This fall, Jonathan and I set aside some time to develop a landscape plan for our home. As we drew bedlines and selected plants, I couldn’t help but realize that this design is nothing like anything we would ever come up with for a commercial site. Not because it won’t be beautiful. On the contrary, we are itching for spring to get here because we know the landscape will be wonderful.
But, let me back up to the start.
Labor Day weekend 2014, Jonathan and I moved to Lansing. There were several reasons why we decided to make the move. We wanted to be part of a walkable community. We wanted to design landscapes for urban spaces. We wanted to be part of the movement to develop placemaking in Lansing. And we wanted to design and develop a landscape where we could try out a variety of plants that we’ve read about in plant catalogs or seen at gardens.
So, like kids in a candy store, we selected 70 different plants to install in our small 45’ x 135’ city lot. Which leads me back to the point. We would never design like this for a commercial landscape. The reasons we wouldn’t design like this are threefold: 1. Plant Maintenance, 2. Visual Impact, and 3. Foot Traffic.
Everyone wants a no maintenance landscape. This, of course, doesn’t exist because we’re dealing with living things. But, because we work hard to learn about a site before we design for it, and because we learn about plants whenever possible, we are able to design low maintenance landscapes.
Another tool that we use to design a low maintenance landscape is to simplify the plant palette. By designing areas of shrub and perennial masses, we simplify the job of the landscape manager. Spotting weeds becomes easier when the leaves of the weed don’t match those of the rest of the plants. Pruning shrubs becomes more straightforward when there is only one pruning technique that needs to be applied.
In contrast to planting in masses, we designed our home landscape to consist of as many different plants as we could reasonably squeeze in. It would be a greater challenge to an owner or landscape manager to properly care for 70 different plant varieties on such a compact site!
Designing in masses for commercial landscapes has another benefit in addition to simplifying maintenance. Plant masses increase the impact that the site has, especially if it is most frequently viewed by passing motorists driving 45 mph. When people view a site from a distance and when moving at fast speeds, the landscape must be designed at a scale that will cause it to still be noticeable.
When I think of designing for impact, I think of the landscape at Fairlanes Medical Center. This building and landscape are setback 175’ from the street. It would be easy to drive past this building and barely notice that it exists. However, by designing with masses of yellow and orange color at the entrance, the building attracts attention from passersby.
On the other hand, the landscape at our home will have more variety and fewer masses of plants. Beyond our desire to test plants, this technique makes sense for a residential application. We aren’t trying to catch the attention of everyone who drives past our house. We want to capture the attention of people who walk to and through our yard. The scale of our landscape is intimate, which is best appreciated by walking through it and noticing the intricacies of the plant combinations.
The final difference between our home landscape design and how we design commercial sites is the expected use of the site – how much foot traffic will the site receive. A commercial site typically receives a lot of traffic. People come to the site for shopping, services, recreation and many other reasons. With higher volumes of foot traffic, it is critical to provide paved paths to allow visitors to get to where they need to be without damaging the landscape (turf grass and planting beds).
Because we don’t expect to have high volumes of traffic through our yard, we have planned to have most of our paths simply be turf grass. The exceptions include a few footpaths through the beds and our front walk. The footpaths will be comprised of flagstone steppers, which communicate that these are the (only!) appropriate places to walk through the landscape beds. The front walk receives more traffic from our friends when they come visit and also our mailman on a daily basis. Because the existing concrete of the front walk was broken and uneven, we have installed a new permeable paver sidewalk (which fits right into our “let’s give it a try and see how it does” philosophy of home landscape design) – more on this in a future blog post.
So, here begins our experiment. The plants go in in the spring and we are excited to see how they grow and mature. Will it be as expected? Or will some of the plants surprise us?