In the spring of 2014, after nearly two frustrating years of house hunting, my wife, Stacy, and I finally landed our dream home on a bucolic dead-end road in southern Chittenden County. The house sits on about an acre of partially wooded land, sandwiched between a working farm and nearly 100 acres of conserved forest.
Our builder did a great job of finishing the house, both inside and out. He didn't landscape but left plenty of trees. He also installed porches and a deck, regraded and seeded the lawn, and put in a gravel driveway and walking paths. When we moved in, we could immediately enjoy the outside of the house as much as the inside.
A year later, Stacy and I had a good sense of how we used the property and what we wanted to change. Our first priority was modest: Replace the pea stones our builder had used for walkways with large stepping stones. Though pea stones work marginally well at keeping mud out of the house, they also end up everywhere, from the kids' bedrooms to inside the washing machine. Invariably, my bare feet find them in the middle of the night.
Once we began thinking about those new walking paths, however, our planning quickly spun in all directions. Should we install stone paths before deciding where to put gardens? What about planting new trees and shrubs to replace the poison ivy, poison parsnip and buckthorn that surrounded us? It seemed prudent to master-plan the property before investing hundreds, possibly thousands, of dollars in landscaping, lest we find ourselves digging it up and replacing it later.
We needed professional help. So we turned to Ashley Robinson, a professional landscape designer in Charlotte. A Vermont native with degrees in urban studies from the University of San Diego and landscape design from the Landscape Institute in Cambridge, Mass., Robinson agreed to visit our house and help us solidify our vision.
As we soon learned, her first priority — after walking the property and noting its topography, existing vegetation, views, drainage and exposure — was to sit down and get to know us.
"People often think they don't know what they want at all," Robinson explained. "But the more we talk and the more we ask questions about what they like to do, how they live and what they like about the property, [the more] I get a sense for how people live."
Fortunately, Robinson said we'd avoided a common mistake homeowners make when moving into a new house: trying to do too much too soon.
"Some people buy every plant under the sun and decide that it's a good idea to put them somewhere on their property," she said. "It's great to be interested and excited to get your landscape planted and full. But 'planted' and 'full' tend to be challenges if they're not in the right spot and not taken care of."
Another common mistake is not researching which plants thrive in which conditions, or learning which ones need regular attention and upkeep.
As we discovered, picking plants is actually the last step in the planning process. To begin, Robinson helped us decide which areas of the lot to focus on and how to use them. Is this area for lounging and eating? Recreational activities? A cutting garden? Not all uses are compatible, she explained, so it's important not to site delicate flowers or ornamental grasses where the kids' Frisbees and baseballs might land.
Robinson could tell immediately, from the abundance of lawn chairs around our front porch, where we spend much of our time. The porch has a good view of Mount Philo, gets plenty of sun and attracts neighborhood kids who play with our children during the day — and then their parents, who come by in the evenings for barbecues, drinks and socializing.
As we told Robinson, we wanted to enhance that area and make it more conducive to parties. Currently, the lawn slopes downward and away from the house. That's great for proper drainage, but not so much for staying upright in a lawn chair. And, of course, we wanted to lose the pea-pebbled walkways.
About a week later, Robinson returned with her rough sketches and estimates. We liked most of her ideas, such as tiered steps around our front porch leading to a stone patio where visitors could congregate. Other ideas were less to our taste, but she assured us that everything could be modified.
When I saw the estimated price tag — in excess of $20,000 — I had sticker shock. But Robinson reassured me that the figure included everything we'd discussed, including some ideas we later jettisoned.
More importantly, she explained, new homeowners should think of their landscaping as another family room.
"It's like an addition to your house," she said. "It's not going to be as pricey as adding another room or renovating a kitchen, but it's adding huge value and use."
And, unlike a new kitchen, Robinson pointed out, the landscaping doesn't need to be completed all at once — or by professionals.
"Once you get started, you're encouraged to do more," she added. "One part of the project might be a stepping stone, and you decide, 'Hey, we can do this, too!'"
I was convinced. I'll take a "stepping stone" over stepping on stones any day.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Plans to Plant"