So you have a good idea of what you want to do with your yard, or that trouble spot in your yard—time to start digging, right? Wrong. Before you get the shovel out there are a few caveats you need to consider. What kind of soil do you have? Is it heavy clay, super sandy, filled with rocks, or—as one of my writing friends said about hers—a few inches of soil on top of a lava flow? When you water, where does the water go? Does it puddle up and is it going to end up in your basement (if you have one)?

My ground is very clay, which means digging when the ground is dry is nearly impossible. I’ve found the best way to dig holes is to get it really wet one day, let it dry for part of a day so it’s not slick mess, then dig, because the clay retains moisture really well. It also is very full of nutrients. Unfortunately, it’s a pain for roots to work through and it puddles really easily because it takes a long time for water to soak in. The other difficulty I had with my yard was the rocks.

This picture is a fair representation of what most of the yard looked like when I moved in—at least the part that is close enough to the house to warrant landscaping in the foreseeable future.

I am dealing with this problem by choosing to build up. My flower and vegetable beds are raised, my patio will be raised, and I’ve used about a zillion rocks to line my garden beds. This has two advantages—free landscaping materials, and getting the rocks out of the way. When I’m ready to put in grass I plan to bring in about six inches of top soil, because strangely, grass roots don’t penetrate rock.
I actually had someone ask me where I got all the rocks to line my flower beds. She seemed surprised when I said I pulled them out of my yard, but most of the neighbors didn’t have the ‘gift’ of rocks that I received when I bought my place.

My husband doesn’t share any part of my belief that they are a blessing, but we have to find silver linings wherever they are, right?

Part the reason you need to understand the type of ground you are dealing with, is to know what kind of amendments you need to add. You can have a soil test done by your local extension service if you live in the U.S.; if you live outside of that area, you might contact a local nursery and see if they know anyone who does soil tests. This test can tell you how acidic it is, any amendments you need to add to your soil, and what kind of ground you are working with. Usually the tests are fairly inexpensive.

The solution for either heavy clay or seriously sandy soil is generally to add compost. It breaks up the clay and makes it drain better, and helps the sand retain moisture better. Do not add sand to clay ground as it only makes a nice concrete-like material that is even harder to deal with than the clay was in the first place.

I mentioned before that my soil is really alkali. Knowing this helps me decide what kind of plants to grow since some thrive in this kind of soil, and others do best in acidic ground. Now, when I go to my local nursery, they are most likely going to stock plants that thrive in the local conditions, with a few exceptions. A few weeks back I went to a nursery in St. George that had some funky cacti for sale. It was clearly marked with a sign that said it wouldn’t stand the freezes they get in the area and would need careful protection in the winter. If you have a question, ask someone who works there. If they don’t have the answer, they will usually find someone who does.

I’m not referring to your local big box garden center, however. The employees there may or may not know the first things bout keeping a plant alive. For example, I spoke with someone who overheard an employee at one of these places telling a customer that it was the perfect time to plant tomatoes (in late March—so not true). Employees are there to tidy up shelves, stock shelves, and run the register and sometimes you get someone who really knows their stuff. But do your own research if you plan to shop there, because while you may occasionally get incredible deals on plants, and a different variety than at some of the small nurseries, you have to rely on plant tags and your own know how.

Do you live in a flood zone? Is your house in a depression in the ground, or is it above the rest of the yard? Are you going to be watering right next to the house? If you have a basement or cellar, you need to consider your drainage issues to make sure you won’t be adding water to your basement. Think about water flow around your house and be sure not to increase the likelihood of problems down the road. If you are planning a major overhaul of your landscaping near the house, now would be the best time to fix any flooding problems you have been experiencing.

And before you finalize your plans—don’t forget to call Blue Stakes (the people who notify utility companies to come mark their locations, for those of you who don’t live in the U.S.). Some lines are going to be closer to the surface than you think, and as I said before, you don’t want to plant a tree on top of your sewer or other water lines. My Blue Stakes service is free and all of the utility companies came out within forty-eight hours of my call. Basic precautions can save you a real hassle down the road.