All Your Outdoor Questions, Answered by Expert Landscapers
We went to the pros to help you create your dream outdoor space.
Updated Sep 29, 2021 7:39 AM
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If you aren’t wasting away your Saturday mornings mowing, mulching, weeding, planting, and engaging in other back-breaking yard work activities, are you really doing spring right? Landscaping season is officially upon us, which means lavish gardens, plant-friendly balconies, and vine-enshrouded exteriors are just a few dreamy outdoor scenes currently flooding our feeds, thoughts, and dreams.
Whether you’re in the midst of planning an extensive hardscape overhaul or just can’t seem to settle on the perfect shrub, we thought it was about time to brush up on all things outdoors. From the best low-maintenance plants to the backyard living trends worth trying, we took some of the most common landscaping questions to the experts. Read on for what leading gardeners and designers have to say about making the most of your outdoor escape.
What’s the most common landscaping mistake you see people make?
“Not installing a drip irrigation system for container gardens in full sun,” says NYC garden designer Amber Freda. A must-have for rooftop gardens (Freda specializes in urban landscapes), drip irrigation systems, which slowly drip water into the soil, will save you from having to constantly replace plantings down the road. “A simple drip system is fairly inexpensive to install, and it will end up saving you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in replacement plants.”
For LA-based landscape designer and co-owner of Kate Anne Designs, Kate Anne Riemer, a poorly composed outdoor scene is her biggest pet peeve. “Crunching the various yard ‘rooms’ together and not creating enough focal points or spacing the rooms in such a way where you feel drawn to the various parts of the yard,” is the number one misstep she sees amateurs make.
But if there’s one thing to remember, it’s this: Never sacrifice functionality for looks. “A garden or outdoor area needs to function first. It needs to do its job,” explains Ryan Prange, founder and principal designer at Falling Waters Landscape Inc. in Solana Beach, CA. “Let your garden age gracefully and embrace that change as a part of a natural cycle. I see so many ‘staged’ outdoor areas that look great in a photo but will turn into nightmares to maintain,” he adds.
To that end: Know your plants! “Using the incorrect plants for the incorrect environment,” is, of course, a major no-no according to Grahame Hubbard, director at Plant Specialists. “Plants that need a lot of water cannot be planted with plants that need very little, as the ones that need little will rot and the plants that need a lot will die of thirst if planted in dry conditions.”
What’s one thing people need to know before they DIY?
Whether you’re looking out for your budget or simply want to get in on all the fun, we don’t blame you for wanting to do everything yourself. But before you jump feet first into a daunting project, first consider if you and your wallet are up to the task. “Understand your real costs and how much it will be to have a professional potentially fix your mistakes,” notes Prange.
Just as you would if you were redesigning the interior of your home, Riemer suggests gathering your ideas and inspiration. “Compile tons of concepts to help hone in on exactly what you like. Once you know what general materials you will need, take the time at your local lumber yard, plant nursery, etc. to get feedback on the best plant and material options,” she says.
Once you’ve nailed down how exactly you plan to use the yard (remember, function is key) and have a solid understanding of the surrounding environment, you’ll have an easier time picking the right plants for your space.“When it comes to DIY, I definitely recommend that people familiarize themselves with the sun or shade requirements of each plant before planting day,” suggests Freda. “A plant that says it needs full sun typically needs at least five hours of sun per day. Anything less can result in stunted growth and failure to bloom.”
Hubbard couldn’t agree more. His number one tip for first-timers? “Research your light. A sunny, all-day position will give you very different options than a shady position with very little light.”
Splurge vs. Save: When should people seek professional help and when should they try to DIY?
“Professionals can give you a guideline—it’s what we’re trained to do on all sorts of things, from drainage to fertilizing to eco-friendly materials,” explains Hubbard. If it’s a high-concept creation you have in mind, you’ll definitely want to seek out a pro to at least conceive (if not execute) the design.
“Hire professionals to do concrete work, tree trimming or removal, electrical, and any gas or main-line plumbing. Those are areas you don’t want to screw up,” Prange explains, adding that you should always make sure that whoever you end up hiring is licensed, insured, and has solid references to back their work up.
Both Freda and Riemer also note that struggling backyard spaces are often the result of a poorly installed irrigation system. “I definitely recommend leaving this installation to the pros who will know the best way to make sure each plant receives adequate coverage,” says Freda.
What’s one trend you’re loving now?
“I love contemporary-looking pergolas with slender metal posts, wood purlins along the top, and a dramatic pendant light hanging from the center over a dining table,” Freda tells Domino. “This setup creates an instant, very stylish outdoor dining
that is perfect for entertaining.”
Riemer, on the other hand, is all about rustic escapes. “I’m totally falling for the whole farm style. You can play with low water plants that look super rugged, while still elegant and whimsical.”
Brick and concrete encaustic tiles and timber walls and screens are just a few timeless, of-the-moment trends Prange is currently craving, while Hubbard is going back to gardening basics. “We love edibles,” says the NYC-based plant pro. “There’s nothing better than showing children how their fruits, vegetables, or herbs are grown. It’s surprising how much a couple of well looked after tomato plants can produce in just one season.”
For all our desert-dwellers, what’s your grass-free solution?
“A crushed rock patio is the perfect flex space,” says Prange. “Throw a firepit in the middle, play corn-hole, set up belly bars for your party… rake it when you want to pretend you’re a Japanese Monk. It won’t break down over time and doesn’t require any water.”
Another stellar look for your grassless oasis? “Stepping stones with thyme in between,” dishes Hubbard. Not only does this genius fix look great, but it smells fantastic, too.
However, if you’re absolutely dead set on introducing a lively dose of green to your arid scene, there are ways to fake a lush landscape. “Artificial turf has come a long way in recent years, and there are high-end versions on the market now that are completely indistinguishable looking from real grass,” says Freda. According to Riemer, red fescue and California meadow sedge are two grass-like options worth giving a go.
Any advice for the garden-lover with a teeny outdoor space?
“A love-seat or deep lounge and a few potted plants is a good start,” says Prange. “Keep it going with some lighting and place to set a drink, like a small table. There are some great outdoor rug options out there to make the space feel more cozy.”
Want to make the most of your tiny balcony or patio, but don’t want to sacrifice your beloved plants in the process? Hubbard suggests playing up what little room you do have by using hanging baskets and mounted planters to house your greenery. Additionally, “tall growers such as vines maximize ground space,” says Riemer.
As for decorating your tiny outdoor haven? “Less is more! I recommend reducing clutter by minimizing colors and textures to create a more streamlined, cohesive looking design,” explains Freda. “In general, no more than two to three colors and two to three textures will create a more harmonious, restful feel.”
The best low-maintenance plant(s) for the lazy-gardener?
“Using plants with foliage color over flowers is usually easier to maintain so you don’t have to deadhead the flowers regularly,” says Riemer. Her go-to picks include anything in the pittosporum family, breeze dwarf mat rush, olive shrub, coleus, and succulents.
“Arborvitaes are one of the easiest evergreen plants to grow,” adds Freda. “As long as they receive plenty of sun and water, they don’t really demand much else, except maybe for knocking the snow off them in the winter to help keep them upright. They can very quickly and easily provide a green privacy screen when planted in rows.”
“I would try a simple pittosporum golf ball or crassula sunset—two great container plants that are simple to maintain and provide year round interest,” says Prange.
But as Hubbard points out, “low-maintenance” doesn’t mean “no maintenance.” Keep in mind that your outdoor space —no matter how large or small—will require regular care and, not to mention, plenty of love.
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