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An Urban Plaza that Works

A Perfect Pocket Park

urban plaza, pocket park

This space is a great example of how to design an urban park with limited space. It rests between a twenty-eight story office tower and a fourteen-story hotel. The traffic running parallel on either side is non-stop, with sirens blasting constantly from the nearby hospital. The designer has taken an impossible environment and made it a pleasant place to pass the time outdoors.

How? I’ll list some of the thoughtful ideas incorporated into the design.

• The space is sunken below street level on one side and bounded by a skywalk and an enclosed parking lot on the other. This, along with the building facades, provides intimate enclosure as well as a buffer for street noise.

• Half of the plaza is raised, providing more enclosure for the picnic areas. The raised beds provide lots of opportunities for sitting, and the circular focal point acts as a stage for corporate events.

• The different levels restrict pedestrian traffic to workers in the office tower, even though the hotel patrons can view the plaza from their balconies. It is a very civil way to limit access. It is not uncommon to see residents in their pajamas, standing on their balconies, viewing activities below. Think Rear Window. There is a sense of relaxed community.

Perennial Beds

Strategies for Designing with Plant Beds that Grow, Peak, and Die Back Every Year

perennial beds, perennial bed designNine times out of ten, if you’ve seen a perennial bed, it was a photograph of the border at the peak of its floral glory. There are many people who assume a perennial bed looks colorful year-round. That word “perennial” can be misleading. Editors don’t publish pictures of perennial beds the other eleven months of the year. Showing only peak bloom gives a flattering, but false impression of gardening with herbaceous plants. The majority of the year, a traditional perennial bed will be only foliage or bare ground. As a designer, you need to plan floral borders in the landscape with the understanding the plants you choose will have a time for monochromatic, vegetative growth, a time for color, a time of declining vegetation, and a dormant season when much of the plant material is cut back.

It is best to create separate borders for the differing seasons of the year. Perennials don’t bloom from early spring to late fall. If the flowers are organized to bloom in concert, the color lasts only a few weeks. Consolidating all the early spring bloomers in one bed, the late spring bloomers in another, the early summer flowers in another, and the late bloomers in yet another plant bed is the way experienced garden designers use perennial beds to transform the feel of the landscape with seasonal transitions.

It is very important to remember when you design a landscape that herbaceous perennials die down completely after a hard frost. Annual color offers winter-blooming options, but the soft stems of herbaceous plants are made from watery cells that burst and die when exposed to freezing temperatures. A perennial bed should not be located in areas that receive year-round, high traffic. Groom spent beds, and they will be, essentially, invisible in the landscape until next year’s “moment in the sun”.


Water-wise Landscapes

xeriscaping, southeastern cactusFresh water is in limited supply and it is essential for life. That should be reason enough to care about water conservation and drought-tolerant landscapes. There are several ways to be smart about outdoor water use.

• Capture Stormwater—The first and best way to get the most out of water in your landscape is to capture free stormwater before it runs off your property. You can use rain barrels and gutter chains on a small scale, but better yet is to lobby for large-scale constructed wetlands for your regional water use.

• Get a Soil Test—Good, healthy soil allows water to percolate and grabs it for distribution to plant roots.

• Amend the Soil—Use decomposed organic matter as a soil amendment. It has magic fairy dust. It really does!

• Limit Fertilization During Dry Periods—Pushing plants to put out more vegetative growth when they are stressed is not nice. Let the plants focus their survival resources on staying alive.

Midlife Landscapes

Entertaining and Outdoor-Fun-Party Space

landscape fountain, showy patioThe most intense use of a residential landscape happens in midlife. A home landscape can flourish when the property owners are all grown up. Once everyone can swim and stops eating the poisonous berries on the shrubs and loses their inclination to climb dangerously in tree tops, the design of outdoor rooms can be more adventurous. You can add fire and water and expensive sculptures and dramatic staircases. Your plant material can be extravagantly ornamental. It is high display season in the garden.

Landscapes with a Sense of Place

The Characteristics that Make Landscapes Unique

a sense of place, landscape design sense

A sense of place is the combination of characteristics that make a landscape unique. It is an intangible feeling, similar to the way you feel when you detect a new school year is about to begin and the wind whispers through the tree tops with a fresh scent. It is a perceived change from the usual that your site possesses. Each outdoor area you prepare to transform deserves a moment of reflection. Record the surrounding environment, and provide some continuity with the distinguishing essence of the natural and constructed history of the site.

Good professional designers incorporate their client’s wishes into their plans, along with the challenges and limitations of a site, while giving due respect to the sense of place. Even so, they must establish their own authentic sense of self and hold fast to their unique design voice. Start developing your style. Don’t be afraid to propose an independent and untried idea. The combination of sense of place and sense of self make for beautiful landscapes.

Married with Children Landscapes

Landscapes for Young Homeowners

children's landscapeWhen you move into your first non-rental home, my best advice is to keep the grass mowed and wait a year. Relax about the landscape. It can wait until you get moved in. Take notes and pictures of anything exciting you see happening throughout the year. It would be a shame to start digging around, only to find out you destroyed a nice mass of native azaleas in the process. You never know where the bulbs are located until you see them sprout and bloom.

When you are ready to tackle the yard, your first priority is enclosure. Establish property boundaries and install fencing and screening to control access and egress. Mix things up along your new walls. Use evergreens, fence panels, gates, and flowering shrubs to build private outdoor rooms.

Just because your property lines are on an odd trapezoidal geometry doesn’t mean you must strictly follow those lines. You can fill a weird corner with tall evergreens and place your fence in front of or behind the vegetative screen.

If you plan on having pets, the enclosure project must include ground level (and below ground level) mechanical restraints. Fencing will need to done to the entire perimeter. Bury inexpensive wire fencing a few inches under the ground and bend it toward your yard to deter tunnel digging later. Another nice benefit from this is fall leaves are corralled and easier to rake.

Screen planting can be multilayered and varied. A boring hedge of cheap evergreens soldiered along the property line lacks flare. Undulating tall, medium, and low shrubs is much nicer. Add groups of flowering shrubs within your privacy hedge for color and seasonal interest.

Ways to Save Money on Your Landscape Project

The Most Bang for Your Buck

landscape project cost cutting, saving money on landscape projects

How can you save money on your landscape project and get the most bang for your buck? It depends. That’s the answer. How much money you are able to save on a major landscape project is dependent on how skilled, responsible, vigilant, and expensive your crews will be after installation. With the perfect crew, you can save a lot of money.


The Landscape Design Element that Makes a Big Difference

landscape design contrast, contrast of blue sage with yellow arborvitae

What’s the difference between a ho-hum landscape and one with “Wow!”? Contrast. Use different textures, forms, and colors in the landscape to excite the eye. Contrast is not the same as conflict when it comes to landscape design. Distinct differences add excitement and draw your visitor’s attention to interesting plant material. If your garden feels a bit boring, you know what to do—add contrast!

Textural contrast provides visual excitement, especially since woody plant material typically has only fleeting moments of color. The strong contrast of coarse foliage against fine-textured leaves is a great look! It is easy to find bread-and-butter shrubs with fine to medium textured foliage, but finding large-leaved plants is more of a challenge. The effort pays off with striking landscape displays.

The form and natural habit of plant material can vary quite a bit. Try to provide contrast in forms by using spiked shapes with mounded shapes and weeping shapes with low, flat ground covers. Juxtapose fine-textured foliage next to coarse, dramatic leaves to provide emphasis to the different silhouettes. Use a delicate hand with contrasting forms in your landscape design, just as you would in adding spices while cooking a soup. Think through each variation carefully, so the silhouettes you create provide a pleasing outline.

Contrasting colors spice up a design, too. There are lots of color combinations and harmonies you can try in your landscape designs. You can mix colors opposing each other on a color wheel for a pleasant, contrasting color display. A design of only one color can create a sophisticated, monochromatic color scheme, but opposing colors add pop! Mix different types of color harmonies.  Analogous schemes use colors near each other on the color wheel, and contrasting/complimentary schemes mix opposites on the color wheel. When combining different colors, try to let one color dominate the scheme and the other act as an accent.  That way, the colors don't fight for attention. Color can pull together your design into a cohesive whole and provide neutral breaks in disparate and clashing color schemes.

The differences in life are what make things exciting. Embrace conflicting textures, forms, and color to make them stand out when juxtaposed. Contrast elevates landscape design.