Learning Your Roots : Classes Teach How to Get the Perfect Landscape in Your Own Back Yard

Landscaping involves more than just pushing some dirt around and planting some trees, grass and flowers. Creating that showcase front or back yard takes careful planning and a good understanding of such basic matters as drainage, soil conditions, irrigation and which plants are appropriate for the climate.

It also takes time and money.

Orange County homeowners are spending as much as 15% of their property values--sometimes more--on landscaping, local landscape professionals say. The price of a showcase yard today, they say, can be $40,000 to $50,000.

The good news is that you can learn to do it yourself.

Landscape design and maintenance classes are offered through continuing education classes at Golden West College, Huntington Beach; Rancho Santiago College, Santa Ana; Irvine Valley College, Irvine; Saddleback College; Fullerton College and the North Orange County Community College District Education Center office in Fullerton.

In them, you can learn basic landscape design, the principles of grading and drainage and how to do them, how to select plants, basic gardening and landscape maintenance techniques, the value of efficient irrigation and even how to design and install a sprinkler system.

Even if you eventually decide to hire someone else to do the job, your knowledge can save you money and irritation: You'll know how to avoid certain problems, and you'll have a better chance of getting what you really want.

"I think they come out excited about their yards," says Daniel Songster of the students who take his class series at Golden West. Songster has 20 years of experience in landscaping and is on the maintenance staff at the college. "They come out with a realistic idea of whether they can actually do the job themselves."

Songster's three-hour classes cover landscape design, basic lawn and garden care, irrigation and sprinkler installation and selecting the proper plants. In them, he says, the students are helped to focus on what they want in their yards and on what can help them save money. For instance, he said, students in his sprinkler installation classes learn how to install a system with PVC pipe, how to put a valve assembly together, how to hook up off a main line, how to make a system manual or electric and even how to dig trenches. Designing and putting in your sprinkler system yourself can save you as much as 80%, he said.

Many of his students decide they can create their own landscape design plans too--a decision that could save them, he estimates, at least $1,000. He estimates that perhaps half his students install at least part of their own landscaping.

The key to a successful landscape is to have a specific design plan. A design plan will take into account grading, drainage and irrigation, and it will have a theme for the planting. It may also include hard scape such as walkways or decks.

A preliminary plan might cost as much as $1,000, says Howard Reynolds, a landscape architect who teaches a four-week series of classes at Saddleback. A final plan might cost $1,000 or considerably more, depending on how much hard scape is desired.

But hiring a professional to prepare a design plan can also save a homeowner money. With a plan, a job can be put up for bid by landscape contractors. Without one, it's difficult to compare bids because each contractor may be envisioning something different. Another factor to consider is that contractors often submit higher bids for a job without a plan so that they can be sure to cover unforeseen expenses.

The biggest eye-opener for most neophytes is the high cost of landscaping, says Dave Kull, a landscape architect who teaches four landscape classes at Irvine Valley, Rancho Santiago and the North Orange County Community College District Education Center office.

If there's a disappointment among those taking his classes, he says, it's "the reality of today's marketplace." Some are dismayed to learn that the yards they had envisioned are not possible with the money they have to spend.

Some landscape contractors won't even bother to bid for a project whose budget is less than $10,000, Kull says.

The classes also stress what not to do.

"If there's one thing most people mess up, it's not considering grading and drainage," Kull says.

When a tract home is built, Kull says, the yard is graded to drain on the surface," Kull says. That is, water from the yard will drain away from the house and out toward the street.

It will, that is, if everything is left as it is. Often, though, he says, a "homeowner comes in and he starts changing that and messes up the surface drainage without realizing it. It looks great all summer long, and then the rains come and there're problems." Anything homeowners do to the landscaping is going to affect the surface drainage, Hull warns.

Improper drainage can cause water to become trapped against the side of a house or under a driveway, according to Kull. When that happens, the ground will expand and contract, causing cracks in masonry or other damage.

Kull also advises that homeowners be wary of disturbing a graded slope without advice from a licensed contractor or landscape architect. Some slopes stay in place only if they remain graded with the soil compacted the way the builder left them; planting on some slopes may cause more erosion than it stops.

The design of the irrigation system is also important. A poor system can kill your plants by giving them too much or too little water.

It's also expensive. Kull says that an improperly engineered system can mean that as much as 80% of the water it uses is wasted.

In classes focusing on irrigation, students learn about sprinkler head types and how to select ones that will use water efficiently.

And, of course, once your landscaping is installed, it must be maintained.

There are too many homeowners out there who know "absolutely nothing" about how to properly maintain a yard and who end up having plenty of problems, says Nicholas Visbeek, who teaches classes in landscape maintenance at Rancho Santiago. Visbeek has a degree in horticulture and nearly 30 years' experience in the field.

"What I try to do is teach people to properly maintain their existing landscape--and along with that I try to give them a better insight on how to plant their landscaping," Visbeek says. He strives, he says, to "teach people to be more concerned with the plant materials they have, to be greatly concerned about using chemicals, greatly concerned about the amount of water they use. . . ." Problem-solving is a big part of Visbeek's classes. Students are taught how to evaluate a problem and arrive at a solution.

Most people, when they see part of a lawn starting to dry out, will simply put more water on that spot, Visbeek says. That's rarely the answer, he says.

Instead, the homeowner should first find out why that area of the lawn might be drying out. Is there a plugged sprinkler? Is the soil so compacted that the ground can't absorb the water? "There are many things that could be wrong with that area that require more attention than adding water," he says.

Visbeek says he also teaches plant selection with an eye to who will be doing the maintaining. He tells his students to "think about what to plant . . . so when it's all done, they will have their weekends free . . . instead of being in (the) yard every Sunday."


Golden West Community Services

15744 Golden West Street, Huntington Beach

(714) 891-3991

Series of 3 Saturday seminars on landscape design: 9 a.m. to Noon, $22 each or $58 for all three classes.

Instructor: Daniel Songster

Basic Landscape Design for the Home Owner, April 21

Sprinkler Installation For the Homeowner, April 28

Basic lawn and Garden Care for the Homeowner, May 5

Perfect Plants for Your Landscape-- Sat. April 21

1 p.m.--3 p.m., fee $14.

Instructor: Daniel Songster

Rancho Santiago Community Services

17th St. at Bristol St., Santa Ana

(714) 667-3096

A series of four classes, in Landscape Design: 6:30--9:30 p.m., March 28, April 4, 18 and 25, $21 each class or $72 for the series (second person from household pays half price for series)

Instructor: David Kull

Landscape Maintenance: a series of four classes to help homeowners create a healthy, low maintenance landscape in their yards, $15 each class or $45 for series. Current series is in progress, but the series will be repeated July 11--Aug. 1.

Instructor: Nick Visbeek

Irvine Valley College Community Services

5500 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine

(714) 559-9300

A series of four classes on Landscaping to Beautify Your Home: 9:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., Saturdays, $25 each or $80 for series (half off series price for second person from household)

Instructor: David Kull

Basic Landscape Design, March 10

Grading, drainage and construction, March 17

Planting, March 24

Irrigation, March 31

Saddleback College Community Education

28000 Marguerite Parkway

Mission Viejo

(714) 582-4650

Save money by Preparing Your Own Landscape Plans: a series of four classes, 6:30 p.m.--9:15 p.m., $29 each or $80 for series (half of series price for second person in family)

Instructor: W. Howard Reynolds

Residential Landscape Master Plan, April 3

Residential Landscaping Construction and Drainage, April 17

Residential Landscape Planting, April 24

Residential Landscape Irrigation, May 1

North Orange County Community College District

(714) 871-4030, ext. 15

Residential Landscape Master Plan: May 3, 10, 17, 24, 6:30 p.m. to 9:15 p.m., $25 per class or $80 for series of 4, District Education Center, 1000 N. Lemon St., Fullerton.

Instructor: David Kull

A series of Gardening seminars: $26 each, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., Fullerton Campus, 321 Chapman Ave., Fullerton.

Instructor: Nick Federoff

Lawn Varieties & Their Care, March 16

Vegetable Gardening, April 20

Gardening with Flowers, May 18

Water-saving Gardening, June 22

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