(Some things to consider)
Just what is a well-designed landscape? In a nutshell, a well-designed landscape is one that has a pleasant appearance all year around with minimal maintenance. You may have heard the expression “simple design is the best design”. It’s true! Even the knowledgeable gardeners among us are guilty of trying to “overachieve” in a given space making it too “busy”. Too many different plants, too much vibrant color, too many “eye catchers” or garden ornaments can be distracting. A solid background massing of green with a colorful specimen or original garden art to accent can be much more effective and simpler to maintain.
Another thumb rule is “natural design is the best design”. One of the greatest compliments a garden designer could receive is that his creation “looks natural”. I feel it should blend in or complement the native environment. In fact we have an opportunity here to improve upon the natural environment. We can choose the more decorative plants and eliminate the ones with negative features such as thorns, floppiness, invasiveness or seasonal poor appearance. We can also select the placement of features to best enhance appearance and use of the given space. You might say that a garden is “designed nature”. Good design is timeless. It is classic. To quote the 19th Century designer Antoni Gaudi, “Nothing is art if it does not come from nature”. Or according to the Spanish architectural scholar Juan Bassegoda, we should “…look to nature for inspiration. Nature does not go out of fashion.”
I don’t mean to say that formal gardens are not well designed. Indeed, they are very well thought out and quite impressive. The famous “old world” gardens were usually formal. But in that day they were financed by people of means who had servants to build and maintain them. I’m primarily addressing the modern homeowner or business who wants their environment to be attractive and pleasant but who probably doesn’t have the time, expertise or resources to maintain a formal garden. One situation that might call for a bit more “formality” is the colonial style house that is very symmetrical. In this case a symmetrical planting of the background plants might be appropriate. But we can still use the correct size plants and keep them pruned a bit more loosely with added color around them.
So what’s the “take home” on natural design? It utilizes curving beds, odd number plant groups, natural mulching materials, and pruning to maintain a plant’s natural shape. Unfortunately, the converse of this is the norm in America today. Straight bed lines following the foundation of the house, plants in rows, pruning every plant into boxes and globes to fit in a space that’s much too small for the plant’s natural habit or worse yet, mulching with colorful gravel. With a little basic information you can make your home environment much more appealing and easy to maintain.
So what am I talking about? Plants should be in beds rather than “spot planted” around the yard. Beds will eliminate mowing in the little odd spaces and inside corners around the house. Mowing lines should be smooth, gently curving and unbroken. Use something low and maybe colorful under the windows. Consider something interesting near the front door to draw the visitor’s eye to the entrance. You might want to frame your house with a small tree on the corner, planted in a bed that comes out and rounds the sharp corner of the house. Plants should be carefully selected for the best qualities to fit the areas intended. This would mean shade and screening where needed, low growing plants under windows and in the foreground, pleasant winter appearance on the street side of the house, balance of summer color and evergreens. Of course other considerations are ease of movement around the property and designated uses for the various areas.
Landscape design might be as basic as where to plant a tree given as a gift or as complex as where to site a new home on a 50 acre wooded lot. A large custom built home will usually have a more complex landscape, but any home can be “customized” and made special with a well-designed landscape garden. In the case of a new home on a wooded site, you must give careful thought to which of the existing trees should be saved and which to cut down. This will impact where you put the house and how your driveway will run. Of course the topography and water flow must also be considered. A sloping site or a site with large existing trees might call for bigger beds to eliminate grass or terrace walls for leveling the beds. More often than not, with proper design, a seemingly “difficult” situation such as a steep slope, ravine, extreme shade or wetness can be made into an interesting feature.
Do you have a problem with a difficult slope or neighboring noise? You might consider covering a steep slope with a “groundcover” to eliminate mowing. Don’t think of groundcover as just a low growing substitute for turf. A groundcover is anything that covers the ground, regardless of its height. Certain perennials and grasses make excellent spreading groundcovers. There are shrubs that grow 2, 4 or 6’ high that will spread, cover a bank, choke out the weeds and eliminate mowing. Depending on the situation you might even add trees to shade a large, steep bank and reduce potential weeds. As for shielding from a noisy area, consider large leaved plants which make good sound absorbers.
People often ask what they can do with an extremely shaded site. While the shade might be too dense for a successful lawn, this is not necessarily a problem. Many plants thrive in the shade. It’s just a matter of selecting plants that prefer shade and this would include many nice groundcovers evergreens or perennials. Typically flowers aren’t as abundant in shade, but neither are weeds!
The simple act of planting a tree should be given a lot of forethought considering that the tree will likely be there for many generations to come. All too often we see trees planted in the middle of the front yard just because it’s the center. Put your practical “thinking hat” on here. That tree might eventually hide your house or at least, fail to provide shade in the most optimal location. Shade trees should be situated to shade and cool the house from the south or southwest sun in the northern hemisphere. More specifically a shade tree could be used to block the glare of the late afternoon sun from blinding diners at the dining room table in the evening. Consider where shade is needed, whether it is the bedroom or living area or maybe the patio and place shade trees accordingly. Of course nature has this wonderful way of allowing the warming sun rays to shine through a leafless tree in the wintertime. Isn’t that cool?