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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. 



muralsArt, by nature, is appreciated in a personal way and may not appeal to everyone equally. In the interest of self-sustaining landscapes, it is better to enhance the rights of way with natural vegetation rather than using murals or art. Murals and works of art require special maintenance skills and must be considered temporary when they are located within public rights of way. Murals should not be copyrighted, and very possibly could be removed for road construction or upgrade needs later. The wide range of opinions on art and the potential for creating a very large canvas of unwelcome painted space makes a public mural prone to controversy.

There are times when murals provide an exciting update to the aesthetic character of an urban site, particularly in places with tired, stained concrete. Trompe l’oeil can be very popular if it is clever and non-controversial. Colorful and bold mural designs that embrace the local community work well.

Expect to submit your proposal to an agency review panel. They will look at your conceptual drawings or final artistic designs to ensure the subjective art pieces serve all the public. Here are some typical requirements for artwork and artistic features proposed on public rights of way.


Smart Mowing

mowing, lawns, turfMowing is an essential part of maintaining a landscape. It prevents volunteer tree seedlings and brambles from developing into maturity. It makes life miserable for most weeds. Weeds struggle when forced to remain less than 6 inches tall. Some weeds have adapted to overcome this, though. A lot of lawn weeds have adapted to mowing and stay very low, or at least keep some of their seed-producing heads below mower blade height. Others, like hop clover, send up flowers so quickly they are able to disperse seed between mowings, like dandelions. Our go-to maintenance activity for lawns and to prevent lawn weeds does eliminate the majority of turf weeds.

I used to have a neighbor that thought a beautiful lawn should be mowed as closely as a golf green, but he only mowed twice a year. Twice a year he mowed his lawn within ½ inch of the ground, and twice a year we would see plumes of red clay waft into the air as his riding lawn mower chopped away at the uneven ground surface. His low mowing would kill any surviving turf grass blades, and the disturbed ground would quickly grow back into weeds. It was not a golf-course look!

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.


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