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Landscaping tips + mistakes we wish we knew earlier

I thought maybe we should share some of the things we’ve learned over the years of owning our home and all the changes we’ve made to the front and back landscaping!

Plant the biggest tree you can afford today

Like right now! Once you figure out where you need shade, get some trees in, and get them close enough to your home where they won’t damage your house (really, be careful) but enough where the canopy will provide your home with some shade relief.

Look how these trees have grown! Our favorite is ash and Chinese elm for how quickly they grow in Phoenix with such little water and they love the heat! Both trees drop their leaves in the winter which I like, but you may not like it.

Another option is the ficus tree. I find them too dense but you can cut them, I like how they look at the Biltmore Fashion Park. They do not drop leaves.

Plan for landscape lighting

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You can’t see it, but we added a pipe under the “fake fountain” along the back wall so the lighting could connect on both sides of the focal point.

Even if you aren’t planning on spending money on lighting right now, at least have the plan to which means — when you design, and start pouring cement or making something pretty permanent, still PLAN for it. 


Start adding plastic pipes under your sidewalks or porches so the wires have a place to easily get across paths or obstacles when you do add the lights.

We used Volt Lighting for our needs and we hired an electrician to install the lights, super easy! Be aware though, some of their clearance items have special lights and they go out of stock and they don’t make them and won’t send anymore and you’re SOL (speaking from experience)…and the lights sold at Volt Lighting can also be found elsewhere so do your research.

Invest in trimming your trees, especially the big ones

Our front yard tree is dying and that’s because we didn’t prune hard enough and the branches and limbs have snapped off from weight during monsoon season or just because it got too heavy! 

We lightly pruned but really tree limbs can be so heavy you need to cut back some branches and weight!

Pruning costs a lot but it is a smaller investment than removing a tree, all the hassle and cost that comes with it, AND buying a tree and waiting for it to grow to a mature size.

Know which trees and shrubs need sunlight to flourish

Below is a photo when we just planted some ficus (we now have more filled between).
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The ficus were slowly filling in but we didn’t think we’d ever get the look we want because of the lack of direct sun

Ficus bushes need a lot of light. Unfortunately we put them all on the north facing wall of our backyard. Well, they have been struggling for years until we cut back some branches from our trees but still, not looking very great. So we added more recently. 

If you hire a landscape designer, double check the plants with a nursery or someone who really knows lighting and see what you can grow. Sometimes however, no one can predict it all, such as reflections, hot boxes, etc.

Know your desire AND TIME YOU HAVE to maintain the landscape (AND THE COST OF WATER)

I have over 50 rose bushes. They are my responsibility (says Benjamin haha) and I care for them, prune and fertilize them throughout the year. It’s a lot and they bring me joy, but I have to be realistic about how much work they are, or if I am willing and trusting enough for someone else to come and prune them.

As for the watering, you’re going to be surprised when I tell you our water bill monthly is quite low. I had an issue with my website and a GoDaddy rep saw my blog asked if it was my Phoenix backyard and said, “You must have a high water bill,” and I thought that was so rude! I immediately replied, “No, we pay $100 a year for flood irrigation through the city and because we have a microclimate I don’t need to water my plants that much.” *eye roll* and I’m sure my water bill isn’t as high as someone with a pool (and not throwing any shade at that either!) it shocks me how everyone assumes living in Arizona means we don’t have green and we must live with dirt and cactus. Um noooo.

Only plant fruit trees you will actually enjoy

orchard fence ideas how to transition from farmhouse decor to traditional touches

Our orchard

Citrus does do well here but I’m not enjoying my lime tree as much as you think, and that kumquat tree we had to remove when we built my master closet dressing room, well we never enjoyed that either! The lemons we do, and the mandarin oranges absolutely! 
Also additional tips: fertilize, call an arborist immediately if you think a tree looks strange, use fungicide or look up what is wrong with your bush or tree before it’s too late. 

Don’t plant trees too close to your neighbors

Unless we live in a 1 acre property, it’s not like we have a ton of options on where to plant trees, but consider the canopy when it is grown in 10+ years. You might later find it annoying to manage your tree and your neighbor might find it annoying your leaves are going into their pool. 

I think I would’ve moved our trees closer to our home to shade our home, but it’s too late, they are now quite mature.


Of course you can’t go back in time so you just have to do what you can! We have removed several trees without any idea what we were doing when we placed them in the ground and remember the nurseries will sell you anything because they don’t care.

I saw a neighbor with 6 little elm trees in the front of his house. I was like wait that area has space for ONE not 6!!!!! I don’t know what they were thinking but that nursery was probably just glad they sold 6 little trees! He’s going to have to spend some serious money in a few years removing them.

I hope those tips help you if you are working on your landscape.


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Diana Elizabeth Steffen setting the table for her annual garden party


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Diana Elizabeth is an author, photographer, and obsessive thrift shopper. You can typically find her in the garden wrist deep in dirt, at a local estate sale or planning her next creative themed party. She continues to blog weekly.


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