The biggest landscaping mistake

It was quite a few years ago when I attended some horticulture and landscaping classes at Clackamas Community College. I was only doing it for fun and to help me create some better designs for my own garden. In my previous house I had over an acre of land as my sandbox and developed some quite extensive gardens. I had to think big. Planting a single tree, shrub or plant just looked silly. I had to plant by the tens or even hundreds when it came to things like bulbs. In one of my classes we had been given out first full design task. We had gone to a person’s house, measured up their yard, listened to what they wanted to use the space for and then had to set about coming up with a design. Looking at the work of my fellow classmates, I was surprised at how they were going about the task. They worked from one piece, or corner of the site and then tried to work out from there. That approach just didn’t seem right to me and most of their designs reflected that approach. There was no overriding theme, no flow, and no connection between the pieces of the garden. What seemed obvious to me was not so obvious to me.

The answer – think big. I think the problem was that they were nervous, even timid with how they were going to approach the problem. They reasoned that it is better to make a small error rather than a large one. My approach had been to start with large annotations on the plan, sweeping curves and grouping of trees or plants. It was only when I was happy that I could get everything I wanted into the plan and that it all fit together properly that I started to look at the details.

Many years later, I moved into a typical suburban house, with a tiny square yard. It had a square lawn with a plant border around it, a square patio and most of my neighbors had put in a fence making it into a enclosed square box. The yard backs up to an “energy corridor” which means that there are transmission lines, pipelines and other energy related things under and above ground. It will never get built on and there are plans to turn it into a park. There are trees, birds, water and everything out there that makes for a great backdrop, so the first thing is that I did not want a fence to block those views. I may be forced to if it becomes a park, but depending on how they construct it, I still may not have to.

So, back to the yard. It is also a fairly steep slope – too steep to mow with ease, so some terracing is necessary to make the land more useable. I also wanted to break up the squareness of the yard and give it some movement. Is that possible? Here was my basic approach. First of all, I needed a retaining wall at the bottom of the garden. I was restricted by a drainage grate so had to pull it into the property line a bit. This help with most of the side to side slope of the yard and also some of the slope from front to back. It also gave me some definition or barrier if the park gets built. Not high enough to keep them out, but make it clear they shouldn’t be there. Also because I would never really see the wall, it was built with concrete wall blocks to make it cheaper and quicker to construct.

Then I started to draw some large arcs and circles on the plan until I got to the point where it felt like some motion and flow existed. The lawn area, a lot smaller now, seems to flow from top left to bottom right and the patio has been extended out such that it is no longer square. The lower circle became a small seating area around which a pergola, gazebo or other such structure could be built. It had possibilities and I continued to work with that basic plan.

The line between the new patio and the lawn also needed a second retaining wall to be built. Given that this one would be integral with the yard I decided that a natural stacked stone wall was the way to go. I can’t believe how much stone, concrete and fill dirt was used in this project. Below is the completed lower portion of the yard, and a family of Quail have decided that they are ready for tea.

I can’t show you the final result of the top portion because I have to admit that two years after ground breaking, I still haven’t finished putting on the slate top. That is because I bought some cheap cement part way through and I am now regretting that decision because some of the slate did not stick properly and I have to work out a way to fix it. But it is still useable and when the weather gets a little better I will be out there in the evenings with a fire going hopefully having some great conversation with friends.

So back to the main point I was trying to make – even in a small garden such as this, you have to be bold and make large sweeping curves. They should be as large as you can fit into the space. The details come later and they can be added to over time. Most of us only get one chance to put in the bones of the garden.

Brought to you by Brian Bailey

[amazon_enhanced asin=”047041149X” /] [amazon_enhanced asin=”0865735794″ /] [amazon_enhanced asin=”0670883557″ /] [amazon_enhanced asin=”1570612757″ /]