Are you house shopping? Looking for the perfect house is already difficult, so looking for the perfect house with the perfect garden sounds almost impossible. There are however some garden criteria you should look for and consider to get the outdoor space that has the best potential for transforming into a tranquil garden.
So you decided that you want or need a new-to-you house. Maybe your current house is too small or too big, you are moving due to a new job or you are not happy with your current place.
Most real estate agents will say that location is the most important criteria to consider.
While that is important, most home shoppers consider the inside of the house such as the floor layout, the finishes and the general ambience to be the most important.
And then you have gardeners that are going to rate the outdoor spaces high on their list of must-haves and will be picky about what they can accept.
So how do you balance your needs for the right location, the right house and the right garden? You can achieve all of them, assuming you have a reasonable budget to purchase a house and some time to search for just the right place.
I’ll focus on the outdoor spaces of course in this post.
Please note that the assumption is that you live in the Northern Hemisphere. If you live in the Southern Hemisphere you will need to swap north for south.
Your property and house orientation and surroundings have a huge effect on how successful your outdoor spaces will be for growing plants and for relaxing.
As with most things, what your plans are for the spaces will determine what is important to you.
Vegetable and fruit considerations
If you want to grow vegetables or fruit, you need a decent amount of sunshine for a large part of the day. Where you have that concentration of sunshine will matter and ideally you want that to be in your backyard, behind your house.
But why the backyard for growing food crops?
- backyards are usually fenced in, protecting your crops from certain animals such as deer; if there is no fence or it is not high enough, bylaws usually allow for taller fences in back rather than in front.
- many people still see vegetable gardens as not something that they want to display to their neighbours (although that is changing), so the front yard is out in terms of growing vegetables there. Some bylaws or Home Owner Associations (HOA) also don’t allow growing food crops in front of your house. More on that below.
- kitchens usually have a door leading to the backyard, making it easy to step out to get a few fresh tomatoes for a salad or cut a few herbs for a stew or soup
- outdoor kitchens with barbecues are usually in the backyard, again making it easy to grab something from the garden to throw on the bbq
- backyard gardens are hidden away from passerby’s if you are the type of person who doesn’t want to share their harvest freely
- if you live on a busy street you may not want to grow vegetables too close to the street due to pollution from cars and salt spray from winter road salting if you live where there is lots of snowfall
So if you are only considering growing food crops in the backyard, ideally you want your prospective house oriented so that the backyard is facing south. This will maximize the sun exposure.
You can also get away with a backyard with west exposure, like I have. However you don’t get too much sun in the morning, so everything takes longer to warm up.
East exposure is okay as you will get sun starting first thing in the morning. However in cooler climates your garden will be in shade for the hottest part of the day in the afternoon, making it harder to grow sun-loving food crops.
North exposure is a tough one to deal with. You will get some sun in the early morning and then again late in the afternoon but you will find it hard to grow any vegetables that need a good 6-8 hours of sun or more. Good for growing some greens perhaps but that is about it.
Orientation is of course going to depend highly on how tall the house is, how large the property is, what trees already exist on the property and your neighbour’s structures and trees. But if you have the wrong orientionation it could mean having your food crops in an odd location to avoid the shadow of your house.
If you are dedicated to having a tranquil garden, you will want to spend time in it to enjoy it. So you will want to have one or more seating areas, whether they are on a deck, patio, balcony or on a patch of lawn in the middle of the garden.
Unless you have to stay completely out of the sun, you will want to have at least one seating area in the sun for part of the day. So based on the compass directions, let’s look at which ones might fit your needs.
North: as mentioned above, this will be the least sunny location. Even if you prefer being on the cooler side, you may find that your seating area will grow moss and generally require more maintenance to keep clean.
East: this is great if you prefer sitting outside to have your first cup of coffee or tea or breakfast. We don’t have an east-facing seating area so I miss being able to sit in the sunshine first thing in the morning. It helps improve your mood and start off the day right.
South: you will have sun on a south-facing seating area for most of the day if not blocked by buildings or trees. So your main challenge here is that you will need to provide some shade at least for the latter half of the day when the temperature rises to the maximum.
West: this is where our main seating area is on our second-floor deck. If the place you are looking at has the same, it’s going to be very hot in the afternoon. You will need to provide some shade to be able to sit outside comfortably. And keep in mind that you won’t have any sun in the morning if you like having your breakfast or first cup of coffee on the deck or patio.
With flowers you have a bit more leeway as generally you will have flowerbeds scattered throughout your garden. So you can pick and chose where certain flowers are planted based on their light needs.
And you will find there is a better selection of flowers that do well in part shade and even full shade.
So I would instead focus on the two previous points and not worry too much about how the choice of property affects flower growing.
This might at first seem to be a nice-to-have and even a luxury, but if you have very dry summers with little rain like we do, you will be glad to have an automated irrigation system.
Yes, you can add it later but it does cost quite a bit of money and can be very disruptive to established planting and hardscaping such as paths and structures.
What you want to look for if the house has an irrigation system is that it is split up into zones. This way you have adequate water pressure when watering. A system that has too much on one zone will see a huge drop in water pressure as it tries to provide enough water to all of the sprinklers heads.
One thing to consider and something that I plan on working on as I find time on my own, is to convert an existing sprinkler system to a drip or micro irrigation system. It will help you save water over a conventional sprinkler system.
Without an irrigation system you will need to hand water frequently during dry spells to avoid losing plants. And trust me, that is a time-consuming task that ends up sometimes not being done and then your plants will suffer. So if your house-to-be has an irrigation system, consider that a huge bonus in making your life easier.
When we looked at our current house when it was on the market, one feature we really liked was the mature fruit trees in the backyard. I’ve written before on the value of having your own orchard so I won’t repeat the whole story here on the abundance we have in our garden.
Fruit trees can be planted of course but usually take several years to establish enough to bear a decent crop of fruit. A house with an established orchard of fruit trees is therefore almost priceless.
Then there are ornamental trees. Often they are grown mainly for the beauty and colour the provide to the landscape, but they can also provide shade if situated properly.
Ornamental trees can be beautiful even when small but are of course more stunning when they are a mature size. Buying a medium sized tree can be very expensive, depending on the variety. And you have the hassle of getting it home, planting it and tending to it for the first year or more.
So having established trees of any kind goes a long way to saving you time and money.
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These can be a thorn in your side depending on where the property you are looking at is located.
These bylaws could be ones the local municipality enforces or rules that the local Homeowners Association (HOA) has if the property is located in a strata community.
Unless you want to get into legal trouble, you will need to obey bylaws and rules when it comes to all aspects of owning a home. Gardens are not an exception.
It can be very limiting whenever you want to:
- erect structures such as decks, pergolas, greenhouses, fences
- paint structures or install certain colours of hardscaping
- plant any kind of tree
- remove lawn and replace it with other ground covers or plants
- plant vegetables and fruit
So be aware of the restrictions as it might limit what you can do in your outdoor space. It could even get to the point where you need to give up on some of the dream features you want to have.
This is in reference to walkways, walls, stairs and other hard surfaced areas.
The least expensive hardscaping is usually concrete. But this is considered to be permanent.
Yes, you can remove it if you absolutely need to, but that involves heavy equipment such as jackhammers. And then you have the problem of getting rid of the concrete you remove or finding ways to repurpose it.
So if there is extensive concrete hardscaping, be sure you are happy with it and can work around it.
Hardscaping that is made from bricks, pavers or flagstones is easier to deal with if you want to make changes. Make sure they are set with just sand between them and not set in concrete.
Access from the inside
Have you ever lived in a house where there is no way to directly access the backyard from inside the house. While rare, they do exist. Or even if there is a door it may not be convenient if it is located on the first floor/basement and your main living quarters are on the second floor.
If you have to go out the front door, a side door or garage door, walk around the house, through a gate and into your backyard, you will be less likely to use the backyard. It will seem a chore to snip off a few herbs for a soup or grab some lettuce for a salad or pick some fruit for dessert.
And you are less likely to go outside for a short sit on your deck or patio if it means having to bring your drink, your book and a snack for a longer walk around the house.
Now you can of course add a door somewhere on the back of your house to allow access to the garden. In our previous house we replaced the kitchen window with a sliding patio door and build a deck outside of it. There is of course the cost to consider and that can get expensive if it is not just a door you need. Now you may need a deck and stairs built too!
Access from the outside
Similar to the above point, consider how you will access the backyard from the outside. In some types of attached housing, such as rowhouses or townhouses, there is no way to access the backyard from outside of the house.
So when you have visitors to the garden, you will need to take them through the house to the backyard.
This may work fine with friends or family that you have invited for dinner, let’s say. They can grab a drink and a snack on the way to the backyard, chill the wine they brought and store the dish they brought in the fridge or pop it in the oven to keep warm.
However if you have a strict “no shoes” rule in your house, they will have to take off their shoes, carry them through the house and put them on again when they get to your back door.
For people you don’t know well, let’s say a landscape contractor providing a bid on a job or someone who is buying your old deck furniture, you don’t really need them to walk through your whole house.
And keep in mind that anything you want to bring into the backyard will need to go through your house. Soil, plants, trees in containers, rocks, mulch, etc. all need to get from the front to the back. You would need to put down some protective covering over your floors to avoid damaging them. I’ve seen this in some of the British gardening shows, where this is a common problem. They manage somehow but it does look awkward and time-consuming.
Even in a conventional detached house, having a garden gate that is too narrow or stairs that you need to go up will make getting large items into and out of your backyard a pain. And it makes the garden less accessible for someone in a wheelchair.
I have that problem with my main garden entrance as I have stairs and a really inadequate ramp. It made it hard to get 3 yards of soil that was delivered in my driveway into my raised beds. I had to wheel the wheelbarrow through my other garden entrance on the north side of my house which meant going the long way around my whole house with at least 30 or more wheelbarrow loads!
You also may need to consider getting a small bulldozer into your backyard if you ever decide to do some extensive regrading work or build a large pond. There are some really small dozers that can fit through small openings, but if you literally have just two feet between your house and the next house or the property line fence, you are going to have problems.
This is the hardest criteria to evaluate in the short time you usually have to look at a property, but can be key to growing healthy plants in your outdoor space. Microclimates are very small areas that have a different climate than the surrounding general area.
Every property has several microclimates. It may be an area that gets full sun all day and tends to be very dry because the heat bounces off a stone wall. Or it could be microclimate on the other temperature extreme such as at the bottom of a slope where cool air tends to collect.
So consider what you want to do in the garden and look for areas that you may want to avoid or areas that might be perfect for your needs.
I will expand on this in a future blog post but in the meantime, I’ve found this post that gives some examples.
There are more garden criteria that you may want to consider when buying a house. It really depends on what your plans are for the new-to-you garden and what your lifestyle is like.
But these 7 criteria in this post will hopefully help in your difficult decision of what house to consider making an offer on. You should then have the foundations you need to transform your new outdoor space into a tranquil garden.
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Do you have any regrets about your current property and how some of these criteria negatively impact what kind of a garden you can have? Share in the comments to help someone else who may be right now searching for a house.
And be sure to check out my post on curb appeal if you are also selling a house.