1. TAKE INVENTORY
Notice which plants are thriving, which ones aren't, and which ones have grown too big for the space allotted them. Notice how the sun moves across your property and which areas are mostly in shade or in sun. Check out the soil. Dig some up with a trowel and do the squeeze test: If it's heavy clay or very sandy, you'll need to add organic amendments such as fir bark or compost. Notice which materials, if any, can be reused in some way. A solid concrete path can be broken up into chunks to make a retaining wall, for instance.
2. CLEAN UP AND PRUNE
Identify plants that need pulling out or pruning. Remove or replant those with the wrong exposure (a shade-loving hydrangea growing in full sun with telltale bleached-out leaves, for example). Cut back overgrown, shapeless shrubs. Thin plantings that are crowding one another. If large trees are leaning toward your neighbor's yard or causing fences to buckle, consider cutting them down and replacing them with smaller ones planted farther from the fence. Pull weeds such as spurge from in between pavers, dandelions from lawns. Start a compost pile. Chop up and compost all garden prunings except weeds with seedheads or diseased plants. Use the compost later to enrich soil.
3. MAKE A WISH LIST
Jot down features you'd like your garden to have. A patio for entertaining? A small pond? Raised beds for vegetables? A gazebo? Beds for colorful annuals? A lawn for kids to play on? An English flower border, edged with winding stone paths? As you compile your list, keep in mind the following.
Your climate. Is it arid? Buffeted by afternoon winds? Gray and rainy much of the year? Climate and weather are key factors that determine the best plants to grow.
The land around you. Do you live in the foothills or near the beach? Desert or urban canyon? Is there a view you can borrow as a backdrop to frame with some of the same plants that grow wild beyond your fence? Or a view you'd like to block out (a neighbor's garage, for example) with hedges or trees?
The style of your house. A Spanish-style house lends itself to a Mediterranean garden with lavender, citrus, and a fountain, while a cedar-shingled house in a Northwest forest might be most at home among rhododendrons, vine maples, and conifers. A Southwest adobe might pair best with desert-adapted Palo Verde trees, cactus, and wildflowers.
4. DEVISE A PLAN OF ACTION
Determine how much work will be involved, from laying paths and patio pavers to installing sprinklers, edging strips, or a new lawn. Ask yourself whether you have the time, desire, and know-how to do the work yourself, or line up help where you need it. You might consider hiring a landscape architect to draw up a plan for you to follow. Ask friends or neighbors for recommendations. Local nurseries sometimes offer limited design services. Measure your garden and be ready to plan.
5. INSTALL HARDSCAPING, IRRIGATION, OUTDOOR LIGHTING
Paths, patios, decks, and gazebos are the bones of a garden, and in the West, irrigation systems are its lifeblood. Some gardeners, after scraping the ground bare, outline structures and plantings in the soil. You can use gypsum for this or lay down small stakes.
6. SHOP AT NURSERIES
Keep in mind your favorite colors, whether soft, romantic tones like pink, lavender, and pale apricot, or strong hues like purple and orange, then work your palette around those. As you draw up your shopping list, consider plants for fragrance (roses, jasmine), motion (ornamental grasses), and seasonal interest (spring bloom and fall color).
7. PREPARE THE SOIL, THEN PLANT
For all but native plants, most of which like their soil "lean," work generous amounts of compost or other organic amendment into the soil, about 2 to 3 feet deep. If possible, rent a rotary tiller to make the job easier. Plant most trees, shrubs, ground covers, vines, and perennials in fall. Tender tropicals and citrus should be planted in frost-free months.
8. ADD FINISHING TOUCHES Containers, a great bench, outdoor sculpture, water features, and birdhouses make a garden look lived in and loved.
• Do the work yourself. Divide it up into small jobs spread out over weeks or months.
• Cover an ugly fence with vines rather than replacing it. Alix Olson planted 10 bougainvilleas (B. brasiliensis 'Crimson Red') along her 54-foot-long fence. Other good choices are Lady Banks' rose (Rosa banksiae) and Japanese honeysuckle.
• Use recycled materials. "We were able to obtain free pavers from the disposal yard and from the neighbors' house," says Scott Terry. "They were dismantling an enormous backyard barbecue. We used about 100 of those weathered concrete blocks."
• Use drought-tolerant plants. Even unthirsty plants can look lush and beautiful, and they're easy to care for.
• Plant tough but attractive ground covers between pavers. Chamomile and creeping thyme don't need mowing, and unlike lawn grass, they bloom in summer.
• Install pipes to deep-water the trees. "Trees on hills are often unhealthy because they don't get the water they need," says Bob Kahn. In the planting hole around each new tree, workers installed three perforated PVC drainage pipes for easy watering and fertilizing-setting them vertical and parallel to the tree trunks, then filling them with gravel. Each pipe measures 3 1/4 inches in diameter and 3 to 5 feet long, with 1/2-inch perforations. The pipes are really paying off, with healthy, robust trees.