Spring weather always brings about the urge to get to the garden center.
And as much as we can't resist starting our landscape designs by tilling up a patch of earth and sticking in our favorite plants here and there, the best way to plan a garden is to step back and take a really good look at the site.
We've all seen the photos of beautiful landscapes with brick paths, fountain courtyards and stone retaining walls. We dream of having those structures in our own yards, but instead of investing in pallets of hardscape materials, we bring home truckloads of trees, shrubs and perennials that we continue to place around the yard, hoping someday to intersperse the area with something made of rock.
Needless to say, that's going about it backwards.
All of the garden designers I know recommend to put the hardscape in first. Take a good look at your property, and even if you have to bring out the graph paper and measuring implements, jot down ideas to make your garden into what you want it to ultimately become.
Not many people have the means to do an entire project at once, so even if you start small with one section at a time, have a plan in mind for the entire scene. If, when you get to it, something better pops into your head, the plans can always be altered, but at least have an outline to follow. Seeing the plan on paper can help keep the project from becoming too overwhelming and offer encouragement to keep going.
Here are a few tips to consider when planning a hardscape project. Keeping these things in mind could keep you from having bigger problems later on.
l Pay attention to drainage issues. Most properties have areas where standing water is a problem. Altering the grade of the property by building walls or digging trenches also can change the path of draining water. If standing water is an issue, consider including a rain garden filled with plants that are water tolerant. Another option would be a dry creek bed where water can be diverted to an area with better drainage during rainy periods. You also can plan to catch the water and recycle it back into the garden where it is needed.
l When creating a path, keep in mind there should be a destination. Walkways aren't just used as a way to meander through the gardens. While they may draw our eye, they also draw the person. The best part of walking through a garden is the anticipation of what's at the other end of the path. Make your destination just as interesting as the trip it took to get there, if not more.
l It should look as though it belongs. Unless you live near a lake, a giant piece of driftwood likely won't give a natural look to a garden in a suburb in northeast Ohio. Nor do large boulders left to lay where they landed when they rolled off the truck. Dig a hole large enough to bury at least a third of the boulder so it looks as though it has been there awhile. Unless you prefer a meticulously manicured landscape, place a few steppable plants in between the bricks or stones in the path so that it also doesn't look as though it was just constructed yesterday.
l Select materials that complement your house. If you live in a modest ranch-style home, don't build arches and columns that resemble something out of ancient Greece. You also should match the colors. If you have pale patio stone, don't buy dark red pathway bricks and vice versa. It's OK to make a transition from one design or color to the next, but make it a gradual transition. The visitor should be able to look down at their feet and say, when did this happen?
l Leave some grass behind. The kids may be grown and those swingset play areas are no longer needed, but that's no reason to rip out the entire lawn and replace it with shrubs and perennials, or worse, recycled fake tire mulch or several tons of white stones. First of all, gardens aren't completely maintenance free and you may find yourself wishing all you had to do was jump on the mower for an hour or so once you find yourself spending much more time pruning, weeding and deadheading. Turfgrass remains cool during those really hot days of summer. Remember as a child plopping down on a bed of cool grass? That hasn't changed, and you'll need a turfgrass coolant for the other plants later in the summer.
l Most of all, do the job right. Don't expect a permanent hardscape project to be permanent if the site hasn't been properly prepared. Before putting in that stone path, make sure you have the correct base material or a few freeze and thaw winters will have your path heaving this way and that in a short time. If needed, contact a professional landscaper for the best way to do the task at hand.
Once the paths, walls, fountains and other hardscape materials are put in, you can start thinking about plants. Even if you do just one section at a time, doing it the right way will make you much happier with the result.