Don’t you wish occasionally that you could just plant something and walk away? Never have to prune, water, feed, deadhead, divide, or replace when it turns up its toes? Then maybe I have an idea for you. What if I told you you could just about have it all? Year-long color and zero maintenance. Never have to reach for your snips because your garden addition would always be exactly what you put in the ground. I’d like to show you some ideas for additions to your garden that will last and last.
A great landscape design is not just about the plants, or color at specific times of the year. You’ve heard me say that before, but it bears repeating: In order to truly enjoy your outdoor spaces you need to provide points of interest and novelty, not just perennials and annuals, growing cheek by jowl. Further visual interest can be incorporated with rock and what’s known as ’hardscape,’ These additions can contrast perfectly with what’s growing. But how about adding another sensory element, such as sound? No, I’m not talking about a speaker system. What can work well can be a water feature, which adds much, much more to your visual design. I’ll show you two distinct fountains that can add real pleasure to your outdoor spaces.
This traditional fountain placed at a strategic point in the garden performs a great task; it serves as a destination and focal point. It has all that typical fountains provide, such as low maintenance, attraction for songbirds, and a style that is complementary to the house. Bust as you gaze at this photo, you know what’s also here: The calm and lovely sound of trickling water. That one sound makes a fountain, no matter its size, a point of interest to all. Something else cool about this one is that, no, it’s not made of cast iron. It’s concrete stained black. Talk about low cost and upkeep. And your foundation plantings and annual planted for seasonal color seem to almost lean into this water feature.
One of a pair, this fountain is fabricated from recycled brick, vintage waterspout, and glazed jars we offer at Botanica. I designed this pair to serve as a sort of boundary in the garden, and everything to build them was found and repurposed. I created an open top, and installed four LED uplights within. The fountains are also lit at night. I used vintage spouts and inserted the motor in each. You can just plug these water features in and walk away. What’s nice here is that they’re upright and not bulky, which means they won’t overpower the space and you’ll have plenty of room to nestle plants all around. Fountains, by the way, don’t call for specific or traditional plantings only. A water feature will only bring out the best of your plant groupings, no matter the style or quantity.
Remember this fountain is not cast iron, but concrete. You wouldn’t know that unless you studied it closely. It is a great addition to this garden, however, because it’s on another level and creates further dimension to the design. And, like I said before, the sound of the water–soothing and tranquil–will attract and delight your guests.
Because this pair of fountains would be part of the garden boundary, I wanted to make sure the fence itself didn’t detract from them. And, in keeping with the recycle-reuse-repurpose philosophy I was mindful of while creating the fountains, I chose iron salvaged from an old carport on the property. The brick fountains pull the eye up, and aren’t hulking or massive, yet are also unexpected. These fountains have spouts that control the water flow, so what you get in the way of sound here is a ’burble,’ not a splash. Which means you can convene the book club nearby, and everyone can be heard.
Garden design doesn’t have to be confined to elements that we can see only. Don’t forget your other senses when planning your space. And fountains don’t have to be expensive or large. You can find a fountain design–or design one yourself–that will fit any budget and any space. The sounds of water flowing up, over, and down as it follows gravity will delight you and your guests, no matter the season.
Live Life to the Fullest,
Chris H. Olsen
A landscape, no matter its size, is not just one contiguous area filled with growing things or concrete. It is divided into ‘rooms,’ which can contain different elements according to use, space, and growing conditions. And even if you live in a smaller space, you can still bring in some great—and personal–design to that courtyard, or corner. Creating something unexpected is the point, and it’s not hard at all.
Here, you see a typical garden wall and gate. Functional design, varied and hardy plantings, lighting and security in place. Ho hum. But see past the gate? What lies within is key. It’s a small space, so an easy design. We used Chinese elements here, installed fairly simple plantings, provided a water feature for real interest, and an imposing pagoda to anchor it all. Design theme, water, plants, architectural element, rock and stone. That was the checklist. Notice it isn’t a long list of requirements. Start out with one connecting idea, then implement it with plantings and other elements.
Because it’s a small area, we wanted to make use of sound as well as sight. Hence, the flowing water. It cascades down the rocks and collects in a pool at the base of the Japanese maple. That maple is the workhorse of the design because it gives a great show twelve months of the year. The foliage of these small landscape trees are what gives them value. You’ll find hybrids with leaves that pretty much run the color wheel between black red and pale chartreuse. Even in the depths of winter, a Japanese maple’s trunk and bare branches provide interest. It always works in corners and small spaces because, depending on the cultivar, will never outgrow its space. Use of a small tree with brilliant foliage also meant we didn’t have to rely on annual plantings for color, which further simplifies the design. Just some water-loving grasses were all we needed to finish this part of the design.
Contrast, which you’ll want to be aware of, comes in the use of natural rock slabs, river rock, and pavers. Don’t forget to incorporate texture into your design. Natural juxtaposed with manmade, straight lines versus what’s found in nature.
And the best kind of contrast comes with the interplay of light and shadow. The kind of shade cast by elements of our small garden means it looks great at 6 AM, as well as 6 PM.
A touch of whimsy is always welcome. This globe was used because the fire engine red color can be seen from afar, and is merely the outline of a circle; the plants can grow through and over it. Let your plants run free every time you can, but give them something in the way of support.
Pools call for frogs, and this one’s no exception. Stylized and amusing, he splays out on the rock sunning himself, and adds that element of personality you’ll want in your design. I write a lot about showing your personality in the landscape, but that doesn’t mean you have to create a major production and spend a lot of money. Often, just one element, like our metal lounging amphibian, will do the trick.
The stone pagoda adds gravitas, yet also a bit of fun. Plus, it telegraphs the importance of Chinese elements in our design. It anchors the space year-round and, while formal, is welcoming. Find one large piece to serve as focal point like this one, and your design comes together. You can design a small garden around something you already have, or you can look for something as you go.
It’s really fairly simple to put together a small garden in a small space. Limit your design and its elements. Think functionality, but don’t forget whimsy and the occasional piece that will delight you and your guests. Don’t be afraid to experiment. After all, you aren’t creating a five-acre park. Think of it more as an inviting little space where you make unexpected use of what you can find all around you.
Live Life to the Fullest,
Chris H. Olsen
Rock has a place in your landscape, every bit as important as seasonal color and foundation plantings. We tend to get caught up in the bright and shiny aspects of design, and often forget the real heavy lifting of any landscape plan can be done by rock and stone, stacked and laid. Want a great flowerbed? Don’t forget to outline it. Want a defined walkway? Use flags, instead of concrete. Want a retaining wall? Skip the bricks, and think about boulders.
Give your flowerbed a real lift by outlining it in stacked flat stone. Raised beds are better for plantings because of drainage, so there’s a start. And plants cascading, nodding and dipping ever so slightly over a rock edge just seem happier. Stacking a small amount of stone also helps keep your border more natural, and less rigid. Let your design follow the rock. You also have a choice: stack your stone naturally, or use cement/mortar to keep them aligned. If you spend the time getting the rock just right for stacking, you find it ‘holds’ well enough without the cement. You just aren’t able to stack it as high, so think about limiting the height to two or three stones.
Stone doesn’t just anchor your design, it also adds a touch of permanence and weathering, as if the design were always there. Yes, you want seasonal color and the change that comes with mature plantings, but you also want your landscape to have a sense of timelessness. Think of English pastoral vistas or the stacked stone fences of pre-Revolutionary America. And rock complements your foundation plantings, too. Look how well it works with the cypress at the back of this planting; as if both components had been in place for a long time.
If your property has ‘destinations,’ such as lakefront, garage, detached deck, or outbuildings, then you probably want a defined walk. Rather than mixing concrete, think about using flags. And if you want a wider defined path, just shop for wider flagstone, about 30-36 inches across. Lay it out, create a foundation so each stone is flat and flush with the surrounding area, and let the grass grow around the edge of each irregular piece. The fun in this work is shopping and matching—or contrasting–the flags you want to use.
Nothing can be simpler than using larger rock, such as these boulders, as a retaining wall, just like found in nature. Rock is so real and dense, why not use it instead of brick and mortar? And it contrasts with and complements sod, decks, and water in a natural unassuming way. These were chosen for size and stackability. And don’t forget rock is often cheaper than anchor blocks or building a wall.
Think about color, scale, dimension, and plants that work with your exposure. But don’t forget the use of rock, as borders, walls, and walks. It’s inexpensive as a rule, and so much more fun to work with that manmade elements. Stone and rock yards can make for interesting excursions when planning any landscape project, and using what you find there will make your design that much more unique. And who doesn’t want that?
Live Life to the Fullest,
Chris H. Olsen
Hello again, and happy summer! I hope you had a wonderful Independence Day and are enjoying many al fresco moments with cherished family and friends during the warm weather months. Whether it is a riverside camping trip, a boat ride on the lake or, of course, a garden gathering, now is the time to get outside and soak up some sun!
This spring I embarked on a project that I am very excited about and wanted to share it with you. I added a brick privacy wall and gated entry to the perennial garden along the west side of my house. You can see what the results look like with respect to the front facade in the above image….
You have read and heard me say many times that you should utilize every bit of your landscape, and use it in unexpected ways. Add depth, color range, personality, imaginative elements. You also know that I enthuse about adding features to your design, and not just settling for a predictable bit of annual color corralled by grass. What if, through time, you have added components—such as pots and urns full of growing plants, or water features—and you’ve grown tired of the constant upkeep? Or they’ve aged and fallen into decline? What next do you try to keep your garden rooms fresh and unexpected? Well, use what you have, but in a different way.
Adding planted containers to the landscape is the perfect way of adding depth to your design. But you don’t have to fill them each with something growing, year after year. You can empty the pot and fill it with found objects, or a collection of something you have not currently being used.
This urn is full of blue glass Christmas ornaments, which not only gives it new purpose, but also makes use of something we all seem to have: extra ornaments no longer used in our holiday design. Languishing in a box, they served no use, but piling them in an urn outdoors gives them new life. It didn’t cost a penny and doesn’t need constant care. And isn’t the blue a nice complement to what’s growing around it?
Please take a good look at this photo. Nice, isn’t it? Formal planting, surrounded by flagstone, statue added for depth and interest. Good layering of formal planting elements as well. Liriope serves as border, boxwood for anchor, hosta for foliage contrast, and finally seasonal color to lift the design. Just what you’d expect from a chic, discreet—and expensive—landscape element. And no casual observer, or guest on a stroll, would ever know that this area was once a fountain, ringed by liriope and a little bit of color. Yes, the remains of a fountain lies beneath this multi-dimensional planting.
The backstory is simple; the fountain sprang a leak. Water features are great, but can become time consuming and high maintenance, and finally, costly. Instead of removing the fountain, we jackhammered the bottom, so it now had drainage. We installed six inches of gravel, placed weed fabric on top of that, then covered with good soil. We used a rich, well-draining mix, not heavy topsoil. The design is completely formal, which matches the fountain’s original use. Adding plants, and following the lines of the fountain meant not only making perfect new use of the space, but also a clever one. How cool is that.
The typical investment of time and money means we all want to get maximum use out of every element in our landscape. Just because something no longer serves its original purpose doesn’t mean you have to tear it all out and reconfigure, or pay for new installation. Use what you have, and keep using it. But do it in unexpected ways. To repurpose bits and pieces of your landscape means making it all work over time. And time is something precious to us all.
Live Life to the Fullest,
Many of us reside in houses with great front entrances, nice walks, and a cozy view of the street, which means the landscaping we choose can be that much more impactful. But that’s just the area you see at first glance. Sometimes the best places to plant are the least expected ones. So look up. If you have a flat roof over your door, perhaps a bit of an overhang, here’s an idea for you: plant it.
You’ll want a flat roof that can handle a bit of weight. Then select your plants with an eye for scale and effect. A bit of formal design works best. Work your way back from the edge. You’ll want a vine for the front because its happy cascade is what will seize attention first. We chose ivy because of its hardiness and exuberant growth. You’ll need a series of deep pots for planting. Line them up so the plants are crowded together and appear to be one continuous row. Use pots as deep as you can without them being seen from below. The volume of the pot matters because you don’t want them to dry out too often. You’re going to have to water, which means in some cases resorting to a ladder and hose or bucket. The bigger the pot, the fewer trips with water. Make sure you have deep saucers for each pot, which will further help with moisture retention.
Behind the ivy, for definition of the area, we planted a pair of boxwoods, which provide a sort of anchor and formality. A nice pair of green foundation plantings such as these cools things off and provides a bit of depth.
Directly behind the ivy is a row of white begonias. Because the flowers along the walk are white, white was required above. Remember what I always say about uniformity and simplicity of design; it’s a big deal. Use of the same color throughout just means your design is stronger. You’re not working in a large area, so one color gives you more oomph.
And speaking of what’s below, here’s how to think about this critical area flanking the walk. Mix your planting, as in use some perennials, with numerous annuals to do most of the seasonal work. It’s the annuals that will provide you with continuous color throughout the season. We made the two planting areas wide as well, so they’re that much more of a statement. Behind that stretch of color and rhythm along the walk, you’ll see we put in some arbor vitae for height and heft. They also pull the eye up, so the planting above the door instantly registers with people walking by. We also placed the shrubs farther from the door, and not in a straight line, so as to play up the width of the overall design. This front yard is fairly shallow, so the idea of width was critical for design success.
While our plantings weren’t fussy or perfectly symmetrical, they play up the architecture of the house. And the planting on the roof above the entry meant the doorway becomes a really exciting entrance to the house. And don’t all these components seem happy? Above and below, along the walk, and in front of the house. The planting above the door frames not just your entry, but also your guests as they arrive. Use simple design principles and simple plantings to reap multiple rewards. Don’t forget to amend the soil, use time-release fertilizer, and water on a regular basis. The same rules apply for your overhead plantings, too. Keep your plants happy, and your guests will marvel at your design ingenuity. And just think: all you had to do was look up.
Live Life to the Fullest,
Chris H. Olsen
Hello again! I hope your May is off to a wonderful start. I can’t remember a more beautiful spring in recent years…plenty of sunshine and mild temperatures…perfect for tackling some garden projects! One of my recent endeavors involved a trash-to-treasure makeover that I wanted to share with you. Some friends of mine who are avid art collectors recently received a new sculpture, packed extremely well in a very nice crate. When I saw the crate, I just couldn’t let it go to the dump, so I loaded it up and took it home. With some putty, a little paint and a few choice plants, it now has a new life as a charming box planter. Take a look:
Turf and grass have a serene appeal to all of us in a landscape. Even the smallest patch of yard is improved with the uniform green of sod. But it’s not necessarily the answer for all areas of your lawn. Poor sunlight and drainage are complicating issues more times than we want to admit, and often, the same lawn will have several areas almost hostile to turf. Yet many homeowners keep planting and replanting, and commercial lawn care services are always there to help. Plus, there can be environmental impact from all those chemical sprays and fertilizers. Here’s an idea, while a bit more European than American, that can save you time, energy, money, and also give your lawn a bit of a boost: use gravel in a problem space, or to create further dimension in your landscape.
I used crushed granite for this space because it’s great for large areas due to uniformity (of color and size), plus cost. The British use this rock for driveways, since it compacts over time, making for a very stable surface. For the side of the house, where a tall privacy fence looms, it’s the perfect answer to the limited growing conditions of minimal light. And, since the gravel is pale in color, it attracts light to this dark area. This neglected strip is now even more of a ‘room,’ since I planted four hornbeams—vigorous and hardy—as columns here. Just plunk down a few chairs and watch your guests gravitate to the spot. An area that was once dim and uninviting is now an important part of the landscape.
And when you find another strip for gravel, like used directly in front of this bed, you will make your flowerbeds more special. The gravel makes your plants pop, your borders more important. You’ll find you naturally gravitate to that strip, as if it were a viewing area.
Finally, gravel adds a nice break in your lawn, so you will now have created rooms to work with, not all that green sameness. I’ve written before about the joy and interest of ‘garden rooms.’ This is the same principle. You can create destinations within your landscape this way, areas that your guests will want to explore and use.
One cool thing about using gravel in your landscape is the sound. Nothing beats that delicious crunch created every time you walk across it. You won’t find a noise element in the plant kingdom, so using rock just means another sensory piece of the design.
You have options for your landscape, and you don’t have to be tied to the same idea every season. Gravel, instead of turf, is a pragmatic way to deal with the elements. But it also adds depth, dimension, texture, visual, and auditory appeal. And if you wish to remove and plant in the gravel area, it won’t take much work. Visual appeal meets ease of use and installation or removal. That’s a good idea every time.
Live Life to the Fullest,
Chris H. Olsen
For several hundred years English landscape designers have advocated that gardeners should plan their spaces and utilize boundaries to create ‘garden rooms,’ which create senses of discovery and delight. The problem with directly translating their ideas to American landscaping is that we usually don’t have acreage with which to play with, or budgets that allow us to hire someone to prune all those hedges and boxwood menageries. But the idea of utility—think kids playing out in the yard—can also lead to good design ideas, and even a bit of playfulness in the design.
An arched entry begins the architectural aspect of this design, and immediately conveys that your design is both personal and functional. If you have a garden gate already, all you have to do is find the right plant material that will grow over the entrance and become a green archway. We used a variety of clematis here because it has a great bloom, but even better, wonderful overlapping foliage. It provides both definition of the space and serendipity because, while we trained it to arch, we let it be itself, vigorous and asymmetrical.
Here’s where the ‘room’ idea really comes into play. You have young children who need a play space. Why not use the backyard, but make it really functional? No sense in trying to nurture sod; it’ll be trampled to dust. So use pea gravel instead. Weathered, rounded gravel is much easier on children’s knees. We planted boxwood hedges for partial ‘walls’ because they’re easy to maintain and prune. The beds behind aren’t fussy and planted, even. Just the occasional perennial or shot of color and potted evergreens. Remember, your kids will be their energetic selves here, and lots of objects may end up tossed over these (short) hedges. Make it easy on yourself to retrieve them. The area at the back is sharply defined, and we chose these hornbeam trees for a bit of vertical thrill. The space is welcoming to children, well thought out, and is an example of the old adage, form follows function. The backyard is small, but we used every inch of it as a space for growing children and plantings.
Scale is critical to success of any design. We kept the front bed simple with hostas and a Japanese maple that, even at maturity, will fit the space nicely. A crape myrtle stands sentry behind and, while tall and commanding, doesn’t interfere with anything below. And, yes, you can have grass here because the play space is out back. We used every inch of space, yet it doesn’t feel cluttered or out of sync. Narrow spaces can also be welcoming places. And perhaps there’s even room for the adults to toss a Frisbee, or play a bit of touch football here. It’s called using what you have. Just a little planning and planting material that lends itself to your design, and doesn’t overpower it. It really can be easy to extend your living spaces to the outdoors, and have fun at the same time.
Live Life to the Fullest,
Chris H. Olsen