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The Dance of the Elements
Elements are simply the individual things that you put into your landscape, the “stuff” that your landscape is made of. They are the materials that the artist uses to make the creation. They can be hard elements, for example, stone, statuary, fences, decks, etc., or they can be dynamic, such as plants or water gardens.
There is no clear separation between the two, however, hard materials are typically unchanging with the passing of the seasons and years and bring permanence to a landscape. On the other hand, dynamic materials, which are primarily plant-based, add life to a landscape and typically change with time. There is no doubt that both are essential to a good landscaping composition.
The best landscapes utilize a controlled balance of the two material types. A landscape based solely on plants would be very dynamic and would have very little sense of permanence or endurance. Over time, it would attempt to naturalize itself and would require a high degree of maintenance to keep it from going wild.
On the other hand, a fully hard landscape would look cold and dead. This is a common problem with city centers, the proverbial concrete jungles, which are sorely missing the living touch that only plants can bring.
The reality is that many of the landscape materials are already given for a landscape, rather than chosen by the designer. Hard elements such as a house, driveway, utilities such as gas meters or electrical boxes, and streetlights are already a part of your starting lineup.
Likewise, you will probably be starting with some kind of living ground cover like grass, the sky, sunlight and daily shade patterns, shadows, rain, water flow, etc. It is the new elements you bring into this existing picture, along with how you work with the ones you already have, that will determine the final composition of your landscape.
Most people automatically think of landscaping as the use of plants in the yard, and it is true that they are the basic constituent of any good landscape. Because plants are living beings, just like you and me, they require special attention and care. Remember that plants will not listen to you or bow to your wishes just because you want them to; if a tree normally grows to be 50 feet tall, it won’t care that it’s in the wrong place for such a tall tree.
Poorly placed or otherwise unhappy plants will die. But don’t get discouraged; by understanding the specific needs and characteristics of plants, and by planning ahead, you will develop a loving relationship with your plants just like you have with your dog or cat.
Types of Plants
Although plants are not easily grouped into specific categories, it is important that we do so for landscaping purposes. Following are the basic categories as commonly accepted;
Generally 20 feet tall or higher, trees are likely the most important of all the plants in a good landscape. They function as the backbone of a landscape and give it a vertical dimension. This is made even more significant by the fact that they take many years to grow to their full potential, and are virtually impossible to move once established.
They typically live for many years, often longer than most of their owners, and bring endurance to a landscape.
Trees, therefore, require the most planning and foresight. They almost always have a single trunk, although they can come in clumps, as with birch, or with two or more trunks; trees with multiple trunks will usually grow wider than the same species with single trunks.
Less than 20 feet tall, shrubs are more relevant to the human scale, forming accents, screens, and the foundation for mixed gardens. They are an invaluable landscaping tool for smaller yards and properties and bring a sense of scaling larger properties.
Many are favored for their flowering habits, but remember that these can be fleeting, while other characteristics such as texture and form can have a more lasting impact on a landscape. Shrubs typically have multiple stems, often originating at ground level, although some can be trained into tree form with proper pruning.
Vines are basically shrubs that prefer to grow on or up another structure, such as a fence, pergola, or even a tree. They can climb, ramble, and sprawl over man-made constructions, thus softening them by adding a touch of life.
They also enhance the vertical dimension, raising your garden into the air, to places where plants would otherwise not be able to grow. Many vines have been selected for their flowering characteristics, such as clematis, wisteria, or climbing roses.
Like shrubs, these plants live for a number of years, often 10 or more. They are differentiated by the fact that they die back to the ground every winter, regrowing each spring, and thus do not typically have woody (hardened) stems.
They are typically smaller than many shrubs (less than 3 feet tall) and can have more prominent flowering characteristics, although some are still chosen for foliage, texture, or function. These plants are the backbone of low-maintenance flower gardens.
Everybody knows of these garden favorites, prized for their showy display of flowers. They live for one year and die in winter, sometimes reseeding themselves to grow again the next year. They definitely require more attention and maintenance than other plant types, but there is no denying the value of their showy flowers throughout the spring, summer, and fall. These bring an enormous array of colors to the garden palette and are the material of choice for avid gardeners.
Plants are described as either deciduous or evergreen. Deciduous plants lose their leaves each fall or over the winter but are best described as losing their leaves annually. Evergreens keep their leaves throughout winter, although not all remain green (e.g. some rhododendron species). Most people don’t realize, however, that all evergreens eventually lose their leaves as well, only over a period of two or more years.
In a landscape, designers should strive to maintain a balance between deciduous and evergreen plants. Typical ratios are 2 deciduous plants for every evergreen. Too many evergreens in a landscape can deprive it of the seasons and make it look too artificial.
On the other hand, a landscape with no evergreens will likely appear rather depressing in winter. Evergreens tend to make better articulation elements, however, deciduous plants make better shade trees because of their higher canopies and tend to have more pronounced features such as showy flowers or fall colors, making them more suitable for use as accents.
Some other categories that are common to all plants that you will come across include;
Plant families are broken down into species, which are natural groupings of plants that breed to produce offspring with similar (although not exact) characteristics, although significant variations do occur within species.
Sometimes, if plants from two different species are “crossed” (cross-pollinated), a new type of plant is created that blends the characteristics of the two different parent plants, not unlike how humans blend the characteristics of their parents.
Once in a while, the result is a new plant with better or different characteristics from the parents which are of particular value to the landscaper, and these are propagated as hybrids. The important thing to remember about hybrids is that they most often do not come true from seed, reverting back to the original traits of one parent or the other, and therefore must be vegetatively propagated.
These are specifically “named” plants that are reproduced vegetatively (from cuttings or budding, as opposed to reproduction by seed), which guarantees their characteristics to their offspring. Because plants reproduce sexually, like humans, their offspring do not always retain the characteristics of the parents.
If a particular plant displays a certain favorable characteristic that is not typical of the species, such as foliage color, variegation, flower size or color, etc., then it is likely that this characteristic will not be retained when it is propagated by seed. Techniques such as vegetative propagation, tissue culture, and cuttings are used to reproduce the plant.
Most named nursery plants are propagated in this manner, and this is why it is almost always better to buy plants from nurseries or garden centers rather than propagating from seed if you want to be assured of these characteristics.
All plants have very distinct preferences for growing conditions. These are reflective of their origins, given that they have evolved to compete and succeed in a particular region of the world with its own climate, soils, rainfall, etc. I
t is therefore imperative that the growing preferences of each specific plant are recreated as best as possible to ensure a successful and happy life in your landscape. The most important growing parameters are hardiness, light, soil, and rainfall. Hardiness is discussed in detail later.
All plants have specific light preferences. Some, like roses, have evolved to grow best in full sun and will wither or die in full shade. Most plants will tolerate partial shade, although you can expect them to flower less or grow somewhat spindly, depending on the species.
Plants that thrive in deep shade are few and far between, making them the most valuable. It is therefore important that you accurately project the daily light and shade patterns of your property, both at present and into the future once your new landscape has matured, such that the proper plants can be selected for each location.
Soil conditions are of critical importance to plants since this is where they make their roots (literally!). It is therefore important to both understand soil characteristics and the specific preferences of individual plants. Soils can be defined by structure, pH, and fertility.
Soil structure is the composition of the soil. Soils are a blend of mineral particles and organic matter, which is essentially decomposed plant material. A great deal of soil structure is related to the size of the mineral particles.
Large particles are basically sand, medium-sized particles are called silt, and extremely small (microscopic) particles are the major constituents of clay. Sandy soils are typically very well-drained, but because of this, they do not retain water well and are therefore subject to frequent periods of drought in dry climates.
Clays, on the other hand, hold water very well, almost too well, such that they often drain poorly, and can drown the roots of plants, which require some degree of oxygen for aeration. The best soils are a mix of various soil types along with a good amount of organic matter.
In general, organic matter such as peat moss is the best way to amend poor soils, both those that are too sandy and those that are too heavy (clay).
Soil pH is the relative acidity or alkalinity of the soil. Soils with different pH levels are able to hold or provide various nutrients to plants in different ways. This is of particular importance in that specific plants have adapted to specific soil types, and may not perform in other types.
In general, neutral soil is best for most plants, meaning a pH of 6 to 7.5. Certain plants, such as rhododendrons, azaleas, and blueberries, absolutely require an acidic soil (pH 4.0 to 5.5) to survive and will develop chlorosis (a severe nutrient deficiency) in alkaline soils.
Others such as Russian olive or baby’s breath grow best in alkaline soils (pH 7.0 to 8.5). It is possible to amend the pH of the soil, but this requires effort and much planning; specially prepared beds with custom-mixed soils are the best way to create growing environments for plants with specific pH preferences.
Soil fertility is a measure of the key nutrients available to plants from the soil. The major nutrients are nitrogen, which aids in the development of lush, green foliage; potassium, which is important in the development of fruits and increases resistance to disease; and, phosphorus, which aids in flower and root development, along with trace elements such as calcium, magnesium, copper and zinc. Plants will generally decline in soils that have nutrient deficiencies.
Nutrients can be added to soils through the application of fertilizers. Fertilizers are rated by a universal system according to the composition of the three major nutrients.
The first is the volume percentage concentration of nitrogen, the second is the concentration of phosphorus, and the third is the concentration of potassium. A 10-30-10 fertilizer has 10% nitrogen, 30% phosphorus, and 10% potassium by volume, meaning that it would be effective in promoting the development of roots and flowers.
In addition, fertilizers can include soil pH amendments which can help maintain the acidity of soils for certain acid-loving plants.
Finally, rainfall and/or precipitation are a requirement for plant growth. Plants lose water through a process called “transpiration“, in which their roots draw water from the ground, up through the trunk and branches, and then evaporate it out through the leaves. This is how they move nutrients through their system, and they, therefore, require a supply of moisture in the ground.
Different plants require different amounts of moisture throughout the growing season. The best moisture is even and deep, coming at regular intervals, but absolutely does not pool around the plant; most plants will be injured by standing water for more than a day or two.
Note the average annual precipitation of your particular region, and compare it to the minimum requirements of the plant. If it will not receive enough moisture from rainfall, you will have to supplement it with a regular program of watering. This is not too much of a chore for gardens but is somewhat more difficult for tall trees, although they do get some supplemental moisture from regular lawn watering. Mulches help to retain ground moisture.
Also, note that grass is a major consumer of water, and actually deprives nearby trees of some water they would otherwise get.
Plants are the most versatile of all landscape elements, which is why they are so prominent in virtually every design. They can serve almost any of the landscape functions listed in the previous chapter. By understanding how they are used in each application and which plants are best suited for the purpose, the landscape designer is well equipped to produce a high-caliber design.
Certain functions of plants deserve special discussion. First and foremost, memorize this creed; “The Right Plant For The Right Spot”. Don’t put a plant in a particular spot because you want it to be there, put it there because it belongs there. That means that the lighting is correct, the climate is correct, the soil is correct, the moisture is correct, and the landscape application is correct.
The number one sin committed by amateur landscapers (i.e. most homeowners) is falling in love with a specific plant, and then arbitrarily planting it wherever they want it most. Trust me, you will be paying for wrong decisions for many years; if you’re lucky, it will just look bad. If you’re not, then you will have a dead plant sometime soon.
The proper use of plants in the landscape requires considerable planning. The best way to plan a landscape, although it is also the most painful for passionate gardeners, is to define the landscaping needs first, and then select the right plant for each specific need.
Once you become aware of the vast palette of plants you have to choose from, even in the most northerly of landscapes, you will find that this can be as passionate an exercise as planning your retirement garden.
Plants are best used according to their landscape attributes and good landscape design principles. Some of it is common sense; if you want an accent plant, put in only one; if you are building a hedge, use the same plant rather than mixing. Whether you use plants in groupings or as solitaries is also a function of their landscape purpose.
Groundcovers are best massed, as are most shrubs. Even gardens should have a degree of consistency, grouping similar plants together to create waves of motion and character across the garden, rather than having a scattered mess of randomly growing greenery.
Speaking of groundcovers, there are certainly more plant options available than just grass. Grass has specific requirements to thrive, and it is not always easy to assure these. For example, grass requires at least half a day of direct sunlight.
Grass growing under dense trees or in a forested area simply languishes and thins out until nothing is left. For such locations, alternate groundcovers such as spurge and woodruff are much better suited for use in the shade and actually prefer it. Likewise, if you can’t afford the time or expense of watering to the extent required for a healthy lawn, groundcovers such as creeping cotoneaster or juniper are ideal.
Above all, remember to keep balance. That means that a pleasing blend of trees and shrubs, deciduous and evergreen, tall and short plants, flowers and greenery, coarse and fine, makes for the most appealing landscapes.
Following is a basic summary of plant functions and suitable types:
|shade||high-headed, dense, usually deciduous||oak, ash, honeylocust, linden, maple, beech|
|articulation||usually evergreen, either pyramidal or conical growth habit||spruce, arborvitae, false cypress, linden|
|accent||ornamental quality in one or more seasons, usually deciduous||hawthorn, flowering dogwood, maple, cherry, mountain ash, chokecherry|
|enframement||high-headed, wide-spreading||elm, oak, walnut|
|background||uniform green color, dense||most species|
|screening||tall, narrow, or columnar||certain poplar, oak, or willow|
|windbreak||must be hardy, rugged||spruce, maple, ash, pine, poplar|
|orchard||high-quality fruit||apple, walnut, pear, cherry, plum|
|street tree||rugged, able to withstand salt||ash, honeylocust, elm, sweetgum|
|accent||ornamental quality in one or more seasons, usually deciduous||viburnum/cranberry, serviceberry (saskatoon), mock orange, lilac|
|garden/border||ornamental quality in one or more seasons, interesting characteristics||cinquefoil, yew, mountain laurel, rose, rhododendron/azalea, spirea, juniper, false cypress, barberry, weigela|
|screening/hedge||dense, tall, narrow, or columnar||boxwood, lilac, privet, cotoneaster, currant, arborvitae|
|orchard||high-quality fruit||currant, blueberry, serviceberry (saskatoon), cranberry|
|detail||small, “up close” interest||spirea, daphne, heather, bog rosemary|
|groundcover||spreading or sprawling habit, tenacity, possibly suckering||cotoneaster, juniper, wintercreeper|
|garden/border||ornamental characteristics that add vertical dimension||most species|
|screening/hedge||usually in conjunction with a fence, arbor, or other structure||clematis, rose, trumpet vine, dutchman’s pipe|
|orchard||high-quality fruit||grapes, kiwi|
|detail||ornamental characteristics complementary to existing structures||clematis, rose, trumpet vine, bittersweet, honeysuckle|
|groundcover||ability to spread, tenacity||ivy, wintercreeper|
|garden/border||primarily flower value||most named cultivars|
|detail||small, “up close” interest||alpine plants, rock garden plants|
|groundcover||ability to spread, tenacity, should only consider perennials||woodruff, arctic phlox, spurge|
As a final comment on plants, keep in mind that the plants we put in our landscapes start out young and grow up along with us, just like the members of our family.
When planning an enduring landscape for yourself and for future generations, it is essential that you look at your design 10 and 20 years down the road, when it is more mature. Plants must still fit and work together at these points. Remember that your landscape will grow alongside you, and you’ll want to enjoy it for many years into the future.
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There is literally a world of choice of hard elements; man-made, natural, blended, etc. Furthermore, they are available in a wide range of materials. This is why it is easier to design with hard elements.
Let’s face it, hard elements are very unlike plants, and sometimes that is an advantage. They can reside happily in any zone or climate, sunlight or shade, winter or summer, and they essentially look the same. In other words, they give permanence to a landscape. They also afford immediate impact, whereas you may have to wait 10 years or more for your trees and shrubs to live up to their full potential.
The most important thing to remember is that the elements you choose must fit harmoniously into your landscape. This is best demonstrated by looking at extreme examples; a massive Greek statue would certainly look out of place in a Southwestern motif, and a formal fountain would confuse a naturalistic planting.
The same is true for construction materials; if you have a stained wood deck and a natural stone finish to your house, then you would certainly want to use natural materials throughout the rest of your landscape; a wooden arbor, a path with native gravel, etc. By keeping your materials consistent (but certainly not identical), you bring continuity to your landscape and thus a subtle harmony.
Many base materials are used to create hard landscaping elements. A proportion of these is natural, meaning they are applications of materials found in nature. Earth (soil) may be among the most important, because most landscapes are built on Earth, and it is the underlying base for all surface activity.
If you look deep into your soil, you will see a layer of topsoil, preferably 6-12″ deep, on top of a larger base, often clay or gravel. All of these different soil types are a part of your natural environment.
Rock is another important natural material. It has a myriad of applications in the landscape, ranging from enormous boulders used as accents, to small, strategically placed rocks in rock gardens, to crushed rock mulches and pea gravel.
Even sand is a form of rock! Rock is available in many colors; translucent white quartz, gray and red granite, black slate, orange sandstone, and colorful river stone, to name a few. It can be sharp and jagged like freshly quarried granite or weathered like river wash.
In fact, because of the enormous range of shapes, sizes, and colors combined with almost permanent durability, rock and stone are among the most important surfacing materials available to landscape designers.
Wood is a commonly used natural construction material. It is easily workable and built into structures, from fences to planters to decks, sheds, and homes. Note that there are many types of wood, some of which are naturally resistant to decay such as cedar and redwood, although they will change color as the weather.
Pressure-treated wood is the preferred material for use in low-maintenance outdoor constructions. Non-treated woods will decay within a few short years due to the vagaries of weather, rain, and sun, and require religious adherence to a preventive maintenance schedule. Be sure to visit your local lumber yard for more information on various wood types and their applications.
Man-made construction materials also have a prominent place in landscaping. Metal is often used as railings or for wrought-iron fences.
Concrete and other masonry products such as bricks and artificial stones are ideal for building raised planters, decorative pillars, and lamp posts, and surfacing materials. Even plastic has found its way into the modern landscaper’s repertoire. Because they are manufactured, these materials are often molded into finished shapes.
A popular example of this is interlocking paving stones, which certainly are not found in nature, but can add artistic yet clean beauty to your driveway that is not achievable with any other surface.
Many of the elements in our landscape are there because we need them, and we are therefore designing our landscapes to accommodate them. A house is not only a given in most modern landscapes (unless you are designing a park!), but it is also the focal point of the entire design exercise.
Although a landscape cannot beautify an ugly house (by the way, if you have an ugly house, put the landscaping aside for a year or two and get that house looking right!), it definitely enhances a beautiful house.
A poor landscape will destroy the value of your home, while a landscape out of proportion with your home will diminish its potential in the landscape. Changing the appearance of your home is beyond the scope of this guide, but if you already love the appearance of your house, then your landscape should complement it.
We can add various new structures to our landscape for aesthetics or convenience. Decks and patios provide the perfect surfaces for entertaining and other people’s activities. Sheds can be built to store seasonal equipment, and greenhouses are ideal for the active home gardener. Fences not only keep out unwanted animals or the neighbor’s kids but bring a sense of enclosure and privacy to a yard.
Retaining walls make slopes more usable and control erosion. A pergola brings a natural-feeling roof to an otherwise open area while still letting in sunlight and the elements.
Surface materials have a special purpose in landscaping. Unless your home is floating in the air, you already have some sort of surface material to start with, but we often seek to modify this to suit our purposes. That is the most important message here; the surface material must match your intended purpose first and foremost. So, if it is being used to handle traffic, it should be designed to accommodate the anticipated load with minimal wear and tear.
Traffic ways are the primary application of surfacing materials. These range from driveways to walkways and recreational areas. Driveways are the most demanding of the lot, and this is why they should ideally be designed by professionals; the last thing you want is for your driveway to sink into the ground or develop deep ruts two years into its existence.
Walkways are intended to move people around your property in a controlled manner and should be durable enough materials to handle the traffic load. Pay special attention to adequate width for both of these applications. Finally, don’t forget to include grass as a surfacing material; it is the material of choice for recreational areas of the yard because it is durable, lasting, and comfortable to use.
Surfacing materials are available in both natural and man-made choices. Gravel, crushed rock, fieldstone, and flagstone are natural materials but are best used for lighter loadings. For heavier loads, consider man-made choices such as concrete, asphalt, or manufactured paving stones and bricks. Man-made materials are also available for lighter-duty applications, such as patio squares and decorative precast concrete steps.
One difference between good landscapes and fantastic landscapes is the controlled use of little touches. A landscape can certainly be functional without them and they may often go unnoticed, but their value to the overall composition is immeasurable. The trick with these is knowing when and where to use them, and particularly not to overuse them.
Think of your landscape as being viewed from various perspectives; from afar, the house, trees, and skyline are most apparent. As you move in closer, more and more detail is noticeable, possibly your garden or the railings of your deck. When you start walking on the property, you will notice the materials are chosen, and the textures of individual plants. The finest detail is noticed upon close inspection when you actually bend down and look closely at a particular object or collection.
Decorative accents add definition at the lowest scale of observation and bring warmth to a design, like the knick-knacks in your home. They are the icing on the cake, really not a part of the greater landscape picture, but rewarding those who make the effort to have a closer look. They show that great care and thought have gone into the design process.
The possibilities for detail accents are endless and are really a true reflection of the likes of the designer, but can include small statues hidden among garden plants, hanging flower baskets at the entranceway, container plantings on a patio, bonsai plantings, or alpine rock gardens.
Some finishing touches are both aesthetic and functional. Night lighting is a common touch that not only adds atmosphere to a design but can extend the functional usage of a yard into the night hours.
There are many choices available, such as low-level moonlights on a walkway or around a patio, floodlighting of a particularly attractive view of the house or a stately tree, or backlighting to accent a statue, and the selection is really up to the desires of the designer. Low-voltage outdoor lighting systems are common and can be easily installed by a homeowner, while high-voltage systems typically require installation by an electrician.
Irrigation systems are quite practical, and can be a good investment for those who want the pleasures of a lush green lawn, but don’t have the time for the necessary care and attention of watering. They hook up to your home water supply, and use an automated control system to systematically water your lawn at night when the water has a better chance of permeating into the ground. Some books claim that they can be installed as a “do-it-yourself” project, but I feel that this is a task best left up to professionals.