The universal truth is, landscape design can seem totally overwhelming to most. It involves not only all of the things that interior design does, but then it throws the humongous natural world curve ball, as you have to think about complicated systems like climate, soil, drainage , sun vs. shade, plant types, circulation, wind, and weathering over time (not to mention intangible things like color, texture, fragrance). It’s a freakin lot.
Here are the most common 10 questions I get about landscape design in general, and my (abbreviated) answers to them:
1. My backyard is a mess. Where do I start?
You really want to look carefully at what is there, almost like you are taking detective-like inventory of your space. Does your site have a slope? Does water pool anywhere, and if so, where? Are some parts more sunny or shady than others? Is it windy and exposed? Do you have a great tree you want to keep? Or maybe some natural attribute like a rock outcrop to incorporate. Or maybe you have really loud and annoying neighbors that you want to screen? Taking cues from the existing site is the way to think of laying out the margins of the page, defining the parameters of your design, and will better inform your landscape design going forward. Try not to see these observations as obstacles or hindrances, but rather attributes that if considered at the outset, can make your garden just that much more fantastic.
2. What style should my garden be?
The word style eludes people because it’s different to different people, and categories are loosely defined. A successful home garden is one that feels like an extension of your house both visually and in terms of functionality. So similarly, the style of your garden should feel like an extension of your house, stylistically and architecturally. So if you have certain materials, patterns, colors or furniture that you are using in your house, try bringing that same sensibility outside in order to make the connection to your landscape feel seamless.
3. How should I begin to organize my outdoor space?
Here, what you really need to ask is, “how will I really use this space”? Not in your dream life, but in your real life, which may not be the most glamorous. Some questions to keep it real are: do you have kids? Do you have pets? Do I need outdoor storage? Will we use a grill, or maybe a fire pit is better? Consider how you move through the space—what do you want to be looking at? How do you want it to feel when you are in the spaces you create? Considering your personal lifestyle, habits, and general preferences is the ideal way to start to think about a design layout that works for you.
4. How do I know what surface to use in my garden?
Choosing a surface material is a big decision because it really defines the overall look and feel of a space, as well as your budget. The fundamental question is: do you want a hard or soft surface? If you need drainage on your site and lean towards the less formal more organic look, gravel or decomposed granite might be materials to consider. However, if you are inclined to want a harder and more enduring surface, a hardwood like Ipe or natural stone like bluestone, limestone or concrete pavers may be your best bet. Natural stone is definitely the most enduring, and with that, of course, the most expensive of materials.
5. I want to remove a tree and/or some plants. Is that ok?
People agonize about this, and I get why (my sad stump photo selection was supposed to make you feel this pain—and yes, I cry every time i read The Giving Tree, who doesn’t?). Trees play a valuable part int he carbon cycle, clean air, and produce oxygen. A living thing doing good things for the environment—how could you even consider this, ever? But the truth is, it happens all the time in design. More often than not with landscape design, “meh trees’ are replaced with trees more suited to a specific context and use, and sometimes many, many more. There are often very valid reasons to remove trees: For example, if a tree is in questionable health and a potential risk to your house and or personal well-being, it should definitely go. If you don’t know the health of a tree, and it looks weird, hire an arborist. It’s worth it. But then sometimes, it happens that a tree is in the wrong spot for what you want to do with your landscape design. If it is worth saving, you can potentially move it ( this is often costly but sometimes well worth it if it’s just a really great tree ). Not all trees are great though—some are mediocre and some, even subpar. If the tree is great, and you love it, work it into your design. If it isn’t great, and you don’t love it, that is ok too. You should love the space you are making, and the right tree is important in creating that feel that makes you fall in love with a space.
6. Why is growing grass so hard, and are there other options?
Growing grass is not the natural state of things. As an unnatural proposition, it’s more work to make it happen. It requires lot’s of sun, water, weeding, not to mention, weekly mowing and occasional fertilizer and reseeding in order to stay that just perfect wall-to-wall carpet green that suburbanites supposedly compete with each other over picket fences to achieve ( myth or is this still a thing)? Anyway, I have many a Client who still cling to the lawn dream, which in Brooklyn, is very hard to achieve, if not impossible due to lack of direct sunlight, circulation, or both. I have been steering people away from the lawn dream and towards greener and more sustainable solutions. Grasses, like Carex Pennsylvanica, Pennisetum , Fescue, and meadow mixes, and grass mixes customized you your climate and conditions are all viable solutions to the traditional lawn (see plants category on this site for more information). But if you are still inclined to the close-cropped and perfect manicured look, synthetic lawns are an option. They come in many different colors and sizes and are 100% no maintenance. If done well, astroturf can actually look very cool.
7. Do I need to include irrigation in my garden?
Many on the West Coast do not have this option, or it’s very limited, and with good reason! Drought-tolerant gardens are where we are headed in the landscape design world for sure, and if you have one, that’s great. However, the truth is, all gardens require water, and some of us have gardens that require more water—and if you aren’t around to do that watering 2x per day everyday, you will need irrigation. If you are planting on a roof deck, there is no question that you will need irrigation, 2x per day and before sunrise and after sundown. (never water during the heat of the day). Drip irrigation is efficient and direct, but spray gets a wider area if you have lawn. The worst thing you can do is design a landscape and install a whole bunch of plants only to see them die the first year!
8. Do I need to include lighting in my landscape design?
The quick answer is no. But lighting is critical for elements like stairs at night, to guide people down a path and into a home safely. It’s also nice if lighting serves minimally, to say, uplight a large tree in a courtyard or along a perimeter to be able to draw your eye into a space at night from inside.
9. OH NO—I spent all my money on my reno! Can I do my garden on the cheap, and have it still look good?
Before I just say a flat NO to that (total setup there), I will say that I sympathize with all my Clients who truly have good intentions, but really are at wits end after the usual gut-and-wallet wrenching renovation process, and just want it all to be DONE. I’ve been on both sides of that experience and know the pain well. However, like with everything in life, you really do pay for what you get. Experienced contractors charge more for their labor, but the devil is truly in the details, and things that draw you to admire a design can look deceptively simple but they cost more money to craft to look that way. Considered design and a good, high-quality and aesthetic palette of materials, and experienced contractors are all critical for good landscape design.
10. How much will all this cost?
Budgeting for all of this is everyone’s least favorite part of any landscape design project, because usually no one has ANY idea of what things cost, and when they find out, it’s usually between 3-5x what they thought. If you are starting from scratch and doing a renovation, put aside a healthy budget for your landscape at the very beginning, and develop your landscape design in tandem with your home. A checklist is helpful, and some common landscape design costs are clearing, soil prep, grading and drainage, edging paving, fencing, irrigation, lighting, planting, decking (not including design). Sounds like a lot, but if you think about it, the value a beautiful landscape adds to both in terms of value to your home and your quality of life is priceless.
Just do it.