The Complete Guide to Landscape Design, Renovation,
by Cass Turnbull
WHAT MAKES A YARD LOOK GOOD OR BAD
Let's start by examining what makes yards look bad. The very worst
ones are the yards that people have concreted in, so they won't
have to mow them. The reason you plant a yard is, after all, to
relieve you from the squareness, the flatness, and the harshness
of the concrete and the buildings of our urban areas. Besides the
no-maintenance "no yard" we see a second error. This is
the house that you don't see because the tiny shrubs and trees that
were planted right up close to the house fifteen years ago are all
now full sized and are so smashed up against the house that you
can't see out the windows or get in the doors. Beyond this jungle
pressed against the house you find only empty grass out to the street.
The Over Planted Yard
Another extremely common problem is the overplanted yard. People
tend to space their new plants so that they look "right"
now. But plants are only babies when you get them. They get bigger,
and bigger and soon they are too crowded. Plant lovers tend to overplant
also. In their enthusiasm to own every treasured plant that's available,
they shoehorn them in, hoping that somehow more space will be found
in the future. But as the plants grow larger, they inevitably interfere
with each other and lose their shape and charm. A special case of
plant-lovers-overplanting is the garden wherein one-of-everything
exists, but the feeling of theme is wholly lost. This is called
"fruit salad" or, if you want to be nice, it is referred
to as a "collector's garden."
The Low Maintenance Yard
At the other end of the spectrum is the ever-popular "low maintenance"
yard. These are juniper and bark yards you see everywhere, particularly
in parking lots, condominiums, and industrial parks. Often they
include rhododendrons, some junipers, photinia, and mugho pines.
A few larger evergreen trees are used ("we don't want any deciduous
trees because we don't want to rake leaves"). These are good
enough if they are really what you want. But soon, soon, you will
be bored, because aside from the short burst of color from your
spring flowering shrubs, the scene never changes. After awhile you
don't even see it. And if you don't see it, you probably won't weed
or maintain it, much less enjoy it.
Other Landscape Design Errors
The kind of yard that has always intrigued me is the one where the
house is surrounded by giant trees and shrubs on the outside, out
by the street. The house seems mysterious and inviting nestled back
there. But if you talk to the people who live there, chances are
they'll say, "You can have it!" It's dark there all the
time, and they wish they could just grow enough grass to put their
lawn furniture on. And nothing ever blooms, it's too shady.
Another common design error is planting individual shrubs out in
the middle of the lawn every so often. This breaks up the monotony
of the empty lawn that ends with a shrubs-jammed-up-against-the-back-fence-in-rows
look. But the shrubs look to me like tiny lone islands in the sea
of green. They are fussy to mow around. Better to put in a large
island or peninsula and add some companions to keep them company.
Also note yards where all the plants are the same height and texture.
They are oppressive and dull. People seem to think that a shrub
ought to be wider than it is tall and always about waist high. A
nice yard has different sizes and textures of things.
Another mistake to avoid is mixing garden styles. Just as with furniture
and interior decorating, gardens have styles. Sometimes styles can
be blended and sometimes not. Generally, you want your more intensive
formal looking areas, like roses and annual flower beds, closer
to the house; then you can let the garden become more natural as
you move farther away. My yard is basically Pacific North West style,
evolving into woodland in the back garden. Lately, I've added a
small perennial flower bed next to the garage. It "works,"
as they say. But a yard starts to look funny if you have a Japanese
cloud pruned pine and an English perennial border and some natural
looking shrubs and a fish pond. If you live in the woods, among
towering forest trees, one sheared bush looks odd. Pollarded trees
look good next to the chateaux in France; they look silly as the
only two treated that way out of a row of trees on the parking strip
in front of your house. Pollarded trees are the ones pruned to look
like five foot lollipops. Some garden styles I have identified are
- Formal English clipped hedges, roses, knot gardens
- English cottage gardens fruit trees and lots of perennials
rambling around in great profusion
- Japanese highly trained and maintained pines and other
trees with masses of low sheared shrubs, placed rocks, and sand
- Early American, little-old-lady forsythias, quince,
peonies, bearded iris
- Pacific Northwest rocks to look like mountain outcroppings,
rhododendron, pines, heather, vine maples, Douglas firs
- Woodland tall trees with understory plants and ground
- Prairie grasses and sun loving wildflowers
You wouldn't put an art deco table next to your French provincial
couch. Be equally careful to blend styles in your yard. A good exercise
for you is to start looking at yards as you pass them. When you
find one you like, try to put into words what it is that appeals
You should know that people go through stages of gardening taste
the way they do in clothes or cars. At first people are attracted
to the "riot of color" yards packed in annuals and dahlias.
They also like sheared shrubs. They graduate through various styles
and stages of snobbery. I know of a garden in England that is all
shrubs planted for contrasting shapes and textures. But there are
no bright colors--simply all shades of green. Some people become
miniaturists--these are the alpine rock gardeners. A friend of mine
went with her mother to buy a tiny alpine plant for her mother's
friend. When they selected a plant, my friend said, "Oh, she'll
love it. You can hardly see it at all!"
Other people go the tasteful species route. Allow me to interpret
this gardenese for you. Because people like flowers, horticulturists
began to breed bigger and more spectacular flowers on plants and
shrubs to dazzle us. These are "hybrids." Often the plants
lost many interesting secondary characteristics like scent and interesting
sizes, colors, and shapes of leaves. Hybrid rhododendrons look a
lot alike most of the year, but species (those are ones existing
naturally in the wild) vary greatly in size: some have giant leaves,
others are tiny plants. Some species rhododendrons have blue felt
called "indementum" under the leaves--others have gold
felt. Some smell interesting if you rub or prune them. Some have
dangling trumpets for blooms. "Species" plants are more
likely to bloom at a different season or smell good. They look more
Anyway, there is nothing wrong with any style of yard. You may be
torn among several, but eventually your own style will, trust me,
assert itself. Many go full circle and come back to "gaudy"
dahlias; others remain true to their first love, perhaps the rose.
Still others find new styles more suited to their personality. I
like things to look wild, natural, and lush, but not oppressive
or unkempt. So I go for more woodland, for vigorous and species
types. Take some time to look in books and visit gardens to see
what type you identify with most closely.
Elements of Good Garden Design
So now, let's talk about what makes things look good. Generally,
you want shrubs and trees, plus grass, to soften the hard angular
lines of your house and lot. Some people eliminate grass altogether
and use a patio surrounded by beds. A flat sea of green grass does,
however, add contrast for your shrub beds. Grass is good if you
have kids. Cool grass on the sole of a barefoot in summer is a much
savored tactile treat. A few very tall things are essential, to
put your house in scale, or set it off, especially if it's a tall
or big house. But not so many that they block all the light. A tall
tree takes up a lot of space but it adds the element of "grandeur."
A big tree goes on the south or west side to protect you from the
blazing, hot sun. It also adds habitat for kids and other wild life,
songbirds, for example. I think our urban settings are sorely lacking
in grandeur and habitat.
Carve out your beds in gentle sweeps around the outside perimeter.
Make them three times as big as you think you need them. The amount
of grass you need is really quite small. Enough for six chairs and
a barbecue table or three beach towels. I like a 50%/50% ratio of
lawn to beds. If you are lucky enough to have a lot of land, you
may wish to break it up into "rooms" with shrub bed peninsulas
or fences, the path winding from one "room" to another.
Rooms are not square--they're just spaces that are separated, more
or less. One of the most pleasurable gardening experiences is that
of mystery, as when you catch a glimpse of further garden around
a corner or through a gate. To lend this inviting air of mystery
to your house, plant up the outside corners with your tallest trees
and shrubs and have them descend to the entry to the street. This
will mean that your landscape cups your house like an open hand.
The broad openings, however, will invite you in and let in light.
A good thing to incorporate in your yard always, always is truck
access. At some point or another you will need to get a refrigerator
to the back door, or a cement truck or six yards of mulch. Even
if this is a giant gate in your fence you open once in six years,
be sure you have it. If the access is not big enough for a truck,
then make it at least wide enough for a wheelbarrow. Having a hidden
utility area is also a very, very good idea.
If your house is up a steep hill, you will want to build a rockery,
which you can make special with good plant choices and stepped back
rocks which leave you places to plant. If your whole area slopes
steeply, then seriously consider terracing, or rock or wall reinforcements.
When landscape architects tell you the ground cover will spread
and hold the bank, they lie. All landscaping needs maintenance,
or else the weeds will invade and prosper until you have a blackberry
patch. And if it's too steep for you to walk on, this is what will
happen. Also erosion occurs with undeniable regularity on steep
slopes. Don't ignore it! Gravity always wins. Having steep slopes
means that the summer irrigation water runs off before it sinks
into the soil. Steep slopes mean that all that expensive mulch you
spread to keep the weeds down will migrate down to the bottom in
about a year--leaving bare spots above and a useless thick pile
at the bottom. Invest the time and money to fix your steep grades
now--plant your garden later.
Take measures to avoid spotty, unplanned-looking yards. Plant in
groups of threes, fives, or sevens--pairs at the very least. Plant
smaller things in groups, never rows. If this rule is carried to
the extreme with very broad curves and huge masses of same type
plants, your yard will look institutional; if it's ignored and you
plant one of everything, and beds have too many curves, it will
look fussy. Groupings or masses of plants give your yard a sense
of being planned. The backbone of your yard is made up of these
groups. They are like the chorus line in the stage show. They allow
the other, more "choice" plants to show off. They give
A certain sense of theme can be achieved by repeating a shrub on
different sides of an area, or by repeating a plant shape or matching
colors at bloom time. Some plan a yard of blue, white and pink.
Another might choose yellow and white. A person might mirror similar
arches in front or back. Or feature the same style of crockery or
benches. Or you can repeat a certain angle or curve on your beds,
only bigger or smaller, someplace else.
Amongst these threes and fives, plant some specialties, any plant
that is featured as a one-of-a-kind in your yard is called a "specimen"
plant. A weird or spectacular thing, like a weeping sequoia, can
be a "specimen plant." Other specialty plants to tuck
in include winter bloomers. Plant things that stay low or are easy
to keep low under your windows and taller things in the empty wall
spaces. Sarcococca makes a nice low, shade loving plant for that
skinny space between the walkway and house. It's evergreen and smells
nice, too. Evergreen huckleberry is good for this skinny spot, and
so is nandina.
An interesting yard has shows for every season. In spring all the
rhododendrons and azaleas and flowering ornamental dogwood, cherry,
plum, crabapple, deciduous flowering shrubs will bloom. Maybe you
have a flowering vine too, like a spring blooming clematis. As spring
turns to summer, you should carefully choose some summer flowering
shrubs and many sweet smellers to make lounging around outside more
interesting. There's usually a lull midsummer and you may wish to
add some flowers, that is to say, annuals or perennials, to keep
Then some early fall bulbs and perennials lead into the fall show.
Choose some vines, trees and shrubs that turn colors or have interesting
berries. And even though you didn't plan it that way, it will look
as if you chose them to go with each other. In deepest winter you
should have your backbone of evergreen plants to keep the barren
feeling away. Also use things with interesting bark like London
Plane trees, or red twig dogwood. Perhaps you will choose to highlight
one of the specimen trees or shrubs that has a graceful or bold
branch pattern in your yard so that it will show up penciled in
frost. Tucked against some other shrubs where you hardly notice
them in the summer you can put the winter or early early spring
scented bloomers, like witch hazel. They often flower without much
leaf to accompany them, which makes them all the more charming.
Winter is when your hardscape shows up the most. This means the
lines of your beds, the big rocks that you might put in for interest.
The stepping stones or paths, their shape, arrangement, and texture,
show up. The variation in height will add a lot, too--and just how
you divided things up generally. And if you have a tasteful urn
or bench that is your focal point, it will be very much the star
in the winter.
Each area of your yard should have a focal point. This can be an
ornament or an interesting tree or shrub. In my back yard it is
a rock-ring fire pit. My friend, wild man Dellessio, would always
start a fire in my back yard during parties. I had to institutionalize
it to keep my lawn from becoming riddled with black spots. So a
focal point can even be dull. It's just a resting spot for your
eyes so that the remainder of the yard seems to fit. That's why
you shouldn't have too many focal points in one area; it defeats
Contrast is the stuff that great landscapes are made of. Grey-leaved
things and purple-leaved things can add a lot of contrast to a yard;
they help make up contrast in color. Other important elements are
contrast in form (as in round things versus columnar things) and
contrast in texture (things that look soft or lacy versus bold or
spiky). They can be placed to show each other off. People think
it's flowers that make a garden beautiful but it's really contrast.
One of the smartest improvements that I ever saw occurred in a yard
that used to have an enormous bank of Pfitzer junipers and a big
tree. The couple who moved in made many wonderful additions, including
a perennial bed and a raised vegetable patch. But true genius emerged
when--instead of pulling out the Pfitzers--they added contrasting
weeping Alaska cedars. Most people, I'm sure, never consciously
notice or comment. But I'll bet they're great laced in snow. The
chevron-shaped Pfitzers are perfectly contrasted by the slender
draped boughs of the cedars. The three tall trees also offset or
balance the mass of low junipers. This evergreen scene provides
a good solid backbone to their yard.
Make sure to plant the things that are going to get tall in the
back of the bed (if it goes to a fence or wall) or the center of
the bed if it's an island, and don't plant rows of junipers along
your walkways, or rows of anything, actually. Invariably one of
them dies and it will be hard to find its match. Also, plan your
yard to have a minimum number of objects to mow around in your lawn
area--I have two. One is a fire pit; the other is a tree.
One of the things that makes a yard look nice is what I have called
"three stories." Trees make up the top story, under them
or in front of them are the shrubs, under them or in front of them
are the ground covers. It is also pleasing to spot something growing
behind or under things, such as bulbs under deciduous shrubs or
hellebores or ferns under tall, tree-like shrubs. Consider the "bottom
floor" especially, just outside your windows and near the entryways,
where you may wish to glance down at something interesting.
Before. Sometimes a yard will benefit from the addition of a
plant or plants.
After. Here the addition of a bed and shrubs makes the yard
look more finished.
Your yard may be missing balance. By this I certainly don't mean
that everything should be exactly the same on both sides. But if
something seems wrong, you might need to plant a shrub or bring
in a rock for that empty space to give your yard balance. I worked
in a landscape where the owners wanted me to remove everything on
the forest floor in a certain area. In this area there existed a
small tree with three azaleas on one side and none on the other
side, just the blank forest floor and low scrub back to some trees.
What was needed was something to fill in--not something to take
out. To add balance, plants on either side need not be the same
size or type. They must just sort of have equal weight or mass.
A mass of short shrubs on one side of a tree may equal a large shrub
on the other side.
Adventure and Surprise
Adventure and surprise are other elements of garden design. Paths
that take you on a journey, even a tiny one, to behind that clump
of shrubs and trees, add a lot. Side yards have a lot of adventure,
because you must walk through them to see what's there. Plants that
come and go, like bulbs and perennials, add surprise. Some people
go so far as to put in gates that lead nowhere or enticing paths
that lead to the dull utility area. It's showmanship. And now you
must set the stage.
Is your yard...
- too dull?
- too crowded?
- no two shrubs the same?
- narrow beds that follow the house, walls and fences?
- mixed styles?
- plants all the same height?
- solve drainage and erosion problems first
- include access for trucks, wheelbarrows and daylight
- include tall trees for grandeur, shade, habitat, the ecology
- make beds very large, with sweeping curves
- plant in odd numbers--threes, fives and sevens
- plant in drifts, not rows
Will your new yard have...
- shows for every season?
- good hardscape?
- focal points? not too many, but one for every area?
- contrast? in height, texture, color and form?
- adventure and surprise?
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