GoodSeed Farm > Design - Planning for Practicality

Design - Planning for Practicality

Growing up in the family landscape business made a strong impression on me when it comes to practical landscape design. Our family company specialized in industrial-commercial landscape maintenance. We made our living by rearranging commercial landscapes so that they took less man-hours to keep them looking nice. I spent my workdays pulling weeds and hand-trimming. I draw on that early experience today when I design landscapes.

Recently Marjorie and I went on the Central Ohio Landscape Association Garden Tour in Columbus. We looked at fifteen home landscapes designed and installed by professional landscapers and nurseries. It was a very interesting day. Most of the homes had elaborate “hardscapes”; combinations of walls, pavers, pergolas and water features. The featured landscapes ranged in price, some modest, some costing well into six figures.

One thing most of them had in common was that they were over-planted. A few were “plant collections”, with one each of many different species, but most had mass-plantings. This is usually a better way to fill landscape beds with color without appearing cluttered. Either way, most of the designs had twice or three times the number of plants needed, and will become much too crowded in a very short time.

I’m always surprised how few landscape designers really know about plants. We saw many examples of plant combinations that won’t thrive because the plants need different growing conditions. A good example is combining Hostas, which need shade protection, with ornamental grasses that prefer full sun all day. This may work on a color wheel, but over time the wonderful color harmonies will disappear because some of the plants won’t survive.

Overcrowding and poor plant choices will make maintenance a real headache over the long haul. Woody plants that grow too large will need to be constantly sheared to fit the space and keep them looking good. We saw many taxus yews, shrubs we avoid because they need constant shearing. We saw Fothergilla and Viburnum jammed into small spaces when they naturally grow quite large.

Another plant we saw everywhere was purple wintercreeper, a groundcover vine that climbs trees and walls, covers walks, and smothers the rest of the landscape. Wintercreeper destroys siding and gutters, and is known for attracting “scale”, an insect that covers it with powdery mold unless it’s sprayed every year. Why not use Vinca or Pachysandra instead? We’re not sure.

Expensive hardscape designs with outdoor living and dining rooms were in many of the landscapes, but with little thought to protecting homeowners from sun, wind and rain. Most of the pergolas we saw didn’t actually provide much shade. We saw walks and patios with lots of steps where ramps would be more user-friendly. Everywhere we looked there were patches of high-maintenance “stupid grass”, a pet peeve of mine. I promise you a column about this.

Garden tours typically feature newly installed landscapes, or hobby gardens maintained by owners with lots of time on their hands. Harder to find are landscapes that stood the test of time, getting better year after year. Low maintenance landscapes take careful planning and require skilled installation. Color wheels are important tools for harmonizing plantings, but a good designer should also have practical experience with real-life maintenance and a good background in how plants actually grow. Otherwise he’s more a salesman than a designer.

We offered our readers free tickets to this year’s Central Ohio Landscape Association Garden Tour. If you’d like to be invited next year, please send us an e-mail from our website at