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Landscape Design Basics

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Landscape Design Basics

The most efficient, functional, and aesthetically pleasing home landscape should be developed to satisfy the needs of the people who will use and maintain it. The planting design should be compatible with the existing environmental conditions or restrictions. But most important, the design should enhance the quality of life for the users. Good landscape design and the arrangement and placement of plants are all based on certain plant characteristics and time-tested design principles. The visual characteristics of plant size, form, texture, and color contribute to the functional and aesthetic qualities of a planting design. Plant size should be the primary consideration. Large plants, such as shade trees, should be located first; the smaller trees, shrubs, and finally the ground covers should be arranged to provide a sense of support or framework to the overall design. Shade and evergreen trees, such as maples or spruce, are the most dominant plants in the landscape design. They provide background, visual weight and structural framework. Ornamental trees, such as flowering crabapples and birches, are used as focal points or dominant elements because of their seasonal and often picturesque branching characteristics. Tall shrubs, such as viburnum and lilac, help establish vertical edges to an outdoor space, create screens, enhance privacy, or provide a neutral background. Small shrubs, such as junipers and cotoneasters, are also used to define edges and spaces without blocking views; they can connect and link unrelated or separate plants, and define areas and space on the ground. Form or shape is a second important consideration in a planting composition. The most common plant shapes are the spreading (cotoneaster, Hetz Juniper) and rounded (lilac, Norway maple) forms. These two basic plant forms have the most application in planting design; they create neutral patterns in contrast with more unusual forms of plants. Columnar and pyramidal-shaped plants, such as tall-hedge or Hicks yew, have visual characteristics that suggest vertical edges in an outdoor space. They create a major contrast with the more common rounded or spreading plants. The picturesque and weeping forms of plants, such as weeping birch or willow, are useful as accents or focal points in the planting design when used sparingly. Plant texture refers to the visual roughness or smoothness of a plant. The texture of the foliage, twigs, and branches is either coarse, medium, or fine. Texture effects are most visible at close range and in smaller landscape plantings. Coarse-textured plants, such as rhododendron or viburnum, tend to be dominant and attract attention. They usually have dense foliage or broad leaves. Fine-textured plants, such as shrubby dogwood or birch, appear delicate and tend to recede from view. They usually have fine foliage or needle leaves. In planting composition, medium-textured plants, such as crabapple, yew, or lilac, should dominate and contrast with either the coarse or fine textures. Color is one of the most visual plant characteristics. It includes the color of leaves, flowers, fruit, branches, and bark. Green is the predominant plant color, but has seasonal variations. With evergreens, the same color is present year round. The color of the summer foliage has the longest seasonal effect and the most importance in design composition. A variety of greens has more visual appeal when displayed against a uniform neutral green background. A common mistake is to use too many different colors. Plant color can be used as an attractor, to call attention to some area in the landscape. Dark-colored plants contrasted with light-colored plants create focal points in a planting composition. Plants should be arranged for summer foliage effects first, and the color characteristics of flowers, fall foliage, fruit, or branching second. Foliage color varies with texture. Fine-textured leaves are more reflective and tend to be weaker in overall visual effect. Plant colors can also be used to suggest certain emotional or psychological feelings. Dark greens give a somber, gloomy feeling. Lighter greens suggest gaiety and cheerfulness. Order is the design principle used to create unity in the planting composition. Unity is achieved when all parts of the design, plants, and materials have a harmonious relationship to each other. Unity in design can also be achieved by reducing the number of different elements such as plant species, sizes, forms, colors, or textures. A basic principle in planting design is to group plants together in groups of three, five, or seven, rather than scattering them about. Young plants may first appear as small individuals, but as they grow and mature they should be viewed as a group unless they are designed as individual specimens. Scattered plants or groups of plants can be connected with beds of ground covers (bugleweed, Japanese spurge) or low shrubs (junipers, cotoneasters). Dominance suggests that one element in the composition has authority over other subordinate parts. Dominance may be created by size alone, such as a shade tree, or by form, texture, color, or location of the elements within a design. The dominant element may also become the focal point. Major contrast is a similar design principle where one element is so different that other parts of the composition are subordinated to that element, such as a bed of red salvia flowers against a background of green yews. Repetition and rhythm are planting design principles achieved when similar plant characteristics are introduced and repeated to help create the feeling of recall or unity in the composition. Interconnection is a principle similar to repetition whereby different plants are linked together by overlapping or touching similar plants. Fences, walls, or beds of ground cover are frequently used to link elements together in the landscape. The theme of a planting composition may be informal, curved, or natural. The style may give a formal, linear, or symmetrical theme. By following a definite order or style, the design does not have a fragmented or uncoordinated appearance. The most visually pleasing designs are not created by chance, but follow a specific order, theme, or style that carries throughout the landscape. (Adapted from a publication by Fred K. Buscher, Ohio State University)
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Landscape Design Basics

The traditional view of landscape design is a detailed drawing specifying the location of each shrub and flower bed. In truth, each time you bring home a plant from the nursery you are engaging in the design process, either intentionally or unintentionally. Judging from the results I see, there are an awful lot of unintentional designers out there. Many landscapes look like a collection of randomly chosen and haphazardly placed plants. Not only do they lack cohesion, but even worse, the poorly placed plants become liabilities, requiring expensive pest treatments, frequent pruning or complete removal long before they have fulfilled their natural life spans. Although an overall plan is a valuable tool, there’s nothing wrong with designing on the fly. Experienced gardeners do it all the time, usually with great delight. Whichever method you choose, here are a few tips for creating a landscape that stands out from the crowd and minimizes future headaches. Plan for Equipment Access “It’s important to anticipate future access,” advises Liz Dean of New Leaf Landscaping in Durham, N.C., “whether it be mowers or stump grinders, or future building projects such as a porch or patio.” At some point in the life of your home, you will be faced with a project or repair that requires some loud, monstrous machine to get into your backyard. Plan for it in advance, or be faced with having to tear out some of your precious plantings. Start With (and Maintain) the Focal Points Stated simply, a focal point is something that “makes you look,” says Dr. Pat Lindsey, a landscape design professor at North Carolina State University. At its best, however, “it directs you visually and makes you feel surprised, moved or engaged, moving you through the garden experience.” Although we typically think of using a specimen tree or statue as a focal point, there are many other possibilities. Lindsey says the key is to find something that is “slightly to very different from the rest of your landscape in form, texture or color.” It could be an architectural feature of your house or even a borrowed view. The trick is to make them stand out, yet not stick out. It should be somehow connected to the rest of the landscape, either through a repeated shape or color, or a connection to the overall style of the landscape. Scale is also important. If your landscape is several acres with broad vistas, then perhaps an ancient oak would play the role quite well. In a small urban lot, an ornate garden bench or small statue might be the perfect size. Leave Formal Landscapes to the Rich and Famous A formal landscape is one of the most challenging to create, and the upkeep can be arduous. “Symmetry is very difficult to maintain,” notes Dean. If, for example, you have two identical evergreens at the corners of the house and one dies, it could be very difficult to find a matching replacement. “Sometimes,” she continues, “the only choice is to replace both, which adds to the expense.” One of the most common dilemmas is the hedgerow or foundation planting where one or two shrubs have succumbed to a plague. Be wary of putting all your eggs in one basket. Keep Curves in Check Incorporating curves will add interest to your garden, but don’t overdo it. A collection of amoeba-shaped beds would be overkill, as would a curvy path that takes you far out of the way of your destination. Long, subtle curves are often best. Lindsey also advises gardeners to “limit the geometries so that one dominates.” If you incorporate curved lines in beds and walkways, for example, repeat those shapes in the third dimension with the shape of the plants you choose and the way you arrange them. Add Movement A landscape without movement is like a painting. Paintings are fine for hanging on a wall, but a garden needs movement to add life and interest. No garden is complete without some ornamental grasses to sway in the breeze. Add flowers to attract hummingbirds and butterflies, and several berry producers for the birds. Accent Your House Unless your house is an architectural masterpiece, it could benefit from some thoughtful plantings to soften the edges and help it blend with the surroundings. But take care not to end up at the other extreme, a house that is hidden by overgrown shrubbery. Even the smallest starter home usually has some interesting architectural feature. The best design will highlight that feature. Take Nothing for Granted When you live in a place for a while, you tend to accept existing features as obstacles, sometimes without completely noticing them. Rather than designing around the overgrown shrubbery, established trees, or worn-out deck, consider removing them. You may discover new possibilities, such as a sunny spot for a vegetable garden or rose bed. Right Plant, Right Spot On the outside chance that someone reading this has not heard the old adage “right plant, right spot,” I urge you to adopt it as your personal gardening mantra. The phrase should be repeated constantly during each visit to the nursery. In addition to knowing the full-grown size, Liz Dean cautions us to consider growth rate as well. Since they get large more quickly, fast-growing plants may seem like a bargain. In the end, however, time and money spent on pruning and other maintenance may outweigh the initial savings. Dean also observes that “proper spacing allows air circulation to prevent fungal and insect problems.” But won’t the finished landscape look sparse? Easy, she counters, simply “fill in with annuals.” Finally, keep in mind that you needn’t have a five-figure budget to achieve an exceptional landscape. Whether your landscape venture is a two-month multiphase project, or a Saturday trip to the nursery, the key is to select your plants purposefully and place them thoughtfully. The result is sure to bring you years of enjoyment. Paul McKenzie is a horticulture extension agent in Durham, N.C., and has managed the Durham County Master Gardener Volunteer Program. Keep Reading

Landscape Design Basics

Landscape Design Basics
Landscape Design Basics
Landscape Design Basics
Landscape Design Basics
Landscape Design Basics

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