Landscape Design

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Landscape Design

by Rod Smith

Former Iowa Certified Nurseryman and
Oregon Certified Nursery Professional

© 1999-2024 Rodney A. Smith
All rights reserved.

Landscaping frames a house, just like a good painting, to bring out its good features and hide its rough edges. A house without landscaping looks like it does not belong.

Landscaping also adds value to a house. According to the International Society of Arboriculture, a landscaped house is worth five to twenty per cent more than an un-landscaped house. A nicely landscaped house also has curb appeal that will get a buyer to stop and look.

Landscaping greatly increases the livability of a house by creating outdoor living spaces. These can be as simple as a large lawn for play or as involved as living walls and a waterfall for private relaxation. Building retaining walls to level a steep slope makes the area much more usable.

Landscaping provides a great deal of personal satisfaction from bringing together all of the separate elements of a landscape to create a beautiful garden.

Elements of a Landscape

Many elements can be included in a landscape. There are landscape plants: trees, shrubs, lawns, groundcovers, perennials, annuals, fruits and vegetables. There are also hardscaping elements: walkways, patios, decks, walls and fences. There are features: fountains, pools, streams, rocks and statuary. Finally, there are utilities: irrigation and lighting.

Trees and large shrubs provide framing, screening and shade and define the areas of the yard. Smaller plants add variety in shape and color. Lawns provide play areas as well as visual open spaces. Hardscaping makes areas much more useful. Features add interest and create focal points. Irrigation simplifies maintenance and lighting adds interest and safety. Building retaining walls can level a steep slope to make the area more usable.

Walls level steep slopes

Design Process

The most important part of the design process is to get a clear understanding of what is wanted from the landscape. Different people have different needs. Families with small children need a large lawn area where children can run and play. Older children may prefer a sports court. Some people want large areas for entertaining. Others prefer small, intimate areas. Some want to showcase their garden. Others prefer a private hideaway. Some need large storage areas for recreational vehicles. Some want large areas to grow fruits and vegetables. Some might want to invite birds and butterflies into the landscape. A major consideration is how much time is available to devote to maintaining the landscape. Flowers and lawns require a lot more attention than junipers and barkdust.

Identify areas

Different parts of the yard lend themselves to different purposes. The front area between the house and the street is a public area and should make the house look good. The back yard is usually a private area for recreation and entertaining. Side yards are good for storage and utility areas.

Front yard

The two main considerations are to frame the house and to point people to the front door. Trees or large shrubs on either side of the house act like a picture frame to set off the house. A large rounded shrub at the corner of the house will soften the vertical line of a tall house. A lawn or flowers in front of the house can create a foreground to the picture. The shape of the lawn or the color of flowers can direct attention to the front door.

Hidden front door

This house is especially challenging because the front door is on the side of the house, hidden from the street. The boulder and colorful flowers draw the eye to the left side of the yard. The gap between the flowers and boulders reveal the sidewalk that leads to the front door.

A very effective way to draw attention to the front door is to have the tallest shrubs at the corner of the house and the lowest shrubs next to the door. This is safer, too. One of my customers tore out the tall shrubs by her front door after someone hid there and robbed her as she opened the door. Trimming off the lower branches also keeps people from hiding behind shrubs.

Another consideration for the front yard is that it should look good all year. Normally this means using mostly evergreens or deciduous plants with interesting winter color. Plants with messy flowers or fruit should be avoided, especially next to the driveway and sidewalk.

Back yard

The back yard is usually a place for play and relaxation. Often, a fence or a tall hedge to create privacy surrounds the back yard. A six foot fence provides plenty of privacy for single story houses, but tall shrubs or trees are needed for multi-story houses. A few plants can produce as much privacy as a hedge if they are strategically placed in front of the neighbors' windows. A completely different approach was used where my neighbors used to live. There were no fences so the back yards on the block were connected to create a large play area for the children.

Back yards are not used much in the winter so they do not have to look good all year. Summer blooming deciduous plants are a perfect choice for a back yard. Messy fruit trees and vegetable gardens are also better in the back yard. Back yards are also great for wildlife areas.

Side yard

Side yards are often used for storage and utility areas. They also provide access from the front to the back. Usually, landscaping should hide them without blocking access.

Side yards are usually narrow so tall and narrow plants are needed to soften a blank wall. Vines or espaliered plants can also be trained up a large blank wall. To break up the long straight lines, some of the plantings can be next to the house and others on the other side to create a curve. If there is a window, one option is to plant something opposite it so the planting is visible from the window. Another option is to plant something with sharp thorns under the window to discourage a burglar.

Choose a style

Japanese style rocks. Choosing a style will make the elements of a landscape look like a connected whole, a single composition. The common styles of landscaping are formal, informal, natural, English and Japanese.

Formal style means that the left side of the yard is a mirror image of the right side. It usually includes tightly clipped hedges and, perhaps, geometric patterns. It works best if the house is also formal with the door in the center and matching windows on either side. It is easy to balance the yard because whatever is planted on the left is planted on the right.

Informal style is the most commonly used style since most houses built now are informal. The left and right sides of the yard are different but they still need to appear balanced. This is accomplished by planting roughly the same amount of greenery on either side of the front door.

Naturescape style attempts to make the house look like it was dropped in the middle of an undisturbed piece of land. Native plants are planted in irregular patterns along a winding path. Pruning is kept to a minimum. However, well-behaved plants should be selected so it does not end up looking like a weed patch. Naturescape style can be a very low maintenance landscape. A sign identifying it as a wildlife area will help convince people that the yard is supposed to look that way. See my webpage of Naturescaping for Wildlife.

Large lawn areas surrounded by flowerbeds mark the English style. It takes a large yard to make it look good. There is also the English Cottage Garden style, which has no lawn but attempts to cram as many perennials into the yard as possible.

Japanese style includes rocks and irregular shaped trees and shrubs in intricate arrangements. Great expertise is required to design a traditional Japanese garden but a reasonably good Japanese garden can be designed with some study. Japanese style can also be a very low maintenance but the pruning requires some expertise. Kurisu International of Portland is one of the few landscape companies in the country that can design and install an authentic Japanese landscape.

Different styles can be used in the different parts of the yard. Keeping the natural style in the backyard saves explaining that it is supposed to look that way.

Consider the viewpoint

If the landscape will be viewed primarily from one point, such as a window or deck, this is a fixed viewpoint. The landscape is designed so everything is visible from that point. Tall plants are placed in the back and sides. Small plants are placed front and center.

Curved Path

If the landscape will be viewed from different places such as when someone walks up the front sidewalk or around the back yard, this is a moving viewpoint. Some things are hidden behind others until the viewer approaches closer. A moving viewpoint makes for a more interesting landscape. A curving sidewalk or lawn edge that goes around a corner out of sight will arouse the viewer's curiosity and draw them into the landscape. When a viewer makes the effort to investigate, they should be rewarded with an attractive plant or feature such as a statue or birdbath.

Position hardscaping and features

Walks, decks, patios, pools and retaining walls should be positioned first. Building codes may affect how and where they can be built. For example, retaining walls over four feet tall have to be fully engineered. Ponds deeper than a certain depth may need to be fully fenced. A GFI outlet will need to be installed next to fountains, pools, ponds and waterfalls since extension cords are not allowed for pumps or lighting. Also, pond maintenance is greatly reduced if leaves and needles do not drop into it. Fountains are often built with a covered storage tank to reduce maintenance.

Position landscape plants

The first step is to decide what areas will be lawn and what areas will be planting beds. Planting beds next to the house should be at least three feet wide. After that, it is best to position the largest plants first and work down to the smallest.

Trees provide shade, flowers and privacy. A large tree on the southwest side of a house can reduce summer temperatures by twenty degrees and also reduce air conditioning costs. A deck or patio will seem much more cozy if there is a tree canopy over it. Shrubs provide screening, and a variety of leaves, colors, flowers and even fruit. Annuals and perennials also provide a variety of leaves, colors and flowers. Perennials can bloom in the winter and spring and do not need to be planted each year. Annuals can provide a mass of color from late spring until late fall. Annuals can also be used to fill in the spaces between perennials and shrubs until they reach mature size.

Right plant, right place is an important rule. Many people make the mistake of picking a plant then trying to find a place to stick it when it really does not fit anywhere. It is better to decide what size and shape of plants are needed to create a pleasing design and then choose appropriate plants that are suited to the growing conditions.

Four questions should be asked of every plant:
How tall and wide can it get?
How much sun will it get?
What soil pH and moisture does it need?
When is it attractive?

The Calendar of Color section of this website gives the average landscape size of many trees, shrubs, vines and perennials. It also gives information on sun and moisture requirements. A list of garden plants and their preferred soil pH can be found at the webpage Preferred Soil pH.

The question of "How tall and wide can it get?" is not the same as "How much room to allow for it?" I once designed a landscape so every plant had enough room to grow to mature size. The landscape looked really sparse and empty. Most landscapes are designed so it will look full in ten years. The ten year size of most trees ia about one-third to one-half of mature size. The ten year size of most shrubs is about one-half to three-fourths of mature size. Most perennials reach mature size in ten years. Since people move more often that they used to, many landscape designers space plants so it will look full in five years.

Since plants will eventually become too crowded to remain attractive or healthy, there are three options. One is to prune the trees and shrubs to keep them from becoming too crowded. Another is to fill in the spaces with annuals until the shrubs and perennials fill in. The third option is to plan on removing some of the plants as they get too crowded. Also, there is less and less sun as the trees grow and mature so it makes sense to include sun-loving plants in the plan that will be removed as the landscape matures.

Design pointers

The plants on either side of the landscape should be balanced, that is roughly an equal amount of greenery on either side of the viewpoint. A formal design is always balanced because the plants are mirrored. An informal design is balanced by using different plants to produce about the same amount of greenery.

Use tall plants to frame a view. Low plants underneath and a tree overhead can complete the frame. An important part of enhancing a view is hiding ugly or distracting things.

Put small plants and fine textured leaves in front and center. Put tall plants and coarse textured leaves in back and on the sides. This allows all of the plants to be visible and it makes the leaf textures appear to be more uniform.

Bright colors appear to be closer. Darker colors appear to be farther away. Choosing bright or dark colors can make a yard look bigger or smaller.

Disappearing lines make a yard appear to be deeper. If the edge of the lawn disappears behind shrubs then reappears, it makes it harder to judge distances.

Make Bold Curves.

Make bold curves like this front walk. A wiggle will look like it was supposed to be a straight line but it was not done quite right.

Turn long narrow areas into curves by a putting a group of plants on one side then the other. This is especially useful in side yards.

Plant single plants or groups of threes or five plants. Odd numbers of plants look better. Also, planting in triangles is more interesting than in straight rows.

Vary the height and shape of plants. Several plants will create a pattern that can be repeated a few times to create rhythm. This makes the landscape look like it works together to form one composition. But a high, low, high, low, high, low pattern or any pattern that is repeated more than a few times quickly becomes monotonous. If there is a large area to cover then more plants should be used in each section of the pattern.

Flower color should be carefully considered. Reds and oranges are exciting. Pinks and blues are soothing. A garden of all red and orange flowers is not relaxing. I prefer to use plants with different shades of blue to hold the composition together. Then I insert a splash of red or orange color to add interest. White flowers show up better in the evening than other colors.

Flowering season should also be carefully considered. One approach is to have everything in a bed flowering at the same time. Another approach is to have something in bloom in every bed every season. One big advantage to living in the Pacific Northwest is that it is possible to have something in bloom every month of the year. The Calendar of Color section lists trees, shrubs, perennials and vines according to blooming season and height so appropriate plants can be selected.

Occasionally break the rules to create a focus point. For example, placing a large leafed plant in front and center or planting a variegated leafed plant in the middle of all green plants draws attention to that plant. But breaking the rules more than a few times will make the composition fall apart into a hodge-podge of plants.

Sample Landscape Plan

Sample Landscape Plan This landscape plan illustrates some of the principles of landscape design. During the early design stage, it is not necessary to decide which plants to use. It is more important to concentrate on size and placement. The plants are simply labeled TT for tall tree, MT for medium tree, ST for small tree, TS for tall shrub, MS for medium shrub, SS for small shrub and P for perennial. Later, the actual plants can be selected. To make the selection process easier, trees, shrubs, vines and perennials on pages in the Calendar of Color section are listed according to height as well as blooming season. When selecting plants, it is important to notice which areas are sunny and which are shady so plants will get the amount of sun they need.

The back yard is designed to provide a large play area for children. For a family without small children, a rose garden, vegetable garden, pond or perhaps a natural area of native plants could replace the play area.

An arborvitae hedge on the back and left side provides privacy. It is not particularly colorful but in makes a tall screen without taking up much space. A planting area at the corner breaks up the long straight line of the hedge. On the left, a tall shrub and a small tree provide a visual screen without completely blocking the view.

Incidentally, this design includes a deck, but a cement patio requires much less maintenance.

Depending on what is next door, the side yard might not get enough sun for lawn to grow well. Bark dust or a shade loving ground cover might look better.

The tall shrubs on the right side of the lawn and the tall shrub at the corner of the house block the view of the side yard from the street without blocking access to the side yard and back yard. The shrubs next to the house and the hedge next to the property line change the shape of the side yard from a long narrow alley to curves. If there is a window on the side of the house, an interesting shrub or arrangement of smaller plants could be put on the property line opposite the window.

The front yard design is informal to match the informal style of the house. Two trees frame the front of the house, a tall tree (TT) on the left and a medium height tree (MT) on the right. The design is not symmetrical but it is balanced. The number of shrubs on the left and right sides is roughly equal, just closer together on the right.

The front door is emphasized by the drop in height from the tall shrub (TS) on the left corner to the small shrubs (SS) next to the door. Also, colorful small shrubs and perennials (P) would be used at the corner of the driveway and sidewalk to draw attention to the front door without hiding it.

Only small shrubs are used at the end of the driveway and near the street. This allows full visibility when backing out of the driveway.

The lawn extends to the sidewalk and the driveway. The expanse of the lawn acts as the foreground in the view from the street. This also allows easy access to the lawn for mowing and lawn care.

The landscape design acts as a guide but adjustments usually need to be made at the time of planting. The best way to make the final placement of plants is to set them all out in the planting area, then look at it from different angles and shift the plants until the arrangement looks good.

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