Joe and I have been thinking about what we’d like to do with our very big and painfully overgrown yard. Do we want a modern shed, an entertaining area, a vegetable garden, a place to compost, maybe even some grapes (this is Northern California afterall)? It’s hard to know where to start when you have a blank canvas. Therefore we solicited the help of one of my very best friends, Tara Zerbe, to help us begin the process.

Tara loves to get dirty. She studied plant and soil science at the University of Vermont (where she met her handsome boyfriend/Vinter Matthew Dees). Ever since I can remember she has had mud and dirt under her fingernails. She is constantly ten steps behind everyone (literally) because she is stopping to admire plants and flowers of all kinds. She currently works for the garden design extraordinaire, Isabelle Greene, in Santa Barbara.

Here are a few of Tara’s tips for creating a yard you can be proud of. If you have anything else to offer, please join the conversation!

1. Dont’ Rush.

First things, first: don’t rush it! Usually that just means money and time wasted.

2. Know what you’re working with.

Is there anything you want to keep? What do you need to get rid of?

3. Follow the sun.

Makes notes on where the sun is in your yard. SO IMPORTANT! Where is morning light? Where is all day hot afternoon sun? Where is shade? Remember that this will change with the seasons – so write it down so you don’t forget! “Right plant. Right place.” Sun-loving plants won’t like shade no matter how much you will it to grow.

4. Get dirty – understand your soil.

What kind of soil do you have? Does it hold water or have excellent drainage? Lighter colored and lighter weight soils will drain better (more sandy-like). Darker colored and heavy soils (can you roll a ribbon out of your soil? Then your soil has clay) will stay wetter longer but not have as much aeration. THIS IS SUPER IMPORTANT FOR WHEN YOU ARE CHOOSING PLANTS! Some plants need to get completely dried out between waterings, some like wet feet, some die of wet feet. Choose plants wisely and for the right conditions! Not every plant will grow on your site. Ask your nurserymen these questions.

5. Observe.

It’s a good idea to get a chair and move it around your yard. Look at your space from different angles and envision paths, walkways, structures, etc. This really helps rather than looking at from a stagnant angle. Also, don’t forget to really think about how your garden will look from up above from your house on 2nd, 3rd story. Sometimes that view is just as enjoyable as being in the garden itself, so think about lines and color flows and things like that.

6. How will you use your space?

To do a good design, determine how you want to use your space. Dining area? The minimum space for entertaining is 10′ x 10′ for a round table and chairs. You’ll need more space if you’re planning on having more people in one area. Vegetable gardens? BBQ? Pond? Are there any views you want to block (neighbor’s ugly house) or views you want to frame (cityscape, mountain view)? Do you need privacy (think canopies, pergolas, sunshades, etc)?

7. Get inspired!

Start a folder of things you like. Materials, plants, design ideas, fire pits. This helps so much when working with a designer or when it comes time to start the design yourself. It keeps you focused when starting to shop so you don’t get overwhelmed with all the options.

8. Landscape designer vs. architect?

Save money and hire a Landscape Designer instead of a Landscape Architect (if you need the design help).

9. Be resourceful.

To save water and $, plant plants with similar water requirements near each other. That way you don’t waste $ and kill a drought tolerant plant that you planted next to a water loving tree. Drip irrigation is a good idea if you don’t want to water your yard by hand. Watering by hand is a massive time waster and when you get too busy, your yard suffers. Those Octopus spray things also waste a lot of water and drench things too much and don’t usually cover all the areas you are trying to water. Drip irrigation might be a higher cost right off the bat but saves so much time, money and resources in the long run and you can control the amount and set it up to manually water on certain days for a set amount of time. I love ours and wouldn’t change it for anything.

Thanks to Tara for the excellent tips. If you are currently designing a yard or garden yourself. Feel free to ask Tara any questions on this post and she will answer them for you!

Left: Tara and Lauren in Jonata Vineyard’s vegetable garden. Right: Inspiration for Tara’s own garden design.

Bottom Left: Tara going over her garden design. Bottom Right: Tara’s orange tree.

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