Jamie Hancock has a very practical way of considering how to landscape your yard:
Plop yourself down in the front of your house where you’d like to sit and drink your coffee and watch the world go by – maybe while you’re still in your bathrobe.
Then decide what you need to do with the landscaping so that you feel comfortable there.
How tall would the shrubs in front of you need to be to make you feel like you were sitting behind a counter while also allowing you to see over them? Hanging baskets above could add to the enclosure and create a window for you to look out of.
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When it comes to do-it-yourself landscape design, people often have trouble trying to put formal rules and concepts into practice, says Hancock, a Shawnee County extension agent in Topeka.
To make it easier to understand, Hancock draws parallels between landscaping the yard and building, furnishing and decorating rooms in the house – including adding walls, ceilings and flooring. She gave a talk about it during the Outdoor Living & Landscape Show in Wichita in March.
“You want to arrange shrubs and gardens and furniture to make a room outside,” Hancock says.
When people acknowledge that they’ve been able to arrange the inside of their house, they realize they can arrange their garden as well, Sedgwick County extension agent Bob Neier says.
“But those who struggle in the house also struggle in the garden,” Neier says. Professional landscape designers can get them started in that case. “Most houses were architect-designed,” he points out, “and you work with what was there.”
Hancock uses two basic concepts: figuring out the use for each area of the yard and creating a room for it just as you would in the house, and furnishing each room with the four or five elements that every room needs. Here’s how she fleshes that out.
Activity in the yard
When designing a garden as when designing a house, ask yourself what activities you want to do in each room, using verbs such as “entertain” or “watch the birds.” There will be three types of areas. Here are the three types and examples of what you might want to do in them:
▪ Service: compost, grow food, park the car, let the dogs run, take out the trash.
▪ Public: greet guests on the front porch, drive by and admire how beautiful the yard is, visit with the neighbors while picking up the mail.
▪ Private: relax with a book, watch the children play while staying clear of whatever balls or other things they may be playing with.
Then each outdoor room needs to do three things:
1. Give obvious clues of how to act there. If you want people to linger, put in a meandering path. If you want them to sit, add a bench. If you want them to move along, be sure not to leave a chair. If you need a quick shot for taking the trash out, put in a straight walk.
2. Contain things that make the user feel welcome. For example, be sure people know how to knock on your door. If big shrubs are blocking the door, it’s unwelcoming. If you want people to use one entrance instead of another, make that the one with more color, more emphasis, and make it more difficult to use a door you don’t want people to use, such as by hiding the path to that door.
3. Make the user feel safe. This is mainly a visual thing, protecting people “from prying eyes or ridicule,” Hancock says. You want to be comfortable in every space in your yard. If your neighbors have a straight view of your pool from one particular window, for example, add something to screen that spot.
Outdoor rooms in all but service areas need these five elements, Hancock says:
1. Floors. These can be grass, concrete, brick, mulch, walks, driveways, patios, decks, rocks. As in the house, where you might have carpet in one room and hardwood in another, the materials give a different feel to the room.
2. Walls. These can be actual walls or fences, or hedges, shrubs, tree trunks, or implied walls of flowers or other plants arrayed in such a way that they route a person around them rather than through them.
3. Ceilings. These give a sense of scale and belonging, of security, coziness and a sense of place. “You need to feel connected. Ceilings make a huge difference in a room,” Hancock says. They can be tree canopies or an arbor. They need to be near to where you are if not directly above you (the tree doesn’t have to be large, for example). Service areas are the only rooms that don’t need ceilings, unless shade is required, say, for a dog run or potting area.
4. Furniture. These are big pots, specific gardens, water features, actual outdoor furniture.
5. Accents. These are smaller pots, pops of color, rocks. For example, if you have the furniture of a large pot, you can accent it with a ring of annuals or rocks around the base of it.
If there’s a room that you don’t like, ask yourself whether it has these five elements, and whether you like the elements, Hancock says. Some yards, for example, don’t have walls, and you feel like you’re going to fall off the edge. Some have the right elements, but the elements are in the wrong spot. For example, a piece of furniture is in front of a door.
Other considerations that Hancock mentions:
▪ When shopping for trees, to give perspective, consider that each story of a house is about 10 feet.
▪ Landscaping can add 10 to 20 percent or more to the value of a house when you go to sell it. Or if it doesn’t earn more money, the house will at least sell faster than if it weren’t landscaped in a pleasing way.