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Landscaped Courtyards

Landscapes in Miniature

When I visit a miniature urban courtyard garden that looks like it has been pruned with tiny sewing scissors, I love it! Those perfectly shaped geometric shrubs and hedges outlining knot gardens and parterres are simply charming. So what if the owner is a control freak! They are a real pleasure to experience. Beautiful iron gates and brick walls enclose delightful garden jewels in places like Savannah and Charleston. Boxwood is perfectly at home here. Creating patterned foliage colors and intricate ground cover beds are possible when a garden is only twenty feet wide and twenty feet long.

There is no shame in the obsessive compulsive nature of courtyard gardens—only the glory of complete control over nature, with love of gardening mixed in. The attention to detail is a good lesson for all landscape designers. The more crazed the gardener, the more beautiful the garden. 

Landscape Gates


Gates act as doors into garden rooms. They can have spiritual symbolism and create the opportunity for a theatrical message. Even an implied gate, created by columns flanking an entrance, makes a strong statement. Gates should complement the adjacent fence structure and garden style and acknowledge the architecture of the buildings beyond. There are manufacturers that specialize in entrance drive gates. They can help you incorporate their structures into your landscape design. Gates act as a point of union between two different spaces and communicate the passage between them involves change.

landscape gatesI spent a few years working on a project for my state, where iconic monuments were planned at the interstate borders with other states. The process taught me a lot about gate design. Here are some of the main lessons learned.

Gazebos and Pavilions

Outdoor Rooms

A gazebo is a freestanding, outdoor room with a roof. It is often round or multi-sided, but could be square. The angles of complex, multi-sided gazebos can be difficult to perfect. Sometimes it is best to purchase a pre-engineered structured if it suits the style of your landscape design. There are some elaborate and attractive products available. 

gazebos, pavilionsThe most pleasant thing about a gazebo or a pavilion is protection from the elements. It is sometimes called a summerhouse. Gazebos and pavilions make good housing for outdoor kitchens and help protect furniture cushions and equipment. They can provide storage for pool equipment and tools. A connection to water, electricity, and a digital network make the structure even better. Incorporating a stone fireplace or heating element can extend its use and stretch out the outdoor living season. Walpole Outdoors is a company that has been making beautiful outdoor structures for decades. I recommend visiting their site for examples of how well-built outdoor structures should look.

Outdoor Solar Lights

Light and Energy for a Dollar

landscape lighting, outdoor solar lightsI purchase a few inexpensive solar lights each year to use when the power goes out. They are much less expensive that a flashlight and last from dusk to about two a.m., providing portable and much-needed safety lighting in an emergency. The LED lights-on-a-stick can be clustered like flowers in a vase and put out enough glow for comfortable reading. Keeping a few light sticks handy means I can also locate them at whim throughout the garden during evening star-gazing sessions.

For outdoor lighting, designers should forgo inexpensive fixtures and look for high-quality, permanent options. Using products from companies like Vista provides you with helpful technical expertise and ready-made detail drawings. Most good landscape lighting companies don’t sell solar lights because the light quality and foot-candle output are limited. The piercing blue looks unnatural in a garden—artificial. The best outdoor landscape lighting has a warm glow, more like the full moon than a computer screen. Also, even the best solar lights only last about as long as a cell phone. Currently, your best bet is to wait for improved models to come out in the next few years. For attractive, long-lasting, naturally-hued lighting, stick with wired, low-voltage and high-quality outdoor fixtures.

Landscape Maintenance Work Plan

Focus on the Future

landscape maintenance workplanThere are typical tasks that should be included in a maintenance work plan. A work plan should be part of any landscape installation contract. Include contract obligations and consequences for non-compliance, or the words will not carry weight. Include detailed requirements for the contractor, in graphic form as needed, on the plan sheets. By anticipating future maintenance needs for your project in the design and specifications, the longevity of the finished landscape will improve. A maintenance work plan puts the health and viability of your project in focus.

• Plant replacement

• Edging

• Mowing

• Pruning

• Herbicides

• Posting for Pesticide Applications

Create a Boundary between Plant Beds and Turf with Edging

Life on the Edge

edging, landscape edgingA defined edge between turf areas and mulched beds makes the yard look better and adds curb appeal. The best way to create an edge for a mulched bed is the old-school, old-money way called trench edging. It is also the cheapest and best looking border between shrub beds and turf areas. You can dig a trench straight down three inches along the grass edge and then scape four inches wide across the bottom of the trench. The slope on the inside of the trench near the shrubs can slant up toward to the planted bed to catch loose, migrating mulch. By catching all the loose mulch, it doesn’t feather out into the surrounding turf. Dump the extra soil on the mulch side of the trench for even more of a defined look to the trench. The rain will flatten clods in just a few days. The nice, deep trench provides a good, solid delineation of the ground plane, which always looks great in the landscape.

This is inexpensive compared to purchasing and installing commercial edging material. The only cost is the shovel and the labor. It looks quite elegant! A substantial trench edge makes a strong statement—you maintain your property to the highest quality standards.

Some contractors use a v-shaped trench – a halfway measure that doesn’t look as nice. Once the initial cut straight down is made, the rest is easy. The extra effort helps the wider trench last twice as long. A v-trench typically lasts only one season. When you stand back from a finished full trench to view your work, you’ll appreciate the larger, definitive cut.

Landscape Tchotchkes

Style Makers

garden gnomes, birdbaths, sun dials, landscape accessoriesWant to add charm to your landscape? Bird baths, bird houses, shepherd’s hooks, garden gnomes, wind catchers, sun dials, and weather vanes add personal style. They are tchotchkes in a garden design. Keep them subtle and to a minimum, just as you would with jewelry for a clothing ensemble. Too much charm can read as artificial.

Artificial Turf

Being Artificial is the Fundamental Problem with Synthetic Turf

artificial turf, synthetic turfI watched the Super bowl, and noticed the players were complaining about the artificial turf. They were losing their cleats. Artificial turf is nothing more than plastic carpet. No matter what you might hear from the manufacturers, it can never replace natural grass. It can be slippery. It has to be replaced every few years, just like regular carpet. It can harbor bacteria and mold. It can gets very hot in the sun. There have been reports of outgassing causing health issues. Did that one item register with you? It has to be replaced every few years, just like carpet! I am not convinced it is good for outdoor surfaces.


arbor, pergola, arbors, pergolasWooden arbors provide instant shade with slats typically running along the open roof. They create thresholds and garden room enclosure. They add romance to your design.

Arbors and other outdoor structural elements need to be appropriately scaled. When in doubt about the scale needed for your landscape design, make a mock-up of the components of your structural design out of cardboard, and test it outdoors. This is a simple hack, and can save you embarrassment later. There is nothing sillier-looking than a spindly arbor or pergola.

Wooden posts must be at least four by four, preferably six by six. Pickets and crossbars need to be substantial, too. Besides holding up heavy plants like Wisteria vines, the thick, visual weight of appropriately-sized structures suits outside proportions.

Arbor posts need to be as sturdy as fence posts. Their footings should be treated the same, incorporating methods for water to drain away from the wood and to separate contact with wet soil, to prevent rotting. Arbors should be difficult to climb, since they are not meant to hold the weight of people. Posts can provide clever methods to run electrical wiring to special lighting fixtures.

Carriage bolts are the standard joining hardware for wooden arbors and decks. Beams can be added to the posts to run slats along the arbor top. Trellises and seating can be easily incorporated into the structure using the same posts. When an arbor is larger than a threshold, it can be used as a square, open-roofed, outdoor room or covered walkway. Then it is called a pergola.