly, usually in just a year or two, so you can leave them until later if time and money require.

Annuals and perennials are naturals for any great garden. They're also moving targets, in that you'll be making changes and modifications a couple of times every year. Once your shrubs and ground covers are in place and growing, you'll see places where small spots of color would be useful. Perhaps it is to define the doorway, or it could be to draw attention to a fountain or other landscaping embellishment. Use color at the most strategic parts of your garden, and sometimes you just don't know where those will be until things begin to mature. It may be nothing more than a small group of attractive containers spilling over with annual color, but that color becomes the exclamation point of your landscaping efforts.

Garden art is the finishing touch to your landscape design. It might be a statue, fountain, sundial, birdbath, antique chimney pot, weather vane or old garden bench ... or, name your own outdoor collectible. Let it highlight your gardens, and let your plantings show it off to the best possible advantage. Everybody comes out a winner.

If all of this sounds a little too disjointed and disorganized, you can avoid trial and error by starting with a more formal landscape design. Drawn to scale, it will let you plan for each element of the garden. However, you'll still want to follow this same series of thoughts as you do your sketching or as you work with your landscape designer.

Neil Sperry publishes Gardens Magazine and hosts "Texas Gardening" on WBAP AM/FM Saturdays noon until 1 and Sundays 9-noon. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.