Creating Landscape Space


Any landscape, commercial or residential, can be thought of as a series of outdoor rooms, linked together with hardscape elements or natural landforms. Some landscapes consist of acres of property; others are relatively small. Regardless of size, with the cost of housing these days, most property owners try to maximize their living space by extending it outdoors. They are looking to make previously underutilized areas more livable through enhancements. That’s good news for grounds managers and landscapers.

This illustrates how to create small spaces as part of a large one, especially on public properties. The arbor, path, fencing and plant materials all have influence on defining this landscape space.

Site assessment

Every landscape job should start with a site assessment. Site assessments have two parts: site inventory and site analysis. During inventory, documentation is the key action that takes place. Clipboard in hand, systematically stroll through the landscape making notes about each hardscape element, as well as nearby plants. Note the sun/shade exposure, sloped areas, condition of the plants, the spacing, health of the turf, areas where no plants exist and plants on adjacent properties. Get the soil tested to determine the pH and available nutrients for plant growth. Ask a neighbor about the history of the site. They might be able to recall events and other information that the property owner is not privy to, such as privacy fences or gazebos that used to be on the site.

During site analysis, a value judgement is placed on each plant and piece of hardscape. Endeavor to explain the virtues and limitations of the current set of landscape spaces. Consider the client’s feelings in equal weight with your experience as a landscaper. Factors such as aroma, grandma’s favorite plants and winter color are often forgotten in the process. Reassure the client that your suggestion for removal of problematic plant materials and hardscapes will be best for the landscape in the long term. Try to forecast changes over time, including how much larger the plants will grow and in what direction.

The bottom line with site assessment can be summed up with three questions. They will help guide the process of helping the customer with their needs.

1.Where do you have good spaces?
2.Where do you need more?
3.Where do you have bad spaces that can be turned into good ones?

Defining a space

Many objects define space. Instead of focusing on the exact species and cultivar of tree or type of wood and metal to be used, think of landscape space as the area that is bordered or surrounded by groupings of various materials in a solid mass. These are called planes, and they tend to be linear.

Planes provide a good tool to help explain the concept of landscape space to your clients. No matter where you are at a given time, there is always a ground plane, which is best defined by whatever you may walk on, or view at its lowest point. Examples of ground planes in the landscape are paths, ground cover beds, parking lots, lawns, decks, driveways and front entryways.

Plants and hardscapes intertwine to form this landscape space.

Wall planes get to the heart of space definition. Landscape walls can be straight and perpendicular to the ground plane, but also may be sloping. Perpendiculars include fencing, brick retaining walls and privacy hedges. Hillsides and layered plantings that contain trees, small trees, shrubs, ornamental grasses and perennials placed in front of each other are considered sloped wall planes.

Sky planes put a roof, or ceiling, on a space. Depending on the feature, they can enclose the space completely or partially, or leave it open. Gazebos and arbors are sky planes that provide distinct enclosure. Trees such as elm, honey locust, oak and Kentucky coffee tree offer a vase shape that provides a sky plane along with a well-defined shady space below.

Increased interest is created when various heights of the planes are utilized. A setting with a brick floor plane surrounded by an outdoor barbeque, a layered perennial/shrub border and rose garden offers great potential for the client’s enjoyment.

The absence of a sky plane—open air—leaves the space defined on three or more sides, creating a less cloistered environment than when lower sky planes are included. Be sure to ask which type is preferred by your customer before planting or renovation begins.

Other considerations

• Function

If function is the primary goal for the space, consider the activities in terms of their size and duration in the landscape. Good examples of functional spaces are outdoor living/dining rooms and windbreaks. Your client’s next barbeque could take place in a space that you create for them using brick or flagstone for the ground plane, a natural hedge of grey dogwood or arrowwood viburnum for wall planes and a ceiling of a timbered arbor or existing sycamore tree.

Windbreaks are wall planes; not only good for defining spaces on acreages, they prevent snow from drifting onto driveways and houses. They also serve to slow wind speed, buffering dwellings from heating and cooling losses.

Constructed berms can help define smaller spaces. Properly constructed, they replicate what is seen in nature. The undulations, slopes and changes in texture, vegetation and color help create well-defined landscape spaces. That said, berms that are over 2 to 3 feet high can be problematic. Taller berms tend to dry out unevenly and cause perennials to suffer greater winter damage than when planted in ground beds.

• Movement

Landscapes that allow for active participation in the space tend to be greater appreciated by the customer. If the client can touch it, see it, feel it, smell it and, in some cases, taste it, they feel more closely connected to the healing power of a garden. Scores of studies, most notably ones recently conducted by Washington State University, document the positive feelings that come from a close association with green plants.

Paths invite movement through a space, especially where an element of mystery is involved. When a well-constructed path leads away from the client without a clear sense where the path will end, a high level of interest and intrigue is added to the landscape space.

• Decks and gazebos

These hardscape elements are no-brainers for creating landscape space. Not too fuzzy or subtle, they clearly define a space and make it easy to utilize as a feature. Decks and gazebos can add functional and aesthetic elements to the landscape, yet are not a simple installation. Because of concerns with health, safety and welfare, certain structures require design and oversight by a registered or licensed landscape architect. If the client suggests such a structure, be sure to ask a landscape architect to look at the plans. Further specifications and involvement may be required.

A classic look

A healthy, relatively flat area of turf centered between two layered landscape beds creates well-defined space. Such a space imparts a strong sense of enclosure to the landscape user. The layers of plants on the right and left serve as a visual wall and an actual wall to clients. This classic look is good sustainable horticulture as well. The separation of turf and ornamentals creates a setting where the ornamentals have a greater impact when placed against the solid green void of the turfgrass. Separating turf from ornamentals is also positive from a maintenance standpoint. If ornamentals are scattered randomly around the lawn, and are maintained with the same amounts of fertilizers and water as the grass, then the ornamentals could get overfertilized and overwatered, leading to their demise.

Blank slate properties

What do you do if your client has a property with just a house, sod and a driveway? Where do you start?

This can be a tough assignment, but the procedure for creating an attractive and functional landscape in a big, empty space is not much different than in an existing, overgrown property. Begin by listing the goals and objectives that the client has for the project, interview thoroughly and perform a site assessment. The main difference between blank slates and properties with some existing plants and hardscapes is the time that it may take for much of the plan to become effective.

Creating well-defined landscape spaces is a great way to serve your clients. Implementing a well-conceived plan and installation process will result in profits for the landscaper and satisfaction for the client.

The author is a horticulturist, certified arborist and frequent contributor to Turf located in Omaha, Neb.