This post is sponsored by Husqvarna. In Part One of this spring relandscaping, we talked a lot about Husqvarna Battery series outdoor power equipment. We also touched on the virtues of using someone with landscape design expertise as well as the value of consulting with a horticulturalist when tackling changes to your landscaping. In this round two, we’ll detail what officially became a full-blown, out-of-control, massive re-landscaping adventure. It’s an adventure that entailed many 12+ hour work days, jackhammers (for concrete and concrete-like dirt), hardscaping, two crane deliveries, replacing almost every plant in our yard, some very perilous tree placements, new drip irrigation, new irrigation pipes, new sod, and completely re-envisioning our yard. Don’t miss the dramatic Before and After photos near the end! Oh, and as part of the Yard Wars competition on The Family Handyman, you can vote for your favorite landscape project (pick us, pick us!) and enter for a chance to win a Husqvarna Automower 450X in the process (see official rules for details)! Here we go!
What to Keep, What to Relocate, What to Ditch
Plants can be expensive. Ask me how I know. For that reason and others, sometimes it is nice to keep what you have that looks good and is growing happily. Even when you’re reinventing the wheel, sometimes it’s nice to keep a few spokes from the old one. Before you tackle your landscaping project, you’ll want to have a plant list. Ideally that list should be with the guidance of a landscape designer or horticulturalist who can advise you what will work best for your wants and needs. Resist the urge to just pick up whatever catches your eye at the nursery.
We had a nice bushy palm that has been thriving nicely in a shady nook by our house. It’s a little close to the house, but since it’s one of the few plants I hadn’t managed to kill over the years, consensus was to keep it. We also had some Clivia that was near the palm. Our landscape architect suggested I relocate the clivia that were not doing as well (I had planted a couple of them in partial sun and they prefer shade. She suggested clumping them around the base of the palm, which worked out nicely. Cha-ching! Hundreds of dollars saved!
We also decided to keep our Hibiscus, which you may recall had been mercilessly pruned to a more manageable size in part one of this Yard Wars series. It’s already sprouting green leaves even though I feared I had killed it. Some fertilizer and regular water will make this lush tropical-looking shrub a great specimen again. Hundreds more dollars saved!
Since we were incorporating Agave, which is an excellent plant for the hot and arid / drought-prone southern California environment, we were able to use some existing Agave Attenuata. Some stayed right where it was happily growing, and some I transplanted across the driveway. On some of the leggier established Agave, I cut them off at the base of their “trunks” and then just planted the trunk right in the ground. Some recommend letting them dry a couple days after cutting and before planting to avoid rot. Ours were pretty dry, but I still waiting a couple days just in case. You can also transplant agave with their root system. For a couple new planting areas, we purchased Agave Blue Flame. If you’re working with succulents in general, they can be very easy to find free or cheap since they’re so easy to propagate. Start making friends with those neighbors that have a great succulent collection.
If we were to go through what we planted one by one, this would be an even more epic length article, so instead I’ll simply provide our plant list towards the end of the article along with a few notes and photos with some of the highlights.
H2Woah – Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Lawn?
In many parts of the country summer rains are commonplace and land doesn’t costs $1,000,0000 per 1/10th of an acre. Here in California, drought conditions have prevailed, and land is in scarce supply. If you spot someone on a riding lawnmower here in California, chances are high it’s not the homeowner, and the homeowner is probably a multi-millionaire. Big lawns are rare here. With that background in mind, we made some decisions about our lawn that would be considered pragmatic environmentalism in some parts of the country and downright crazy in other parts of the country.
At first, we considered only removing a small amount of our lawn. However, after coming up with a coherent landscaping plan, we decided to nix all but a small putting green-sized section. As part of our general plan, we were going for a more lush, tropical look on the shadier North side of the property and then transitioning to a more arid look around the corner to the South side of the property. The lawn on the South side had always been toasted by the intense Southern California sun. Ultimately, we opted to remove the lawn on both the South and West sides.
Although I considered removing the lawn myself, I wisely opted to hire someone with the proper gear. And by proper gear, I mean a beefy sod cutter, and a truck to haul it all away in. A local landscaper made fairly quick work of removing what was left of our lawn. Although we planned to retain the “putting green”, even that lawn was removed since it was going to take a beating in this project and we needed to change the grade there anyway.
Re-landscaping With a Plan
In landscaping and in life, there is an order to everything to get everything in order. If you are
foolhardy brave enough to take on a major landscaping project like ours, it’s wise to tackle the steps in a certain order. For example, if you put in plants before grading, you’ll wind up digging them out and re-planting them. Same goes with laying sod. If you lay sod before doing the rest of the landscaping (especially irrigation), you’ll find that new sod is needed at the end of your project. To spare you some of the anguish of doing things out of order, and to share some landscaping tips and tricks along the way, we’ll detail some of the major steps we followed below.
Making the Grade – Correcting and Optimizing Grade
Chances are whatever you’re planning on doing to your landscape will involve re-grading both for practical reasons like drainage, and aesthetic reasons. The cardinal rule of grading is that you generally want water flowing AWAY from your home. Although water is your plants’ best friend, it’s your home’s worst enemy.
When we purchased our home, one of the first things I did was adjust the grade so it sloped away from the home. Faulty grade is something I see frequently, especially here in Southern California Real Estate, where you can “get away with it” thanks to minimal precipitation. No matter where you are in the world though, you don’t want rain runoff headed towards your home.
If you take on something as ambitious as our project where you’ll be altering the grade substantially, take however much soil you think you will be moving and multiply that by about twenty. Despite having removed more than a dozen cubic yards of soil, to most casual observers, the grade doesn’t look all that different.
One of my friends excitedly asked, “So, did you get a Bobcat for that?” I replied, “I am the Bobcat.” I wasn’t joking. What I thought would be a minor trim of some of the soil turned into a fairly major excavation. By hindsight, getting a Bobcat for a day would have been money well spent. Plus they’re probably fun to operate assuming you don’t break or rupture anything, (remember to call before you dig!)
Once the sod was out, it was time to notch out a few sections of our slope as planter areas. This involved removing soil from the slope to accommodate a few agave and a dry-stacked rubble stone wall in each cutout in what used to be our “lawn” area. These planters would also be filled with river rock, flowing around the agave plantings. Getting your grade roughly dialed in is a key first step in the re-landscaping process.
Our landscape architect friend Jennifer Phelps from Todd Fry Landscape Architects had suggested a significant “revision” to our front entry. It was close to the sidewalk and had a rather dramatic slope to it, which left little sense of privacy for our front porch, and also was a bit of a hazard on the rare occasions when it rained. Although this was planned for “someday”, we decided to attack both the front entry and the landscaping in one shot. While painful for budgetary reasons, it’s the common “while we’re at it” scenario we see in home improvement.
This led to my demolition of our old front entry. We then called up our friend Chuck Lockett from LM Stoneworks who was the mason on our How to Build a Concrete Wall series. Chuck helped to form up the new walk and stairs, pour the concrete, and build two concrete block columns – all before the entry is tiled with gorgeous, handcrafted tile from Arto (after shots and more on this in a future article).
If your concrete or other monolithic hardscape will block off large sections of your yard, consider adding a chase line to feed irrigation pipes and conduit for low voltage lighting wires through. We ran two four inch sections of pvc pipe pipe under our concrete path and stairs. One would be used for drainage to keep water from pooling up next to the stairs. The other is a chase to allow irrigation and low voltage through without having to break out the jackhammer again.
Since concrete and tile just isn’t quite hard enough, I also decided I wanted boulders. And stones. And rubble. And decomposed granite. Did I mention this project got out of hand (and out of budget) very quickly? I hand-picked a batch of boulders and then supervised their placement into three flat planter areas I had excavated from the slope.
A crane showed up and placed the big ones. The boulders I thought looked plenty big in the Southwest Boulder and Stone yard looked downright tiny in our landscape. I had boulder-buyers remorse.
Despite having dished out about $400 for just the crane and a very patient crane operator, I could not let these tiny boulders stand. I needed something bigger. I went to a different branch of Southwest Boulder and Stone and the crew there was super helpful in letting me hand-select more robust boulders. They even plucked them out of the pile (with a Bobcat!) and positioned them on the ground to make sure I liked them. The medium sizes I was targeting were about 2-3′. I already had a couple 3’+ monsters in place from the first order, and plenty of smaller ones as well. I bit the bullet and ordered the crane, again. Live and learn!
Keep in mind boulders can be massive. While “little” ones can sometimes be rolled around by hand (watch those fingers!) or via a hand truck, once you get over about 12-18″ their weight is absolutely crushing. Our boulder placement was even more tricky because we were embedding most of them into the small dry-stacked retaining wall areas I was creating. Our crane operator was great though, and he skillfully nudged, rotated and finessed the boulders until I was happy with their placement. Take your time with this, as once the big ones are in place you likely won’t be moving them.
Trench Warfare – Installing and Reworking Irrigation
Once you get an “A” on your grade adjustments and you’ve completed any hardscaping, it’s a good time to evaluate your current sprinkler and irrigation system. Without proper irrigation all your plants will die, and will likely die quickly. In your landscaping project, you’ll want to make sure you have an existing irrigation system adequate for your needs, or you’ll want to install a new one. We had three circuits of irrigation that used to be devoted to three distinct lawn areas. In our project, one would remain a lawn sprinkler circuit, and the two others would become drip irrigation.
As part of our sprinkler evaluation (which we’ll cover in more detail in a future article) we first installed color-coded flags at each sprinkler head. This gave us a clear picture of which heads belonged to which circuit / valve. Next, we dug a hole around each sprinkler head. This is a key step in figuring out which direction your pipes are running. We then came up with a game plan on where we needed more emitters for the new drip system.
Once you plan out your sprinkler and drip system and mark where you need to run any new trenches it is all about trench warfare. Although I planned to use the existing pipe runs, I wound up replacing about 75% of our existing pvc pipe which was so thin and old, just cutting it often meant shattering it.
If you’re doing short runs and are working with relatively soft soil, this can be done with a trenching shovel. For longer runs and/or harder soil, you may need a demo hammer or you can rent a walk-behind trenching tool from most equipment rental stores.
For the drip system we installed fittings that can rotate and swivel which then connected to Netafim drip lines. Because we didn’t want to irrigate the entire area (sometimes that’s done to encourage faster growth and more root spread), we used a combination of drip lines both with holes (for areas immediately around plants) and without holes (as feeder lines to get to each planting area).
When it came to the small lawn area we planned, we still needed some sprinklers. Although more expensive, we only had five sprinkler heads and went with the more efficient Hunter MP Rotator sprinkler nozzles. They result in less water use and less run-off.
Lastly, make sure your sprinkler valves are in good shape and rework them as needed. Since we were converting two regular sprinkler lines to drip, we needed to add pressure reducing valves which limit the water pressure on those drip lines. Since re-doing our valves had been on my to-do list for years (I have rebuilt the failing valves countless times), I hired a pro to get that part of our job done right. Automating this is a key, so if you don’t have a sprinkler controller, definitely consider investing in one.
Planting – When More Digging Finally Starts to Pay Off
After seemingly endless days of digging, jackhammering, carting dirt around and running irrigation lines, my morale had hit a low point. I started to wonder if our yard would ever look like a yard again. Then, the plants showed up. Given the quantity and size of plants and trees in our project, we wisely chose to have them delivered. Seeing green instead of just brown dirt is an exciting point in any re-landscaping project, and it’s a sign you’re getting close to the end of your own personal yard wars!
While the plants are still in their containers, spot place them where you think you want them. Then step back, look at things from a few angles, and adjust placement as needed. Make sure your placement aligns with the guidance for that particular plant – some plants require much more space than others. It is important to factor in the eventual mature sizes of your various plants so things don’t get too crowded. Things may look at a little sparse at first, but as the plants get established your landscape will magically fill-in.
Plants come in various sizes, and that’s usually categorized by the size of the container you buy them in. We had everything from small one gallons for ground cover plants, to a 30″ box for our triple trunk Kentia palms. Picking the right size is a balance of starting your landscape with plants large enough to make it look good without going too big. Small plants are far more affordable as well, so if your budget is tight and/or you have patience, picking smaller sizes is a good tip.
Another important tip, especially if you’re the one wielding the shovel: bigger containers mean bigger holes to dig. Planting a one gallon plant is a breeze in almost any soil. Planting a fifteen gallon plant can be a real chore to dig. With well over a dozen plants in the 15 gallon size, I speak from experience. And don’t even get me started on digging the hole for the Kentia palms in the 30″ box.
Once you spot your plants and complete the arduous digging, you’ll want to amend the hole with some good planting soil that’s appropriate for the type of plant. Some plants like succulents benefit from a special succulent or cactus mix to help with drainage. For most other plants, some nice rich compost mixed with regular soil 50/50 often does the trick. Ideally you want to mix your native soil with the compost and then use that for your planting.
Sipping from the Dripping – Laying Drip Irrigation Lines
Drip irrigation is one of the most efficient techniques around. We’ll be covering this in a future how-to, but whether you’re converting previous sprinkler lines to drip, or you’re starting from scratch, a drip system is efficient and elegant. And once it’s in place, it almost completely disappears from your landscape.
Despite a relatively small yard, I managed to run almost 1000′ of drip line, and that’s not including the PVC lines underground. Drip lines come in several variations (no holes, holes every 6″, holes every 12″ and with varying water delivery rates. Consult with your local landscape pro on what to use on your project.
We used a system of PVC pipes running underground that have numerous distribution heads. Each distribution heads feeds drip lines running both sides of several plants. Those drip areas are interconnected as well, to help equalize the water pressure and make sure all branches of that circuit are being supplied with adequate water. You’ll want the drip lines in after you plant, but if you’re planting ground cover it’s best to plant the ground cover after the drip lines are in.
One key thing to note is that drip systems require adequate water pressure, but not too much water pressure. This is typically accomplished with a pressure regulator near the valve head of each drip circuit.
Be Superficial – Adding Surface Materials
Added to the category of “things you want delivered”, surface materials like mulch are a vital ingredient to finishing off the aesthetics of your landscaping project, giving it a nice finished look. These surface materials also serve practical purposes like controlling weeds and even keeping the soil temperate in cold weather.
Since much of our yard is sloped, we chose walk-on bark, which is similar to mulch but tends to knit together more. This more fibrous product is better able to resist mulch’s tendency to slide off any sloped surface. As the name implies, walk-on bark is also suitable for areas that get some foot traffic.
Depth recommendations vary depending on the product, but we were shooting for around 3″ of walk on bark to adequately cover the exposed dirt and drip irrigation lines. Most garden / landscape supply houses will help you calculate how much material you’ll need based on your square footage. Our walk-on bark showed up in a massive dump truck. In a mere 10 seconds our driveway became a surface material storage zone. It took a LOT longer to make it a driveway again.
The planter beds and dry-stacked walls surrounding them also were finished off with some decomposed granite and river rocks. These too are elements you’ll typically want to add toward the end of your project when all the grading is done and the plants are in place.
Finishing Touches – Landscape Lighting, Containers and Other Landscape Bling
After all your hard work, you don’t want it to go unnoticed during the night! Landscape Lighting is a project unto itself, but one that can make a dramatic impact on how your landscape and home appear. If you’re going through the trouble of re-landscaping, it’s definitely worth the effort of installing landscape lighting as well. We’ll be diving into that in a future article / how-to.
Now is also the time to tastefully incorporate any container plants. Notice I said “tastefully.” Containers in a yard have a tendency to multiply over the years. Next thing you know, your yard looks more like a nursery than a yard. Step back with your keen design eye (or find a friend that has that skill) and ruthlessly purge any containers that aren’t contributing to the appeal of your landscape. You’ll spend less time watering and your yard will look great too!
The Emerald Jewel in Your Landscaping Crown – Installing Sod
We’ve covered taking care of your lawn in previous articles. If you are keeping your existing lawn, making sure you aerate it and fertilize it periodically are important steps in the right direction. Our lawn (even the “good” part) was beyond saving and would have been completely destroyed during this re-landscaping project.
We plan to do a detailed in-depth how-to install sod article in the future, and you can also check out our “how to install bender board edging” article soon too (we installed the bender board you see in the images below before installing the sod)>. However there are some key general steps to installing sod that we’ll cover here. Although we had tackled most of our grading earlier in our yard wars project, careful preparation was key for a professional looking end result.
I rented a rototiller to break up what was incredibly hard soil. If you have not used a rototiller before, it takes a little getting used to. A word of caution, if you already have irrigation lines in place, make sure you’re avoiding them. Rototillers will “till” anything in their path including your irrigation pipes or worse yet, your utility lines.
Once I broke up the soil I used the rototiller to mix in some soil building compost. Now is also a great time to till in some fertilizer as well. Lastly, a landscape rake coupled with a landscape roller were essential in making a smooth surface for the sod. Extra time spent here saves you the humiliation of a lawn with depressions and mounds that will also throw off your lawnmower resulting in patches cut too high, and worse yet, too low.
Make sure you order high quality sod from a very good sod farm. The difference between laying perfectly cut sod vs poorly cut, poor quality sod is night and day. In our case we used Marathon II sod from Southland Sod Farms through the nursery we were working with.
Laying sod was the most satisfying part of this project. As the Marathon brand likes to call it, “Instant Grassification.” Although not instant, you can lay quite a bit of sod in a short time and the results are immediate.
Some Unexpected Side Effects to Taking on a Major Re-Landscaping Project
The first day into this project I vowed NOT to go to the gym until it was completed. As crazy as it sounds physical fitness is a byproduct of doing a major landscaping project. It turns out 12+ hours of nearly non-stop manual labor is a pretty solid workout.
Another more unexpected benefit to this project has been the outpouring of support from our neighbors. Apparently our old yard looked really bad! I have had neighbors I have never met pull their cars over just to tell me the project is looking great. They also all appear to think I’m a little crazy. Apparently most people don’t DIY a landscape project of this scope. I’ve also had the opportunity to chat with many neighbors that have been walking by, including some daily regulars. To all my neighbors, thanks for all the encouragement and kind words!
One other effect of this project is a newfound confidence thanks to all the skills I have picked up in this process. Aside from digging holes and mad wheelbarrow skills, I now know about the best ways to install irrigation, optimal ways to plant trees and plants, hardscaping tips, and a vastly improved knowledge of and appreciation for different types of plants. Exhaustion aside, it has been a rewarding process. Now that the project is complete, I just need to mow the lawn!
Husqvarna Self Propelled Cordless Mower – the Next Best Thing to the Automower
Before trying a self propelled mower, I thought the concept sounded ridiculous, especially if you do not have a plantation-sized lawn. The self propelled feature is to lawn mowers what power steering is to cars. Sure you can drive a car without power steering, but it’s not nearly as much fun, and it takes a lot more muscle. Although the self-propelled feature truly is overkill on our new little postage stamp of a lawn, it’s a great feature for anyone with a decent-sized lawn.
Normally I’m not much of an “unboxing” guy, but unpacking the Husqvarna was pretty fun. It’s pretty hard for a lawnmower to show off sporty and sexy styling, but somehow the Husqvarna LE221R Walk-Behind, 40v Battery Powered Lawnmower pulls that off.
The mower takes some minor assembly, but most of it is put together and ready to mow. Although the handles can fold down for storage in a more compact space, we’d like to see a quick-release / adjust on future models. Once the minor assembly is wrapped up, it’s time to drop in a couple Husqvarna 40v batteries.
Opening up the hood on this
sportscar mower reveals access for the dual battery ports and a safety key to keep any little curious ones from firing up to piece of outdoor power equipment. There is also a safety on the mower’s handle that’s pushed clear of the bar to activate the mower.
Although you can pull up battery charge on the batteries themselves, the mower also has a display on the handle that gives you each battery’s current charge level. The handle charge level indicator is great for keeping you constantly informed on your charge level. Given the sizes of our lawns, we weren’t able to max out run-time. Husqvarna estimates runtime on a single 5.2 AH battery to be between 30-43 minutes depending on operating conditions and whether you have the mower’s SavE battery-conserving mode on.
The Husqvarna Battery Powered mower has four speed settings for when you engage the drive function on the rear wheels. The tread on the wheels is pretty minimal, which sometimes results in the wheels spinning in place if you’re mowing on a slope or through particularly heavy grass, but it also minimizes any destruction beefier treads might inflict on your lush lawn.
Before you get mowing, setting the mowing height is a breeze with a large, easy to grab handle with seven definitive stops for different heights. Different varieties of grass prefer different lengths, and those can vary based on time of year. Cutting heights can be adjusted from crew-cut 20mm to hippie 75mm. Cutting width is 51cm. Yup, you’re going to have to convert from metric again, sorry. OK fine, it’s about .79″ to 2.95″ for cutting height and 20.08″ cutting width.
The Husqvarna LE221R Walk-Behind, 40v Battery Powered Lawnmower has both a grass catcher or a mulch plug if you’re a mulching type like me. If you’re going from a human-pushed mower to this powered model, you’ll be amazed at how much more pleasant mowing can be with a power assisted model like this. We found it to be a pleasure to use, although not quite as pleasurable as watching a robot mow your lawn.
Yard Wars Before and After Photos
(Don’t miss our plant list and special thanks after the contest info below)
Vote and You Might Never Mow Your Lawn Again!
Now that you are hopefully inspired by our crazy quest to re-landscape, we hope you’ll take a moment to vote for us in the Yard Wars Contest on Family Handyman. By voting, you can enter for a chance to win a Husqvarna Automower 450X in the process (see official rules for details). Imagine mowing your lawn while sipping your favorite frosty beverage from the comfort of your porch or couch – the future is here!
Where to Buy
Husqvarna LE221R Walk-Behind, 40v Battery Powered Lawnmower:
Husqvarna Automower (Not Featured):
Husqvarna 436LiB 40v Battery Powered Leafblower:
Husqvarna 536LiLX 40v Battery Powered Line trimmer:
Husqvarna 536LiHD60X 40v Battery Powered Hedge trimmer:
Our Plant List and Notes on Some of the Key Varieties
Triple Trunk Kentia
It’s the star of the show on the northern, more lush side of our yard. Gerard from V & H Nurseries (a great San Diego resource for Plumeria, by the way), hunted high and low to find a worthy “triple.” It took three of us (eight of us would have been better) to carefully maneuver into a massive hole. We carefully measured the soil height in the 30″ box it came in and then created a hole carefully measured to allow backfill space around the perimeter, and that would leave the tree slightly proud of the eventual grass level. The Kentia Palms have already received many admiring comments and will look even better once they get a bit taller. Kentias have beautiful, lush fronds, and amazing green trunks once they are big enough to show them. Our landscape architect was reluctant on this tree choice (partly due to their thirsty-ness, but I’m glad I fought for them!
Although these can grow into sizable trees, they also make for very dense privacy hedges. We planted eight of these along a narrow planter of our driveway to create some separation from that neighbor (no offense neighbor)!
Raphiolepis Umbellata Minor (Dwarf Ind. Hawthorn)
We planted a bunch of these to create an informal hedge and sense of privacy from the nearby sidewalk.
Carissa Green Carpet
Carissa come in different varieties. They produce an edible natal plum and are known for their serious thorns to thwart tresspassers. Our variety grows low, more like a ground cover than a hedge.
Dietes Variegata – Fortnight Lilly
This plant produces really gorgeous blue and white flowers.
We splurged on this one, and it’s a true specimen. Our nursery pro estimated it at 10-15 years old. The Aloe Medusa is a tree aloe that will show off some impressive blooms at some point. It’s a highlight of one of the corners of our yard.
A semi-dwarf tree that is known for super juicy and delicious lemons. I plan to finance this landscaping project with the proceeds of my daughters’ future lemonade stands.
We didn’t want everything to be about looks, so the Anna Apple tree was another tree we added so our yard could produce some food for us in the future.
We used this hearty vine that produces beautiful flowers to soften around lengthy landscape wall.
Agave Blue Flame
The star of our stone planter beds.
Kangaroo Paws (Big Red)
Marathon II Sod
Special Thanks Goes To
Jennifer Phelps from Todd Fry Landscape Architects
From picking the right plants to putting up with a seemingly endless supply of questions, Jennifer’s creative input and planning helped me stay on track with a cohesive, practical and hopefully beautiful end-result.
Michael Smith from Integrated Landscape Design and Consulting
Michael graciously provided a crash course in everything from plant varieties to installing a well-thought out irrigation and drip system.
Gerard Vasquez and Mark from V & H Nursery
Gerard and Mark went above and beyond the call of duty, by not only picking out the best specimens of plants for our project, but graciously helping me plant a couple of the larger ones when they realized I was in over my head.
My Wife & Kids
I neglected you all in my non-stop efforts on this project. Thanks for being patient and for all your support of the project and my crazy efforts to get it completed.
This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Husqvarna. The opinions and text are all mine.