Why to survey and take an inventory of your yard

Whether you just bought your new home or just decided to take stock of what you should get done in your yard as spring approaches, the first thing to do is to survey what you have. That way you can figure out how to use what you have to get to what will look best with limited additional investment and work.

Let’s start with where you are located.

USDA Climate Map
USDA Climate Map

THIS LINK is to the interactive United States Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness map. You can enter your zip code and it’ll take you to your specific area. The 2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree Fahrenheit zones.

Now, you can better tell what kind of non-native ornamental plants (that’s the pretty ones with flowers and such) will and will not thrive in your area. I live in Zone 7B, so when you read me referring to something being done at a particular time of year, you can adjust for your area. We’ll talk about microclimates later.

Next, find a copy of the plat of your property and get a compass.

If you weren’t a Boy or Girl Scout or a Brownie, but you do own an iPhone or iPad, there’s one built into your phone so “you have an app for that!” There’s probably a similar app on the Android platform but I don’t know that platform. It’s important to orient your lot with how the sun rises generally in the east and sets generally in the west because plants are sensitive to how much sun and shade they need regularly to grow well.

Fun fact!

Did you know that if you have a street lamp in your front yard, the chlorophyll in your plants exposed to it will continue to process CO2 into sugar and free up oxygen? I always thought that was pretty amazing.

Anyway, you should make a bigger copy of the plat before proceeding. That’s because you’re about to take an inventory of the trees and shrubs on your property, marking each in the approximate location it’s in and the estimated height and width of each so you’ll need the room.

If you think you know what the species is, mark that down as well. If not, take a picture and a sample of the leaves (or limb structure) and bark. You’ll be able to identify it with this evidence.

Why is this important?

Because you’ll be able to document how big the plant is supposed to become, what is its growing season, what ornamental value it provides (if any) and what side effects the plant may have on your landscape plan.

For instance, I have a tree in my front yard that I finally identified as a Black Oak. Turns out the reason nothing grows well in the drip line of this tree (that’s the area under the leaf canopy of  the tree) is because it secretes a chemical that retards the growth of any competing plants in it’s vicinity which cost me three previous wasted attempts to plant around this tree.

Since it’s part of my challenges with my landscaping, let’s not forget to note any drainage problems on your plat. Just a few arrows indicating where you think flowing rain water may gather and go on your land. If you don’t know what a problem and opportunity this can cause, trust me, unless you have a flat yard it’s very important. It might be a good idea to get an umbrella and do your best Gene Kelly in “Singing in the Rain” impersonation next time you get a good shower!

So, now you have your plant hardiness zone, how the sun rises and sets and the resulting shadows go, and what plants you have to work around. That’s your starting place, but there is one more thing you need to do.

Soil Sample Bags
Soil Sample Bags

Take a soil sample.

For healthy plants, you’ve got to have healthy soil. A big part of your initial survey is to determine what kinds of soil you have to work with. Your county extension agent can provide you sample bags which you can fill and send into your state Agricultural School for analysis. You’ll want this base test to tell you what kind of fertilizers or additives you may need for healthy plant growth. Here’s a LINK to the details of how to do it.

It’s a very inexpensive test (usually under $10) which will save you lots of money for unnecessary fertilizers and reward you with healthier growth so get going on this initial survey on your next yard day.

I’d love to hear your ideas on this topic. If you have any suggestions or other comments make sure you post it below. Also, if there is something I’ve left you unclear on or you’d like to know more about or see in future posts, just let me know! In one of my next posts, we’ll go over what to do with all this information. Now it’s time to go out and have fun in your yard!

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