Creating Your Design

Plan your work and work your plan

OK, now that I’ve laid out some of the possibilities to consider in designing your home landscape. Let’s get down to the nuts and bolts. You’ll want to walk around your house with a tape measure, a piece of graph paper and a pencil. Note down the lengths of all the walls, the heights and locations of the windows, as well as location, shape and dimensions of existing patios, walkways, fences, walls and utilities. Note also the existing plants that you want to keep and topographical features such as slopes and depressions. You might take some pictures for easy reference later. Make a note of which direction is north. You may also make notes of desirable or undesirable views that you wish to either enhance or block.

Hopefully you’ve already done the dreaming part. Winter is a good time to dream and sketch the plans with a warm fire and a hot cup of coffee. It’s good to have some ideas in mind while drawing up your plan. You might have gotten these ideas from books or gardens you’ve visited or maybe a house you’ve seen. But of course you’ll need to temper your plans by considering such details as local ordinances, the climate where you live and your budget. So, take your measurements and make a scale drawing from an overhead perspective of your house, walks, patios and property lines as well as the existing features. A scale of 1 inch = 10 ft. usually works well for the immediate vicinity of the house. A larger property might require 1 inch = 20 ft. or you could make more than one drawing. After you’ve got a drawing of the existing features that you will be keeping, you can begin to add new features and plants.

After you’ve got a scale drawing of the existing features, you should add the “bones” of the garden. his would be the main features such as large trees and walks or patios. The same will be true when it comes to the installation. You’ll place the large features first and then work around them for the details. Make your mistakes on paper! That’s why we’re making a plan. It’s much less expensive than making mistakes on the ground. For example, think about the dimensions of your patio. ow much space will you need for furniture or features? Do you want a fire pit? Is this something you need? A permanent fire pit will dedicate that space to only that function. You might consider a movable fire container instead. If you build in a fire pit you must consider the prevailing wind. You don’t want to be sitting in smoke! What about a hot tub or barbecue grill? You might want a total outdoor kitchen. How many people will you normally entertain at one time? Consider all these factors when determining whether you want a patio or deck and its dimensions.

That brings up another point. Do you want a patio or a deck? One of the main considerations to help you with that decision is, how much slope there is to deal with in your lawn. If you’ve got much of a slope it might make more sense to use a deck. It’s still possible to make a patio but you’ll need to level the site with walls and do some cut and fill which would certainly be more expensive and possibly lead to some settling later.

Another consideration is how high your doorway is above the ground leading to the entertaining area. If your door is low and the yard is flat, a patio of concrete or concrete pavers will make more sense. But if your door is 4’ above the ground you might consider at least a small deck as a landing area to get you easily out the door before going down steps to a lower level. It’s always a good idea to have the adjoining outdoor surface at the same level as the indoor floor for ease of transition to the outside. Picture yourself carrying a tray full of drinks out the door and immediately down a flight of steps!

Decks used to be very popular but have fallen off lately in popularity for various reasons. One reason is the introduction of concrete pavers. Concrete pavers are quite versatile, attractive and very durable.

Concrete itself used to be popular and is comparatively inexpensive. Stamped concrete is very nice, but concrete will crack in time unless it is poured very thick. No exceptions. Decks on the other hand often require building permits, paint or staining and are about 4 times the cost of concrete and 2 times the cost of concrete pavers. But don’t give up on the deck idea. As mentioned, a deck might be more appropriate than a patio given a slope or high doorway. Decks are also very attractive and versatile. Some of the newer “composite” materials can eliminate the painting or staining job. Although, composites are considerably more expensive than wood. Actually, you’ll find that many of the composite materials will fade and can’t be stained to give it that new look of freshly stained wood. Maintenance of a wood deck isn’t quite as bad as it seems. Stains can be easily sprayed on and even that job need only be done every 3 to 5 years. Ok, let’s get back to the fun part of dreaming and planning and talk about a few “rules of thumb.”

Take advantage of existing features. You might recall I asked you to note down features that you might want to retain in your new garden. I love working with older houses which have some existing trees or other features to work with. It’s actually harder to get creative with a bare slate than when given a gnarly old tree or other feature to work with. As mentioned before, what might appear on the surface as a problem area such as a steep slope, wet area or dense woods, could become a main object to feature in your new garden.

Remember, “simple design is the best design”. Many hobby gardeners have a problem here in that we are collectors. We want to try every new plant that comes down the pike and our gardens become a “hodge podge” with no overall design theme. Referring back to “curb appeal”, imagine yourself driving past a house at 35 mph and glancing at the front yard. With a wide collection of different colors and textures it will be hard to take in that scene and process it as a pretty image. But with a common groundcover, a few tall tree accents framing the house, and consistent color for highlights you’ve got a pleasant scene that’s probably much easier for the homeowner to maintain.

Use massing for best effect. Remember the last time you saw a large floral display in a public garden? It was probably large beds of the same color bulbs, annuals or perennials that caught your eye with its mass of color and texture. This massing works not only for herbaceous color but for larger trees and shrubs as well. It’s just a matter of scale and how much room we are working with. Trees look nicer in groups. A grove of trees has much more impact than a single tree. This is especially true with evergreens. When you are trying to screen the wind or a view with evergreens, more is always better. Furthermore, when planting in groups, use odd numbers. Informal groups of 3 or 5 look more natural than groups of 2 or 4. Along with this discussion of massing I should mention a phenomenon that occurs with regularity. I’ll see that 3 or 5 shrubs are planted in a group which is intended by the designer to grow together forming a mass. But after a few years the homeowner starts pruning them into individual balls or squares. This is unnecessary maintenance. These plants should be allowed to grow together in a group forming a large mass. If you want it to look neat you can prune the edges and top of the whole group but allow the group to grow together. This is the natural effect you are looking for which reduces maintenance. The larger mass will cover more ground reducing the space for weeds to grow.

Natural design will definitely reduce maintenance. The pruning is less demanding. Plants can be left a little more uneven on the edges. Curving walkways and beds are easier to mow and walk around as opposed to straight and angular lines. Avoid planting in straight rows. Curving lines will help soften the straight architectural lines of the building which is often why we are landscaping in the first place! Use smooth, gentle curves. Extremely curvy lines are equally inappropriate as it looks too contrived and lacks purpose. As mentioned above, the natural element also encourages massing and group plantings. A natural design doesn’t require constant shearing and manicuring. The natural woodlands look pretty good without constant care. Of course low maintenance doesn’t mean “no maintenance”. Particularly where turf is involved you’ll need to do some mowing and trimming or removal of sticks and leaves. But a natural design allows for the plants to grow to their natural dimensions and fill in their given spaces with a minimum of pruning.

We’ve discussed many major issues to consider in your design. Let’s talk now about some of the finer points. What about contrasting colors and textures? To make a certain group of plants stand out they should be located next to something contrasting. This might refer to tall things behind lower things or coarse texture next to fine texture. Of course contrasting colored flowers will enhance each other. Red against yellow will stand out much more than pink against white. And then you must also consider when these flowers will be in bloom. It does no good to have two contrasting flower colors if they don’t bloom at the same time. On the other hand, it’s good to have something in the garden blooming at all times. Rare is the plant that blooms all summer. So you’ll want to select something for color in each season. Colorful foliage is an easy way to bring color into the garden for the entire summer. Many plants have yellow or purple foliage. However, you’ll soon learn that colorful foliage on most plants, like flowers, will have a peak season and then fade. Fresh color is always best so don’t count on that bright yellow foliage being attractive when it fades to a dirty yellow/green or the dark purple becomes a washed out rusty brown. Of course you’ll also need to consider the winter appearance and therefore incorporate some things for winter color. Winter color isn’t always green, nor is it only achieved with evergreens. Conifer gardens can be very colorful with the various shades of green, yellow and blue foliage available. Besides foliage and flowers, winter color might come in the form of colorful bark or persistent colorful berries. Winter interest might also be achieved in the coarse naked branching of a tree. The bottom line is that you’ll have to try to visualize your garden in every season of the year for best results.