Seven Steps to Visualizing Your Dream Landscape

Seven Steps to Visualizing Your Dream Landscape

Plants make for a dynamic and vibrant landscape. Showy flowers bloom in windows during spring or summer. Deciduous trees will sport vibrant new growth in spring, yet revert to bare branches for winter. Successful landscapes plan for this seasonal interest and evolution of space.

Other elements of the designed landscape are more stable: hardscape such as concrete and stone, tables and chairs, pergolas and fire pits, gravel mulch and water features. Combined with thoughtful plantings, they take on a special character throughout the seasons of the year.

What if a landscape has none of these things? What if a landscape boasts a massive lawn bordered by shabby plantings and cracked flatwork? How does one get from current run-down reality to the final vision for a space? Where does one start?

The steps below move in sequence, with simplest and easiest first. Halfway through, technical & design expertise begins to play a greater role. But don’t be discouraged, coming to a landscape designer with ideas and inspiration, will make their job easier! More importantly, time spent exploring, collecting, and considering preferred landscape styles will direct design exploration toward a clearly defined vision.

Explore The Neighborhood

One of the best ways to kick off a design effort is to take a walk around the neighborhood! Take a friend or family member along and critique the landscape types and styles. Better yet, discuss the desirable and undesirable elements: the plants, materials, and the edges and joints that stand out. Bring a notebook to make lists and a phone to take photos. Take a short video or two, recording the landscape areas while talking.

“Neighborhood” is a relative term; consider expanding the search to neighborhoods in the vicinity. Most towns have multiple pockets of unique or inspiring architectural styles and landscape designs. Newer developments might have the hot new low-water planting palettes; historic districts might have a variety of styles incorporating local materials and time-tested layouts. Consider the orientation of structures in the landscape and pay attention to how similar spaces are utilized within them.

Collect Inspirational Imagery

Once oriented to real landscape projects in your local context, move to the digital universe. In addition to print publications, the internet and even social media are a wealth landscape inspiration. Several platforms are built around curating image content—these include Pinterest, Houzz, The Spruce, HGTV, Instagram and more. Even a simple Google search will turn up a trove of landscape images across all types of styles and climates. For inspiration appropriate to the various drier regions of the Central Coast, adding keywords such as California, Native, Mediterranean, Drought Tolerant, and Desert will help, especially with plant species.

The digital exploration phase is a great opportunity to familiarize with a network of frequently used terms—modern versus rustic, drought-tolerant vs xeric, low-maintenance vs lush & colorful, or turfgrass vs ornamental grass. Some are self-explanatory, others are less-so. An understanding of these terms can give clarity when communicating with others, especially designers, architects, and contractors.

Assemble a Palette of Materials

After collecting images and notes for inspiration, it’s time to organize. Begin by saving all the noteworthy or important photos; web links to specific materials or products will save time later too. Now is the time to start narrowing down style and identity; lay the photos out, either on a table, in a word processor, or in another photo management tool. Identify the imagery that best captures your ideal feeling or vibe and begin culling the least cohesive images. There are various ways to organize a material palette, but one simple approach involves a breakdown into three categories:

Character: Character photos contain a mix of elements, including furniture, architecture, vegetation, and landscape. These images are often broad angles and represent a particular style or sense of place.

Hardscape: Hardscape is the structure and backbone of a site—walls, flatwork, fountains, walkways, boulders, rock mulch—anything that is installed once and stays put. Hardscape elements are typically the biggest-ticket items, consistent throughout all seasons, and relate closely to building layout and materials.

Plant Palette: Plants breathe life into a space—yet come with a unique set of opportunities and strengths; not the least of which is need for the proper combination of sun, soil, and water. Taking plant inspiration from the neighborhood is often one of the best ways to find climate-appropriate plant selections. Even so, the microclimates within your property (particularly sun and wind exposure) may differ and affect plant viability. A palette based on the desired look can be combined with some horticultural know-how to develop a specific plant list.

Develop a Concept Plan

After all this preparation, it’s finally time to begin design. Be advised, here’s where the little details about your site begin to matter. Developing a concept starts with a properly scaled base map. That includes measuring locations of utilities—electrical, water, gas—as well as existing plants and trees, buildings and hardscape edges, changes in elevation, and more. A good plan starts with an accurate base map: if in doubt, hire a professional surveyor or designer to get it right.

Every concept plan is unique. For most landscape designers, the concept plan is an initial and approximate plan view drawing of all the proposed elements. At this state, it’s important to locate key features such as shade trees and shrub areas, but an exact quantity and size is less important. Concept plans are easiest developed on paper with pen and paper. Start with a pencil, work through a few options, and then get a thicker pen out to trace final shapes. Make notes for each unique piece to assist in communicating the design intent.

Sketch Landscape Vignettes

Perhaps a concept plan would help a bird visualize your landscape, but a plan drawing doesn’t really show you what the landscape feels like from ground-level. A sketch or “vignette” of a view can be a powerful visualization tool. In fact, this can be helpful before, during, or after development of the concept plan. The plan drawing helps to organize and orient in the horizontal plane, but “perspective” views orient both horizontally and vertically.

One powerful shortcut to developing vignettes is drawing over a photo. A professional-level program such as Adobe Photoshop can help produce high-quality vignettes, but a hand drawn sketch on paper or a tablet is great too. It can be helpful to lighten the background image, or adjust it to black and white, to help your drawing overlay pop. Use thick dark lines if necessary, and bright colors or markers to differentiate new elements from the existing.

Experiment with 3D Modeling

While some have natural creative impulses, others may need to take a more technical or mathematical approach. In recent years, free and low-cost 3D modeling software has emerged as a powerful tool for visualization. Google Sketchup is a commonly used and user-friendly platform for 3D design of all sorts, landscape included. Many other companies have developed a variety of digital tools across a range of price points and user-friendliness.

At this point, an accurate base map is critical. Property lines, building footprints (including doors and windows), trees, walls, and edges of existing hardscape elements will be important to note and include on the digital base map. It may not take much to model the basic elements of a flat space with simple elements; curves and slopes can add significant difficulty. Even if your landscape area isn’t perfectly straight, it may still be helpful to model the basic layout and shapes of all the pieces.

Render in Photorealistic Detail

Digital rendering technology provides opportunities for realistic 3D images to capture the elements and even the feeling of a landscape. Combining simple 3D models with extensive libraries of textures, plants, environments, and more produce incredible results. Lumion is a program that has emerged as a very user-friendly yet powerful tool for landscape visualization.

Most homeowners can very realistically explore their neighborhood, collect inspirational imagery, and assemble a palette of materials. If the rest of the sequence sounds like a bit much, that’s no problem at all; landscape designers will be familiar with what it takes to get further and all the way to installation. Developing plan drawings are the bread and butter of landscape design practices, but these additional visualization methods are the helpful and fun tools on the journey toward creating the perfect landscape!

Mulch Madness – A Guide to Mulch

Mulch Madness – A Guide to Mulch

Key Benefits, Types, and Methods of Using Mulch in California Landscapes

It’s almost insane how many ways mulching adds to the success of California landscapes. It is easily one of the most useful practices one can do in the garden. Mulching is a great way to control weeds, retain moisture and protect your soil. It also hides and protects drip lines, keeps dust down, provides a safe, relatively clean walking surface, and looks better than bare ground. Mulches can prevent erosion on slopes, and organic mulches improve soil structure.

Saves Time and Money

One of the most important benefits of mulching is it saves time and money! By reducing weeds, especially annuals, by up to 90%, landscaping labor costs are reduced significantly. Mulching can reduce or even eliminate the need for costly and toxic herbicides. And mulch can significantly conserve soil moisture, reducing the cost of irrigation. Many California Coast gardens use surface-mounted drip irrigation and mulching serves to visually cover up and protect drip lines, which are vulnerable to damage and weathering, thus saving on costs to repair or replace.

Promotes Healthy Landscapes

Mulching promotes healthy plants and garden areas by reducing competition from weeds by preventing their germination. The decomposition of mulch also adds nutrients to the soil as it breaks down, improving soil by adding organic matter that feeds beneficial organisms. Mulching reduces soil compaction and insulates plants against temperature extremes. A 2-inch mulch layer can cut summer soil evaporation by 20% and lower temperatures in the top 4 inches of soil by 10 degrees. There is a notable improvement in establishing young plants and trees when mulch is used.

Reduces Soil Erosion

Another benefit of mulch is how it reduces soil erosion. Covering the soil simply helps keep soil in place when exposed to rain and wind. This is especially true on slopes, by deflecting the impact of raindrops, which in turn reduces stormwater runoff and creek erosion.

It Just Looks Good

Mulch is often the finishing touch for planting areas. In addition to the functional benefits, it just looks good! A clean, uniform mulch layer helps to really tie the garden together.

Mulching with a Multitude of Materials

There are a wide variety of materials that can be used for mulching. The style and design of your individual garden or landscape will inform as to which types might be best for you. Bark and wood products are the most common types of mulches on the Central Coast. But there are many others, such as stone – from colorful rocks and boulders down to a wide variety of gravel and even decomposed granite. An under-layer of sheet mulching can be employed using newspapers, cardboard and even plastic sheeting. Living mulches (e.g. Dutch white clover) are cover crops planted around crops or between crop rows, adding nitrogen to the soil while discouraging noxious weeds.

We want to call attention to Recycled Organic Mulches. These can include chipped or shredded wood chips, compost, simple fallen leaves or pine needles, or even grass clippings. We also favor chipper mulch from local tree trimming operations. Our endorsement of these recycled materials stems from the fact that these materials are not only potentially an attractive ground cover and mulch, but they are by-products that don’t have to be shipped long distances, and mulching with them contributes to maintaining their usefulness in another form (good for sustainability).

Consider Flammability

With all the benefits of mulching, also comes an issue of organic mulch’s combustibility and wildfire safety. In areas of many California communities, there is a real need to consider how to reduce hazardous conditions, and how mulching can play a useful role and not contribute to wildfire danger.

An in-depth study conducted at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension of landscape mulch types analyzed their relative combustibility, flame height, rate of spread, and temperatures. They demonstrated a wide range of variability in mulch type combustibility, suggesting the need to consider flammability when choosing mulches. In general, it is obvious that the least flammable mulch types should be used closest to vulnerable homes and structures, and the study recommends “not using any organic mulch within five feet of a house located in wildfire-prone areas.”

How Much Mulch?

Planting areas should be mulched as needed to maintain a 2- to 4-inch layer. Plan on refreshing your mulched areas periodically. An annual inspection usually keeps you apprised of how often additional mulching is needed. Keep mulch at least two to three inches away from the stems and trunks of plants to avoid moisture-related fungus and bacteria problems. When mulching individual trees planted in lawns, create a circle of mulch about 2 feet in diameter for each inch of trunk diameter, even out to the edge of the canopy of mature trees if possible. If irrigating mulched areas with overhead irrigation, make sure that the water penetrates the mulch layer. Mulch can absorb the water and prevent its ever reaching soil.

We Love Mulch!

Mulching covers and cools the soil, conserves moisture, suppresses weed growth, slows erosion and adds nutrients as it decomposes. It also hides and protects drip lines. Plus, it looks good. What’s not to love?

Learn more about our maintenance program. Have questions about our mulching services? Contact us at [email protected] or (805) 466-6263.