Curb appeal is often cited as the most crucial factor when preparing your property for sale and landscaping is certainly the star player right next to your homes architectural style and elevation. Given Utah’s arid, high-desert climate, planning your landscaping with these considerations in mind is vitally important. As discussed in our most recent blog, water conservation (will link when the previous blog is live) has never been more critical with Utah being in a severe drought cycle and your landscape plan should consider drought tolerances.
Whether you are planning new landscaping for your construction project or are looking for ways to reduce your water usage, it’s important to realize that there are numerous plant species that can survive at our altitude of 6,500+ feet, however many will require excessive water use. Rather than try to replace your favorite shrub from wherever you lived prior to Park City, we suggest instead you look to native and adaptable species that can thrive in our climate. I love this species locator provided by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas because it allows you to search for shrubs, trees, succulents, grasses, and vines by not just your location, but also the sun/shade condition of plant beds, as well as your flowering preferences to add seasonal color. Locally, the Utah State University Extension Program offers a plethora of information and courses about lawn and yard care, trees & shrubs, and soil care. You can learn more here.
Do a little reading.
One of the best books I’ve come across in my quest to learn more about landscaping at altitude since I moved here from Australia (another dry place!) in the 1980’s which is also considered a landscaping “Bible” by enthusiastic gardeners in and around Park City is appropriately titled “High Altitude Planting” by Amy Barrett.
It’s available at Park City Gardens off Highway 224, which is the boutique at Park City Nursery, and offers incredibly helpful advice. While you are there, pop into the Garden Café and say hi to my daughter Alexia, she is working as a barista this Summer.
If you are like me and don’t consider yourself a DIY expert when it comes to landscaping, chances are good you’ll be hiring professional help. We are fortunate that along the Wasatch Back, there are numerous highly qualified landscaping contractors who can help maintain your landscaping and several of them also offer design services by trained landscape architects. Here are some suggested steps and questions to consider when venturing down this path.
1. Start this process EARLY. Every quality contractor in any discipline related to home construction is generally booked at least a season in advance so plan accordingly.
2. Establish a reasonable budget, always a clever idea, right? For new construction, on a typical ½ acre sloping Park City lot, a reasonable budget for a fully landscaped yard is at least $200,000. If you are looking to enhance an existing landscape plan, it’s hard to recommend a standard budget level because every condition will be different. A good rule of thumb is it will cost more than you expect, however the investment will reward you if you follow the rest of these suggestions.
3. Develop a list of three companies to interview – talk to neighbors and owners of homes you admire whose attributes are similar to your property, whether it be sloping, flat or somewhere in between. Make sure to seek apples when comparing to other apples.
4. The landscape plan is a critical component. A good local landscape architect or designer will listen to your desires and translate that into a plan that will allow you to obtain legitimate bids. Remember, selected plants, shrubs and even trees must be sturdy enough to endure the contrast of being nestled under 6 – 12 inches of snow five months a year followed by our arid growing season. Be sure to consider ongoing maintenance with any plan provided. Less is better!
5. Do a walk through with these specialists and see what ideas percolate, are they in alignment with your taste and budget? If you are upgrading existing landscaping be sure to point out every aspect you wish to change, so take the time to be extremely thorough during the walk through.
6. Ask the designer to provide resources on recommended plants and features so you can do further research. They typically will include a chart with all the plants specified, but unless you also studied this in college, these will literally be genus species names that won’t mean much without a picture. Be cautious of where trees are planted both in terms of proximity to your home so you have defensible space in the event of a fire, and where they may impede views five or ten years from now. Landscape architects tend to design from the curb in, so your input looking from “deck or patio” towards your primary views is essential. Also, consider privacy and shade needs, the sun is quite brutal at 7,500+ feet, and the more you can plan for future enjoyment from the natural shade of tree canopies, the more content you will be.
7. I strongly suggest minimizing sod areas to a size you will actually use and enjoy. This might be hard if you moved here from a moister climate and feel like your “yard” should naturally run from property corner to corner. Think about sizing needs for entertaining spaces, pet play and relief areas, children, and grandkid features, and allocate just enough sod area for those needs. This will help greatly with water conservation and possibly expense. Also, consider organic shapes with sod so it’s just not a square or rectangle, curves add visual interest.
8. Understand how changes in scope are handled during both design and installation and by all means, always make sure EVERYTHING is in writing. And by writing, I don’t mean a text conversation between you and the designer or installer. Use email so you have a true “paper trail” in case you need it later.
9. Your sprinkler system design is key to the success of your landscape, so ascertain how its design and installation is handled. Ideally, your landscaping contractor should oversee this for you, so the right types of sprinkler heads are installed to serve sod areas as well as plantings and drip lines for your flower beds. Whether installing a new system or tweaking an existing one, I highly recommend a web-based controller such as a Rain Machine which adjusts watering needs based on actual rainfall. I love my Rain Machine; it works so well. In the past year, we have used 964,769 gallons less than if we had a ”dumb” controller. This is not a mis-print, 964,769 gallons less. Nothing worse than being seen watering when it rained hard yesterday just because your sprinkler days have been preset.
10. Understand which weed mitigation plans are recommended and why. I don’t know anyone who loves weeding (do you??) and there are two distinct schools of thought on this. Some contractors insist that a membrane be placed between the soil and mulch to limit weed growth, while others will relay that they become a maintenance problem down the road when the mulch inevitably shifts, and the membrane becomes exposed. Personally, I prefer the membrane approach, however I recommend you listen to your contractor’s views and weigh in personally.
11. Once you have an approved landscape plan including the sprinkler system, you should have a document that is ready to bid for installation. A few words of caution. A landscaping project is an infrastructure project. There is a lot of preparation of the site involved before plantings can be expected to thrive. I can’t overstate the importance of “doing it right”. If your landscaping bids come in wildly different, I can almost guarantee that the difference is one installer plans on throwing some plantings in the ground with little preparation, the other plans on “doing it right”.
12. Your plan may include rock walls, features, or retainage. Understand that installation of anything rock related means you should expect heavy equipment on your lot, so if you’re tweaking an existing system make sure you address any concerns prior to installation. Knowing where the sprinkler system is located is key, so no pipes get crushed by heavy equipment.
13. Discuss an ongoing maintenance plan with your contractors. If this is not something they provide, be sure to get several recommendations from them and make contact as quickly as these are high-demand service providers and you’ll need to get on their client list.
Great landscaping can really add to your enjoyment of our wonderful outdoor living season here in the mountains and requires proper planning, budgeting, and maintenance. Your quality of life at altitude will be greatly enhanced by a thoughtful, well-articulated plan.
Please don’t hesitate to reach out for recommendations for Wasatch Back contractors.