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Basics of Landscape Design

While designing the landscape around your home can seem a daunting task to the uninitiated, it is simply a matter of taking things one step at a time, taking in to account the various factors that can affect our landscape in the long term. We’ll review the roadmap from planning to planted…

The way we plan to use our yard should be the key factor in our design…

  • Traffic
    How do vehicles and people move about the property? Does the oil man need a hose run? Do we need a place to get vehicles into the backyard
  • Recreation
    Are there children to take into account? Pets? Are you using the space for volleyball? Horseshoes? Golf?
  • Screening
    Are there views we don’t want to see? Breezy conditions? Too much sun?
  • Vistas
    Are there views from the house we want to accent or improve? Are there porches or patios outside we want to treat in the same fashion?

Consider who will enjoy your garden
The primary consideration in our gardens should be the people who use them. While certain theme gardens may ostensibly focus on other considerations (birds, butterflies, etc.), the people who are viewing the garden are the true focus. How we move people through the garden space is our primary consideration; the aesthetics of that function are, in my mind, overridden by the function (maybe you think a gravel driveway would look great, but if the gravel ends up getting shot through your plate glass window because it got kicked into the lawn and mowed, what price aesthetics?).

Driveways and paths are only the first part of that equation; how the eye moves through the garden can influence how the body follows. Screening undesirable views is a good idea, but occasionally screening a nice garden area can be of even more value in encouraging viewers to see what lies just around that bend in the path (the Japanese call this “miegakure”, or hide and reveal). This can be a key tool in getting people to take those first steps off of the “main drag” and explore different sections of the garden (the not-so-new buzzword is “rooms”). Another trick along these lines is to expose a vista or other point of visual interest (hereafter referred to as POVI) that encourages them to journey out and take a look-see. Think about moving people through the garden and a logical sequence may provide a lot of great design ideas…

Designing a functional garden
Functionality often imposes certain restrictions on what we do in the design (driveways aren’t the prettiest feature of the landscape but they do make it easier to get the car in the garage). Drainage is a key feature often overlooked by the budding designer and it is a make or break point in many designs. Get it right and no one notices; get it wrong and plants languish and die in boggy beds, huge puddles kill lawn, and in the worst case scenario you awake to the slap and gurgle of water in the basement. This is truly a thankless task, but one of the highest priorities in the whole process. Give it a lot of thought (I bought my own transit, but they can be rented and are worth their weight in gold to the final outcome). Nothing sexy about changing the grade or building a retaining wall or raised bed, but it can make all the difference between success and failure for a garden.

Screening undesirable views or weather (usually wind, but the right screen can help screen salty breezes, dust or other environmental factors) is a high priority in the design process; I usually do my first walk through with an eye strictly to finding the design problems before I even give a thought to final themes or aesthetics. I view children and pets as part of this process and both can be a terror, especially to a new landscape and if sufficient spaces are not allotted both have a way of creating their own space (even if it is in the middle of that bed of prized plants). Don’t think simply of the animals and kids on the property; that basketball will tear up the perennial border no matter which side of the property line it came from, so take the neighbors into account too. Space for recreation should take the adults into account as well; even if that volleyball game is once a year at the family get together, will family stability be threatened if Uncle Bobby takes out a delphinium or three diving for that dig? I am no fan of lawn space for a number of reasons, but sometimes greensward is a necessary evil; don’t skimp where that’s the case…

Finally think about how you move through the garden when maintaining it; beds should make mowing easier (I like gentle curves), not harder, hoses should have hose guides at the appropriate corners, beds should have stepping stones or the like to move amongst the plants without compacting soil, etc. The every day mechanics of maintaining the garden are often overlooked by professionals let alone the amateur designer, yet these small points become larger as you use the garden day in and day out. A little forethought can make your life a LOT easier down the road, and that’s every time you work in the garden.

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