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Yardchitecture

The seeds of an idyllic summer are sown in spring, when we lay the groundwork for the outdoor rooms that serve as the warm-weather setting for morning coffee, weekend lunch, and evening lemonade. Backyard living is most inviting when the placement of hedges, containers, and ornaments lend form. Using those elements to create the sense and security of ‘walls’ requires planning, labor, and proper (often paid) advice. Following are 40 tips from four experts.

By Rebecca Powers
Photograph by Deborah Silver

Deborah Silver, landscape designer, Detroit Garden Works, Sylvan Lake

Imagine buying a house, showing up with your belongings, and finding an interior that’s one vast, undifferentiated space: no structured rooms, no blueprint for storage, no center for entertaining or family activity. Landscapes also can suffer from a lack of structure that’s equally daunting.

1. Enlarge a copy of your mortgage survey and look at the drawing that depicts how your house sits on the property.
2. Give some thought to who you are and what you need from your yard. Sanctuary? Children’s play? Entertaining? Dogs? Cooking? Growing food? Then focus on the purpose of your outdoor spaces as you do when creating indoor plans.
3. Our six months of winter strongly suggest
that structure for a Michigan garden needs to come from evergreens. Plants that retain their needles and leaves throughout the year do us a big service: They provide enduring structure, enclose spaces to make rooms, occupy the background with great dignity, and frame and even showcase the ephemeral in a garden — and they make great walls.
4. Structure need not come only from our rank-and-file evergreens. A garden ornament,
or a collection of ornaments, or a pot of distinction, can organize a garden.
5. A space that calls for hedging calls,
in an equal way, for a break in that hedging. A landscape composition has a foreground, midground, and background.
6. Choose the star of the show — a beautiful tree, a sculpture, or plants massed in a series — and place it where the views will be good.
7. Think scale. Hedging at a distance needs to be large. A screen that’s closer to the human action need only be as tall as a person. A garden area experienced while sitting needs to be scaled to that viewing height. Big pots that put plant material at eye level while you are sitting can have a hedge effect.
8. Hedging can be done in combination. A 6-foot-tall fence or stone wall provides structure at eye level. Deciduous columnar trees planted in front of that wall provide mass and screening up high.
9. Don’t forget what comes for free. Every garden gets a portion of the sky, ground that can be sculpted and shaped, and visual ownership of the trees next door or down the block. Consider these when planning your composition.
10. A sunken garden can be dramatically quiet, and that change of level provides interest.
11. Remember, the most important aspect of a garden is the atmosphere or mood it creates. Use of ornamental, sculptural, or architectural elements can make a very strong personal statement. Making a statement with plants can be tough, unless you have a park-size property.

Photograph by Gene Meadows

Cathy Bell, landscape designer, Goldner Walsh Nursery, Pontiac

Creating a good garden is like building a good house. You consider how to arrange rooms, hallways, lighting, windows, and doors to make the space functional, livable, and aesthetically pleasing. You consider traffic flow, how your family and your guests will use the house. It’s the same with a garden.

1. Just as a frame showcases a great piece of art indoors, framing a view in the garden can have just as much impact. With careful placement of trees, arbors, hedging, sculpture, large pots, and gates, you can direct guests to observe and appreciate the garden areas that are most worthy. You’ve seen arbors that float in the middle of a yard, or benches that face the front door. Where are they wanting you to look? A fantastic arbor or expensive bench, if not placed appropriately, looks ridiculous.
2. Hedging can contain an area. As in a formal garden, where boxwoods delineate a bed, the hedge can make the garden feel controlled and organized, which can be comforting. The architecture of a garden can really play with emotions. If something is out of scale, or if the borders of the garden are not strong enough to “end” the sentence, so to speak, it has the effect of missing punctuation. Good bones in a garden allow you to open up and relax, to breathe easy and savor what’s there, rather than trying to figure out what is wrong.
3. Be a traffic controller in your garden. Have definite pathways that you want guests to use as they travel through the space. Paths themselves offer structure. Even though they are on a flat plane, they can contribute to the overall effect. Mix up the “flooring.” Grass paths embedded with large stones can transition to a stone path with the same large stones, but mixed with small Japanese round rocks. 
4. Completely herbaceous gardens with no bones can feel as unanchored as a tumbleweed. Adding items that have weight — sculpture, wooden forms, large trees, bulky evergreens, evergreens with distinct shapes, hedges that can be pruned or not — add a sense of permanence and age, which makes the garden more formidable, respectable, and enjoyable.

 

Michael J. Dul, landscape architect, Michael J. Dul & Associates, Birmingham

1. Understand up front that maintaining hedges demands a commitment of time, money, and skill.
2. Choose plants with a growth pattern that’s conducive to forming a hedge. The Hicks yew varieties will maintain themselves and respond to pruning far better than the spreading yew varieties.
3. Boxwood varieties respond well to pruning and have been a staple of formal gardens for centuries.  Make certain that you select varieties that are hardy to Zone Four or greater.
4. Yews are attractive to deer. Choose boxwood over yew for properties near wildlife areas.
5. Plant hedges a good distance from the roof’s drip line where rainwater may rot or drown the roots, or ice and heavy snow could damage the plants.
6. Statuary in a prominent space can draw the eye from indoors to an exterior space.
7. Accessories in unexpected areas can lend interest, a pleasant surprise, even amusement.
8. Elements such as urns filled with flowers can announce or reinforce a garden entrance or exit.
9. Accessories can give a very large and impersonal space a human touch. A bistro table with chairs or an umbrella table can scale down a large patio.
10. furniture, planters, sculpture, or fountains can subdivide a large space into distinct, separate areas. They also can subtly separate passive areas from circulation.
11. Choose an accessory that’s compatible with the overall design personality of the project. Wine barrels aren’t appropriate for a Victorian garden, for example, just as ornamental iron clashes with a Japanese theme.
12. Gardens are viewed from the indoors 90 percent of the time. Place accessories where they can be enjoyed from the windows.
13. buy planters that are compatible with the architecture of the house and the overall garden theme or style. When done properly, contrast — such as using an antique pot in an ultra-modern context — can be effective.
14. Outdoor design is most successful when it’s bold. Group several planters of varying diameters and heights. Planter groups provide opportunity for impressive planting compositions of color and textural contrasts.
15. Remember that planters are simply vessels used to display beautiful flowers, and your budget will stretch dramatically if you keep this in mind.
16. When filled with soil and moisture, planters can become extremely heavy. Plan your composition before planting to avoid excessive (and hefty) rearrangement. Also, use sheets of Styrofoam to fill the bottom of planters to reduce weight and expense of excessive planting mix.
17. select materials that can survive frost. Terra cotta and porcelain often split or crumble when frozen soil expands.
18. Container gardens demand fertilizer and consistent moisture. Separate spaghetti-soaker lines can be directed from your irrigation system for automatic watering.
19. Planters and container gardens warm up decks, patios, and roof gardens. Consider planting them with vegetables and flowers for function, beauty, and satisfaction.

Photograph by Gene Meadows

Stacy Feldman, designer, Four Seasons Garden Center & Custom Landscape, Birmingham, Oak Park

1. Hedge types should be determined by location, character of the site, year-round weather conditions, and the goal. In a formal setting, for example, boxwood, yew, alpine currant, barberry, and privet work well.
2. A hedge can lead the eye toward a focal point, such as the front door, sculpture, or garden urn.
3. Typically, hedges fall into three categories, depending on how they are pruned. The range of loose to clipped to tight pruning determines whether the look is casual or formal.
4. Massing of plant material, furniture, pots and containers, lighting and sculpture will hold the eye.
5. Whether planted or not, pots and containers can be used to punctuate gardens when grouped for points of interest.
6. Sculpture and fountains may be the centerpiece of a garden or merely a side attraction, but should reflect the style of your house and garden.