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Landscaping Mother Lode Style

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Submitted by: Marlys Bell

When I admit to being an avid gardener, homeowners often reveal dissatisfaction with their garden and hope for easy solutions for improving their outdoor space. I usually inquire about the way it looks, or the way it functions, to give me clues about what other questions to ask. But no matter what the answer, I know that satisfaction levels will improve if there is agreement on family needs and interests, aesthetic preferences, and budgets for financial, time and labor investments (both for initial installation as well as well ongoing maintenance) before any planting is started. That means, take time for landscape design.

I define landscape design as improving the natural environment by carefully using plants and hardscapes to increase enjoyment and use of outdoor space. It is both science and art, guided by processes and principles. The following suggestions focus primarily on the processes used to get information and make decisions about how the outdoor space will be used, improved and enhanced.

Typically the landscape design process involves developing various lists.

Everyone in the family should participate in developing a “Wish List” that includes: new functions (such as more space for the dogs to play or a shady, private space for reading and napping); favorite colors; preferred landscape styles (cottage, Mediterranean, native Mother Lode); and special interests such as a butterfly garden, horseshoe pits or outdoor cooking area.

The existing issues needing improvement such as undesirable views, drainage problems, and indoor heat caused by afternoon sun, fire safety issues or traffic patterns should also be examined and prioritized. I call this the “Fix List.”

It is also useful to consciously identify the property´s assets. It helps focus on what is important or valued and ensures that it is featured or enhanced, preserved or protected. Special trees, an outstanding view, rock outbreaks, a natural habitat of birds and small animals, or a seasonal stream could be part of the “Asset List.”

Once the lists are developed, options are explored for how and where those needs and interests could be accommodated and decisions are made for areas needing improvement, enhancements and/or protection. Typically a “Base Plan” is drawn to show existing trees, structures, property lines, buried lines and pipes. A “Site Analysis” that considers such things as prevailing winds, traffic patterns, and light patterns is also an important step, especially for bigger projects. In all instances, buried power, irrigation and utility lines should be located before any digging begins. Pictures, scale drawings and hoses laid out on the ground all help stimulate the creative process. When envisioning possibilities and evaluating options, consider the style and structure of the existing buildings, potential impact on drainage, soil depth and quality, various microclimates on the property, consistency with the desired outcomes or purpose and overall effect or theme.

In the Mother Lode, one of the most important issues is how much supplemental water to devote to landscaping. Consider low volume watering systems as well as dividing the property into at least 3 water zones. For example, areas needing most frequent supplemental watering should be nearest to the house bordered by a zone where plantings are watered infrequently. To conserve water, some parts of the property should have plants not needing any supplemental water during the summer. In the Mother Lode with its hot, dry summers, use groundcovers and permeable hardscapes such as gravel, decks and uncemented pavers rather than grass to help reduce water consumption and the effects of potentially harmful herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers.

As discussed, the “processes” focus on the steps that are important in designing the landscape. The “principles” of landscape design focus on the artistic aspects and involve decisions about balance, line and proportion. Balance can be either symmetric or asymmetric. In the Mother Lode with the difficulties of growing plants, symmetry is difficult to achieve and maintain, so asymmetrical balance is easier to accomplish. In many instances curving lines rather than straight or geometric lines are a logical extension of the surrounding natural environment. The size of the property, its existing trees, views, dimensions of the house and other outbuildings affect decisions about proportion and scale for the size of the flowerbeds, decks, sidewalks and paths.

An important principle in landscape design is unity or harmony. It is achieved when all of the elements fit, or are consistent with the theme and not jarring. Rhythm is also important because it adds a dynamic element created by a feeling of motion, leading the eye through the garden and beyond. It is often achieved by repeating the same plant at various intervals.

Finally, the landscape design process ends where many start, the selection of plants. However, the selection is made based upon what plants will best implement the needs of the plan. For example, what is the right tree to provide shade from the western afternoon sun? What size, shape, texture, leaf size, color, flowering time will best achieve the desired function and artistic effect? And will the plant be happy there in terms of its preferences for light, water, soil and temperature? Determining what goes where, often involves balancing opposing elements such as repetition vs. contrast, or simplicity vs. complexity. Should there be masses of the same kind of plant or should there be many different kinds of plants with various shapes, leaf sizes, textures and colors? Getting the right balance helps to ensure that the result will be pleasing to the eye of the beholder, or at least the homeowner.

There are many landscape projects that just evolve, but those that do so in the context of an overall plan are more likely to result in satisfying outcomes with fewer diversions and expensive, frustrating mistakes.

Although the skills of a landscape designer can often be helpful, it is the homeowner who determines the elements, aesthetics, functions and budgets that fit the needs and unfortunately there are usually no instant solutions.

Next week, these concepts will be applied to create one of the favorite kinds of gardens, a cottage garden full of flowers and color year round. In the meantime, see you in the garden.

Marlys Bell is a Tuolumne County Master Gardener interested in landscape design who, with her husband Jay, is creating demonstration gardens on their property to illustrate the principles and processes described in this article.