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Landscape Design


japanese garden, atlanta botanical gardenGood landscape design is nurtured by both success and failure. If you want to become a great landscape designer, you can do it one of two ways. You can learn the hard way, through years of successes and failures, or you can get mentoring tips from someone else who has gone through the process for you.  The landscape industry is changing rapidly, and many of those who have become experts with time-tested experience are leaving.

Not only that, the professions that provide expertise have become highly specialized, with no single firm being able to pull together all the essential elements of a landscape plan that delights and works well, incorporating good horticultural, landscape design, engineering, and maintenance knowledge into a really good landscape plan.  Outdoor living spaces that are a pleasure to experience are becoming all too rare.  When you are lucky enough to visit one, there is a quiet inside voice asking, “Why can’t I do something like this at home?” Outdoor living spaces that are a pleasure to experience are becoming all too rare. 

 for the latest updates on how this can be done. For helpful maintenance tips, check out the list of articles here.

It is possible to create beautful landscapes. Here’s a link soon to the soon-to-be published draft version 0.0 of a new Advanced Guide to Landscape Design, based on years of experience working with the pros and evaluation of thousands of landscape projects.  

The Realities of Ornamental Landscape Design

Truth is Beauty

designing for tough landscapesDesign your landscapes for plant growth habit, the climate, the soil, moisture, and maintenance which actually exists. Then, what you install can survive. With a good design, which considers the realities of the site, what you create on your computer stands a chance of maturing into a beautiful garden experience for the people who use it. Reality should be a controlling factor in landscape design.

Here are some common landscape truths to guide your designs:

∙ Maintenance is an essential part of any landscape. There is no such thing as a self-sustaining design.

Lawn Striping

Creating Patterns in Turf

lawn stripingThere is a wonderful article about lawn striping on the Scag Power Equipment web site. It explains, with clear diagrams, how to mow in contrasting directions to push grass blades into patterns. The shinier the grass blade, the stronger the stripe, so species with smoother blades will show up more. One of the suggestions in the article is to raise the mowing height a half-inch for a more dramatic effect. This improves the lawn in two ways—stronger striping and healthier turf. If you mow low every couple of days, you can maintain the striping of shorter grass, but why torture the grass in such a way?

Mowing in opposing directions to create patterns is incredibly obsessive, but it looks amazing. Some landscape crews use roller attachments to push the grass blades into a more pronounced lean, but without daily maintenance, this could weaken your grass. Artificially augmented striping is a bit much, unless you are mowing a sports field where loud patterns are expected. Think about striping your lawn as if it is donning a plaid jacket. Subtle plaids are great, but blatant patterns are for car salesmen. The fact you are mowing your lawn in stripes is quite a statement already.

Paving Materials

It's Fun to Choose the Right Paving Materials

choosing paving materialsPaving materials can be concrete, asphalt, unit pavers, or loose aggregates. For public projects, paving material needs to be smooth enough for people with walking disabilities and easy for maneuvering in wheelchairs. To be smooth, there can be no uneven tree roots, freezing and thawing cracks, slippery gravel, or clumpy bits of mulch. Choose paving materials that can provide long-term stability for a walking or driving surface.

The sub base for paving must be solid and unshifting. For areas without ground that freezes, landscape sub base material can be compacted soil or a mixture of soil and cement. For colder climates, a sub base of deep gravel and even reinforced concrete is required to keep the paved surface safe and navigable.

The installation process for concrete can determine the usability of the surface. Concrete must be textured to prevent slipping. Concrete uses reinforced rods for strength, and these characteristics are very important for vehicular areas. It can be colored with dry shake powders (which fade) or color can be incorporated into the concrete mixture of Portland cement and aggregates prior to pouring. Concrete has to be finished and floated. Special forms are required to hold newly poured concrete in place before it cures. Other special forms can be used to imprint artistic textures into the surface. All of this fuss makes it expensive, but durable. As a designer, you shouldn’t propose concrete without having learned the installation process from start to finish.

Asphalt is a bit easier to install, but has some drawbacks. The mixture of aggregates and oil must be heated, poured, and then pressed flat and even, much like a ribbon of taffy is formed into candy. It’s a sticky mess at first, but creates an attractive, dark, semifluid surface. If asphalt doesn’t receive regular traffic, it can fall apart at the edges. Smaller equipment is available for asphalt, so it is a good option for the installation of extensive woodland and bicycle paths.

Designing Botanical Gardens

botanical garden designMore Than Plants

Designing botanical gardens requires creating a template base design which can be modified through time. Outdoor plant museums are built to display theme gardens and plant collections. Whatever your design, it will be changed over and over again to be relevant and entertaining. The most important thing in botanical garden landscape design is a good underlying structure for circulation which works well with the surrounding building structures and traffic flow. People like to see something new each time they visit, so your template must anticipate future changes, particularly in the plant beds close to walkways.

You can incorporate classroom space in the site plan. The purpose of a botanical garden is horticultural education and a dazzling display of nature’s beauty. Labeling plants and providing context in signage is important. Botanical garden visitors get frustrated with poorly-labeled or mislabeled plant material. Displays will change often, and the labels need to be updated, so include this on-going expense as part of the maintenance work plan and budget. The plants will be the teachers in an outdoor classroom, but easy-to-read plant labels and signage introduce the visitors to the plants and engage them in the learning process.

Any maintenance plan for a botanical garden should also include a budget for constant replacement of plant beds and infill planting for inevitable bare spots. Just as in the fashion industry, plant species go in and out of favor. A botanical garden includes the latest trend in plants, and new arrivals eventually become food for the compost bin.  Rather than tossing out used plants, try repotting and selling them. A used-plant-sales area can be included in your garden design to help fund the purchase of new plants, or repotted plants can be given as gifts to garden volunteers. Botanical gardens are dynamic, seasonal display areas. Without a steady stream of new revenue, they will decline, which will reduce the number of visitors and reduce the available budget. New bed designs are an essential part of the life of the garden.

Bugs on Plants - How to Kill Them Effectively

Controlling Insects

controlling insects on plants

If you have a flower garden, you will have lots of insects. Invasive insects can cause serious injury to your plants. Most attacks can be mitigated by good, healthy plants growing in good, healthy soil. Many bad bugs can be stomped or squished or swatted as needed, without any harm to beneficial bugs. That leaves a few bad characters that require a good battle strategy crafted by you and your local county extension agent. Remember, your extension agent loves to talk about insects, diseases, and the chemicals used to fight them. There are a lot of great bugs out there, too. If you want butterflies and honey bees, you need to be very careful with chemical toxins—herbicides and pesticides. Protect the friendlies. If you don’t like the idea of close contact with the inevitable bug populations that comes with flower gardening, then create wide, open paths in your garden beyond the high grass and flower beds to avoid direct contact with critters. Live and let live.

Japanese Beetles are one of the worst of the damaging insects. They are disgustingly prolific, covering entire blooms until they look black. They eat pretty flowers. They do nothing but consume and destroy beauty all day long. The best control for Japanese Beetles is to create a grid of small mounds of powdery Milky Spore disease over your entire property. Sometime in late July through September when the grubs are the most vulnerable, a dotted grid pattern can be applied to innoculate your entire property with the disease which targets only this specific pest. For better results, convince your neighbors to do the same. Traps and lures advertised in catalogs are useless. Milky spore bacteria kills only Japanese Beetles, and it is quite effective.

Park Design

park designDesigning a park is a privilege. You are designing for the public, and your main focus is to encourage outdoor enjoyment. The more a park is used, the safer it becomes. Add amenities that support park use. Provide parking spaces, meeting spaces, playing spaces, sitting places, open spaces, and performing spaces. People like to picnic in parks, so provide places to eat and include clean public bathrooms for relief. A practical landscape design will include benefits for the people who use it.

A safer, heavily-used park will need reliable maintenance. When you feel overwhelmed with the maintenance responsibility for a much-used park, that’s great! The park is working. People make a park a public space. Embrace the maintenance burden of the crowd and expect the work to be on-going.

Parks might include sports structures. Incorporating sports fields in a park is easy. There are special manufacturers more than willing to supply you with tons of information and CAD details to design sports facilities using their products.

Park landscapes can include special trees that can be grown nowhere else. A park tree has room to grow to a massive size. New York would not be the great, international city without Central Park and all the other smaller parks within the metro area. Huge Oaks and towering Poplars finally have the room in a park to grow to full, unrestricted maturity. The plant material is the main attraction. Some parks use their acreage as both an arboretum as well as a public play space. Balboa Park in San Diego has a Japanese Garden and a Desert Garden as part of their many museums and attractions that draw visitors. A park is a rare combination of large, public, open expanse and lack of development. Plants have room to send out roots and grow to large-scale specimens.

Athletic Fields

Slope is Everything

athletic field designSports fields are perfectly graded and crowned to drain pieces of ground built to handle heavy foot traffic and abuse. Consult official rule books for dimensions and markings. Modified soil mixes are used on turf areas to fight the damage from compaction and uprooted sod. Drainage tile is usually added at the edges of sloped fields for rapid percolation. Even though the fields are sloped, they should appear flat to the spectators and players, so the amount of fall from the crown is critical.

Sun orientation is also important. You want low sun angles to hit the field in ways that won’t blind the players. Artificial lighting and spectator seating should be included. No one wants to lob a tennis ball with the sun in their eyes.

Athletic field design is a team sport. Sport equipment suppliers can be very helpful with design advice and often provide their own consultants if you use their products. The maintenance supervisor of a sports field should be a fanatical expert on turf and turf issues. They are the ones who will make your design look good. Athletes can provide valuable tips on what they look for in a quality playing surface. Include input from all the stakeholders in the initial conceptual design phase.

Outbuildings and Utility Storage Sheds

A Doll House for Adults

outbuildings, utility sheds

Outbuildings can perform many purposes. They can provide storage and act as part of a fence or wall. They can serve as a tool shed, a pool dressing area, or covered party seating. They can be part of an entrance gate or act as a play house for your children. They can be a potting shed or a greenhouse lean-to. They can be a tree house or a tractor carport. They do any or all of these things while providing style at a human scale.

Outbuildings provide the perfect opportunity for you to combine design flare and utility in the landscape. They are structures where you can push your imagination. A little outdoor building is a place for fantasy and fun. Reach inside to your inner child for inspiration. Small outdoor structures are perfect for charming decorative trim. They can have functional features and still be fun. When designing outbuildings, you have an opportunity to add personal style to the landscape.