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Landscaping isn't just about good looks -- it can increase the value of your home, make it sell more quickly, and even reduce your energy bill.

The right landscape can increase the value of your home by 15 percent, allowing you to recoup 100 to 200 percent of your investment, according to the Association of Landscape Contractors of America.

And if you're selling your house, or know you will be in the near future, a good-looking landscape is a contributing factor to good curb appeal because it is one of the first things a prospective buyer will notice. A 1998 study conducted by the University of Florida reveals that attractive landscaping makes a home sell faster.

That's not all. The U.S. Department of Energy says landscaping is the best long-term investment for reducing heating and cooling costs. And according to the American Public Power Association, landscaping can reduce air conditioning costs by up to 50 percent.

American Forests has developed a way of measuring energy conservation benefits from tress, and reports that trees can reduce temperatures by as much as nine degrees Fahrenheit. A single urban tree can provide up to $273 a year in air conditioning.

The National Association of Home Builders recently reported that sales of new homes in July increased 6.7 percent over the June rate, reaching record levels. With so many new homes popping up - usually with little or no landscaping - it's important for new-home owners to maintain and improve their landscape to increase their home's value, reduce energy bills, and someday sell at top dollar.

Now that you're sold on landscaping, where do you start? Here are some tips from the experts:

  1. Develop a plot plan. Using paper and colored pencils, sketch a simple drawing of your yard depicting your house, streets, walks, driveways, patios, and utilities. Identify potential uses for different areas of your yard - vegetable gardens, flower beds, lawns, and play areas.
  2. Conduct a site analysis. Think about sun and wind for both summer and winter. Mark the areas of your yard needing shade or wind protection. Highlight areas where landscaping height or width may be restricted. Determine which areas suffer from poor drainage and standing water. Think about your existing trees and shrubs. Have soil tests made and note the soil type and topsoil depth on your site analysis. (County Extension Centers can provide information on free soil testing.)
  3. Assess your family's needs. Think about access to the house, including walkways, driveways, parking, outdoor entertaining, children's play areas, sports, recreation, and extra parking. Consider storage for garden equipment and don't forget space for things like garbage cans, clothesline, dog pens and firewood.
  4. Determine your budget. Keep in mind that landscaping is usually an incremental process.
  5. Locate use areas. Refer to your list of family needs and decide where to locate the areas for various uses. Record these areas using another sheet of tracing paper taped over the plot plan.
  6. Develop use areas. Try adding a focal point to the entrance area. If unsightly utility areas are visible from your house or patio, a screening wall or hedge may be needed. Don't forget to screen off unsightly areas from the neighbors.
  7. Design. To create a good visual, consider group planting, and keep your landscape features in scale with the both the house and neighboring plants. The color of your plantings should complement your home's color. Also think about the textures of trees and shrubs and how the foliage will look year-round. You'll also want to establish bed lines at this point.
  8. Construct. Landscape professionals can help you choose and locate new trees, shrubs, or ground cover, so share your drawings and ideas with employees at your local nursery. Always determine spacing by the mature size of plants and trees, and plan for at least 1 foot of extra clearance between plants and the wall of your home. Locate deciduous trees where you will benefit from summer shade and winter sun. After consulting a landscape professional, go back to your drawings and add the new information on species, shape, and mature-size spacing. This provides a final, pre-purchase review to make sure that all elements will work well together.
  9. Plant. When you are ready to make a purchase, avoid buying damaged plants. The plants you use should be of specimen quality. After you purchase the plants, be sure to keep tiny root hairs damp and shaded at all times before planting.
  10. Maintain. You'll want to make sure you have a watering system that gives all your new plantings adequate water. Keep your lawn mowed. You'll also need to set a fertilizing schedule to bring your new greenery to its maximum potential. And, if needed, keep trees, shrubs, and flowers pruned to encourage new growth and extra blooms.
  11. Accent and improve. A good landscape is always a work in progress. Each season add a new perennial or two, plant some bulbs in the fall for vibrant spring blooms, and add some seasonal annuals to provide some instant color. You may also want to consider fountains, yard art, or attractive benches as new additions.

Remember that quality, not quantity, will enhance your landscape. With a little careful planning and effort, it's relatively inexpensive and easy to reap the rewards of landscaping your home.

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