Easy Landscaping Ideas for Beginners: Two methods if you don’t know about plants

As I mentioned in my post about the landscaping process, plants are one of the last steps. You eventually will get there.

If you followed the process you know the type of landscaping you want, for example, low maintenance or native plants, drought tolerant, mostly evergreen and perennials. The problem is that if you are a beginner, the list of potential plants is overwhelming.

There are one million garden blogs and magazines out there, but this is also too much information. I’m going to walk you through the process of narrowing down your options. It’s a two-step process to figure out the “plant” part of your landscape design.

How To Figure Out the “Right” Plants – Two Options

There are two easy ways to do this if you aren’t very knowledgeable about plants.

Option 1 – Observe and Copy

This is the best and least expensive method.

The first step is to go for a walk around your neighborhood. This sounds easy but it’s really a research walk.

I recommend walking your area for a few days in a row. Bring a camera (your phone). Take pictures of landscapes around you that you like. Not 100 photos, but between 10 and 15 pictures of flower beds or whatever you are trying to landscape.

When I first tried this, I was worried that people might be annoyed that I was photographing their house, but if they happen to catch you, just tell them that you LOVE their landscaping and want to remember it.

This is the best way to see what plants do well in your climate with your soil. You might want to do this at different times of the year if you plan to change the plants that you grow seasonally.

The second step is to document. Bring a notebook or add a caption to your photos that notes whether the area you snapped a photo of gets full sun or shade. You probably won’t remember by the time you get home, so be sure to make a note right when you take the picture.

The third step is to identify. You might be wondering, how do I know the names of the plants in my photos? I don’t know the names of most plants, I am in this category too, The app I used was PictureThis – Plant Identifier.

Whale's tongue agave

For example, I took a photo of this plant from the sidewalk, and then I import the photo into Plant Identifier and now I know this is Whale’s Tongue Agave, which I see in my neighborhood in areas that have full sun.

There are lots of plant identification apps. As you look at the pictures, make note of the categories below. It’s a good idea to add a note to teach photo so you remember if the picture is of an outdoor area in sun or shade.

  • Shrubs in shade
  • Shrubs in full sun
  • Ground covers in shade
  • Ground covers in sun
  • Perennials in shade
  • Perennials in sun
  • Annuals in shade
  • Annuals in sun

You will start to notice, not only what types of plants grow well in your area but also you will get ideas for how to group plants. There is often one plant that is the focal point, and others that have different heights and colors.

This can take a lot of time, but plants are expensive, so it’s worth a little bit of your time upfront.

Option 2 – Local Nursery Help

If you don’t have a lot of free time, there is plenty of help available without paying a landscape designer. The second option is to visit or call the local nurseries in your area. Ask if they have experts or coaches that will come and do a consult.

One of the nurseries in my area had a service where they send a “coach” to your house for an hour for $150. She looked at my front yard and my backyard and told me which plants would do well in each area. This is a great way to get advice based on the plants that are actually available.

She also advised me on what type of soil amendments I needed to give the plants the best chance in my soil. In my case, it was to add lots of compost. You can do a soil test that you buy if you don’t have someone that can come take a look.

If you don’t have a nursery that will make house calls, try going to the nursery at a slow time and ask them for advice. I went to three nurseries before I found one with people that really knew what they were talking about. It is not going to happen at big box stores like Home Depot or Lowes.

The problem with solely looking for plants online is that when you go to the nursery to pick them up, the perfect plants that you find online are not always the ones available at your nursery.

Three Simple Landscaping Necessities

My landscape coach broke the landscaping into several elements. Remember that before you start buying plants you need to go through the steps in the landscape design process so you have master plans that will fit your landscape needs. For example, the plants in a flower are completely different from a vegetable garden.

1. Structural or Foundation Plants – These are things like tall shrubs, small trees or even a large tree depending on your budget. They set the stage and they are also some of the larger plants and more expensive.

Kay, my coach, said the first thing I should buy is the bigger plants. Set them IN THE POTS where I want them to go. She also suggested I let them sit there for a few days to see how I like them before putting them in the ground. You can also see how they look at different times of day.

The structural plants in my plan are:

  • Hicks Ewe – These are tall and will grow along the fence.
  • Desert willow – One of these at the back of my new bed flower bed.
  • Abelias – for a little bit of height amount the ground cover.
  • Coral honeysuckle – These are so pretty in the spring and I wanted one because I’ve seen lots of them on my observation walks

Tip: Remember when you are buying plants that you should space them according to how they will be when they are mature, not the day they are planted.

2. Perennial Plant Base – If you want lots of annual flowers, your second step would be flower garden plants. These plants are the primary filler for the beds. You will want to get a variety of colors and shapes. Choose at least three to give your beds variety.

If you are looking for perennials and you choose plants that are right for your area, these come back every year.

The perennial base plants in my plan are:

  • rosemary
  • lavender
  • thyme (I tried two varieties)
  • sedum

3. Seasonal Pots – I do want a few flowers that I can change out seasonally. I want the pretty flowers around my seating area, but putting them in pots is less maintenance. It’s an easy way to swap out what’s easy if I don’t keep everything alive, since I have never had a green thumb.

I chose the plants for my pots using my three-plant formula, which I talk about here.

potted plants

Should I Do The Planting Myself or Hire Help?

Getting your plants into the ground can be tough, especially for the larger ones. I used a professional landscaper to dig the holes and till the ground, since my new area had rock hard compacted clay soil. I think I could plant the perennials myself, but I don’t want to dig the large holes that are required for shrubs and trees.

If you want to save money you can hire someone to do just part of the job. It’s harder to find people for small projects, I’ve found that teenagers are sometimes willing to do it (but not my son), people that mow grass in your area and people on task rabbit.

Do I Need to Buy Soil For My New Plants?

This depends on the soil that you have. You can send in a sample of your soil to get it tested. I had my garden coach take a look. She advised me to bring in compost to mix into the clay.

She also advised me to add mulch on top of ALL my new plants. The mulch helps to fight off weeds and keeps your soil from getting as dry.

This might sound like a lot of work, but a beautiful landscape can really increase a home’s curb appeal. If you aren’t even thinking about selling any time soon, a beautiful outdoor space is like having an extra room in your home.

The more you invest time in the process, the more satisfying it will be to look out at your beautiful garden. Before you go, here’s another article if you’re in the thick of landscaping that might help you. It breaks down the landscape process, by helping you to clarify how you want to use your outdoor space first before you start buying plants.

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