We spend more time relaxing, playing and entertaining outdoors at this time of year. Your wish list might include a state-of-the-art outdoor kitchen and a pool with built-in spa but with todays gas and food prices those additions may be on hold for the time being. So what landscape design features can you implement on a budget to make your time outdoors really count?
Water features – relaxing self-contained fountains are easy to set up. Some styles incorporate child-safe pond-less fountains. What about a simple outdoor shower with a Mexican pebble floor and vine covered lattice for privacy?
Fire pits – you can warm your family and guests around a simple fire pit while you wait to install the pizza oven and outdoor fire place next year. Fire pits can be purchased ready-made or you can construct you own with fieldstone or concrete blocks. Either way they’re a fun addition to your patio or sitting area.
Outdoor lighting – you’ll be amazed at how beautiful your garden looks when you add some lighting and how much you’ll want to stay outdoors after dark. Light a path or uplight the trunk of one of your trees. Back light a plant with interesting foliage or wash a wall with light. Todays solar lights are getting better and better and low voltage lights are more affordable, too.
Stone in the garden – whether you want a seat wall to surround your patio or a permeable flagstone patio, stone lends a sense of permanence and elegance to your property.
Consider adding some new elements to your garden so that you can spend more time outdoors both in the evening and throughout the year.
I remember my first San Francisco Landscape Garden show as it used to be called. The year was 1989- not long after the event started as a fundraiser for San Francisco Friends of Recreation and Parks. My father and I loved it. All those orchids and bonsai and beautiful gardens. It was held at Fort Mason and my father, a retired Army colonel, was quite familiar with the location. I was new to garden shows and was yet to discover that the display gardens are part theatre – part landscape design. ‘Who would plant a shrub that grows to 6 feet tall in front of that little bitty flowering perennial?”, I said to Dad. Well, I’ve been to a lot of garden shows since including the Northwest Flower and Garden show in Seattle and the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show when it was held at the Cow Palace and now, in it’s 30th year, at the San Mateo Event Center.
So this yearI know what to expect. Or I think I do but there are always surprises. I’m with a couple fellow landscape designers and we have a keen eye for new plants in interesting combinations and design solutions for upcoming landscapes. In addition to the show gardens there are also hundreds of vendors selling all sorts of wonderful garden related items and vendors selling every type of plant you could possibly want. So much fun. Here are just some of the highlights if you weren’t able to attend this year yourself.
The display gardens offer inspiration from lawn replacement ideas to sustainable building methods to exciting new plant introductions. For five days each March, people from around the world are brought together to educate, encourage and inspire garden enthusiast of all ages and all levels of knowledge and experience. This year was no exception although I wish there had been more display gardens like in the “good old days” of the garden show.
Who doesn’t enjoy sitting next to an impressive water feature? This year there were several incorporated in designs that also included low water use plants. A pondless waterfall can attract birds, butterflies and other pollinators to your garden. The soothing sound of the water can also mask street noise. One garden featured a Japanese bamboo deer scare or Shishi Odoshi. Perfect for a small space the bamboo spout fills with water and rocks forward to empty, then rocks back to create a gentle clacking sound.
Another impressive display garden featured succulents of every type and shape. Grouped by color and shape, large swaths of these modern looking plants created a living tapestry around columnar basalt landscape rocks. Other notable features of this garden were the brightly painted stucco walls enclosing the space and stucco-over-building-block retaining walls painted bright blue, red and terra cotta.
I probably got the most practical ideas from the garden created by the Association of Professional Landscape Designers than any other garden. Theirs demonstrated ways to re-imagine your garden without a lawn.There were cozy sitting areas. plants that screen out the street or next door neighbor, a vertical edible garden, lawn alternatives like Kurapia and vibrant planters filled with low water use plants. The whole garden was engaging and useful. I also saw a great idea for wall lighting that used a rusted metal screen in front of the light creating an interesting pattern. You had to be there to appreciate it’s unique design.
For me and my colleagues the plants and garden art both featured in the gardens and for sale are what keeps us at the show for a long time. There are so many new plant introductions to evaluate for future designs. From new and improved selections of old favorites such as variegated lavender ‘Meerlo’, a soft mahonia ground cover, abelia ‘Miss Lemon’ to nandina ‘Lemon Lime’ and callistemon ‘Slim Jim’ there is a perfect plant for every garden.
Think about what you want to do in your front or back yard this year to save water and maintenance and enhance the beauty of your space.
Each time I’m in my garden it’s a different experience. The familiar buzz of hummingbird wings brings a smile to my face. Sometimes it’s the silence that gets my attention. Where are the chirping songbirds or the raucous scolding of the jays? Where is the wind, the rustling of the forest grass leaves? Other times the quaking of the redwood boughs a hundred feet up makes the garden come alive like giant wind chimes. Sound adds dimension to the garden.
I consider the music of the garden as well as plants and people when developing a design. I’m not talking about the popping sounds that corn makes when they don’t have enough water. Or as it matures, increase in weight, the leaves losing moisture and becoming more brittle, a puff of wind causing the stalks to strike each other and produce a spectrum of sound. Or when lupine seed pods explode with enough force it sounds like someone throwing stones against a fence.
No, I’m talking about how water, wind and wildlife play a big role in the music of a garden. Even the sound of crunching as you walk on a gravel path brings your garden to life.
The sound of moving water in the garden not only attracts birds but soothes the soul. It can drown out unwanted neighborhood noise or sound as subtle as a violin. I enjoyed a table top fountain with a bamboo deer scare for many years until the raccoons discovered it. The sound was incredibly soothing on a hot day. Pondless waterfalls are easier to maintain if you aren’t interested in fish or water plants. Small recirculating garden fountains can be placed on your deck or patio or tucked into garden beds. Urn and jar fountains offer a hint of bubbling water and the soothing sound of flowing water to your landscape.
A friend of mine has a different wind chime at each corner of his house. He can tell the direction of the wind, the intensity, even potential changes in the weather just by listening to the chimes. There are bamboo chimes available that produce a peaceful relaxing sound or musically tuned metal tubes or those made of wood or shells. Enhance the wind with these lulling sounds.
The wind is different in each season. Summer breezes cool you and also catch on a billowy plant to bring not just sound but movement. Ornamental grasses are the stars of the garden when the wind rustles through the leaves and seed heads. Loose shrubs like butterfly bush, hydrangea, spirea, spice bush and bush anemone also sway in the wind and bring sound to the garden. Allow a larger plant like Japanese maple to spill into the path where you will brush against it slightly to create that sound you hear in the forest when you walk. Enjoy the rattle of seeds in pods like those of iris as they dry during the summer.
The sounds of wildlife are my favorites in the garden. Any type of pond or waterfall with some plants growing in or adjacent will attract tree frogs. Buzzing insects collect nectar and pollinate flowers. My two simple birdbaths are a magnet for varied thrush, spotted towhees, chickadees, warblers, kinglets and goldfinches. The rest of their time they are performing expert insect control elsewhere in my garden .Hummingbirds are frequent visitors as they fight for territory and feed on spiders and nectar rich flowers.
Every year after attending the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show I'm exhilarated by the creativity of the display gardens and the fresh use of familiar plants. Don't even get me started on the new plant introductions I want to use in my next landscape design. This year the world-class show celebrated its 25th anniversary.
A Flower and Garden Show is a huge and complex production. Creating the 20 display gardens is a demanding task and planning for them begins many months before the show opens. By the night before the show opens 1,200 cubic yards of sawdust and mulch ( that's about 150 dump truck loads ) have been spread and 280,000 pounds of rock stacked in undulating walls and water features.
The flowers and plants for the garden come from all up and down the West Coast. Many plants are forced into early bloom for the show as Mother Nature doesn't always cooperate. Even flowering trees are sometimes kept in greenhouses so that their buds can be timed to open the week of the show. It's not a perfect science. One display garden creator who garnered 5 awards told me that hundreds of daffodils she had planned to use in her garden bloomed a week early due to warm weather.
This year the theme of the show was "Gardens for a Green Earth". There were tips for edible gardening at home including containers for herbs and veggies on the patio and small space gardening, too. One of my favorite gardens combined tomato and flowering vines cascading over the edge of a stone vaneer wall. Raised vegetable boxes bordered the deck for easy access and a stone water fall splashed into a huge half oak barrel.
Another interesting garden was the Low Impact Bay Friendly Garden. Modern in design, this low water-use garden featured tall raised beds surrounding a pervious concrete stepping stone patio set in a gravel base. Pervious concrete is said to be able to take in storm water a a rapid rate of over 5 gallons per minute per square foot of surface area. That far exceeds the flow rate needed to prevent runoff in even the most severe rain events.
The rainwater is temporarily stored in the course gravel layer underneath while it is allowed to naturally percolate into the underlying soil. This could be a good solution to solve site drainage problems.
Most of the display gardens featured water in them. Some were large affairs with cascading boulders while others were small and understated. In one, a length of copper tubing delivered a shower of drops in front of an aged corrugated iron panel. Another consisted of a simple stacked flagstone ledger waterfall flowing into a flagstone pond- a DIY project? Even used tires were used as the base for the flagstone edging around a pond although frankly, I couldn't picture this water feature in anybody's backyard. One I did like was a simple flume of water pouring into a small metal rectangle lined with Mexican black pebbles. A little feature with lots of impact.
Fire pits were prevalent, too. From ornate fireplaces to glass filled affairs to simple metal rounds filled with cobbles outdoor living is enhanced with fire and water.
I had to laugh when a man asked me at one of the gardens what I was taking a picture of. Well, I explained, I take photos of paths and steps and how they're put together and the materials they're made of for future reference. "Oh, that's a good idea" he said, and started taking pictures, too. All in a day at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show.