As Arlington landscape designer Tom Mannion points out, commercial landscapers install finished exteriors all the time, using oversized trees and shrubs, lots of big evergreens for plant architecture, and beds that rely on seasonal annuals or mounding ground covers, all tied together with lots of mulch and push-button watering systems. The advantages: a neat and mature look with relatively low weekly maintenance. The drawbacks: a landscape that is expensive to put in, needs a seasonal maintenance regimen and has all the character of a hotel courtyard.
For those who want a more personal garden, there are tricks that hasten effects without robbing the landscape of its heart. Here are some ideas that aren’t necessarily cheap or without toil, but will richly reward your efforts in short order.
Patio and arbor
Whether you want a speedy garden or a plodding one, every paradise needs a place that ties the house to the landscape, and where you can sit in comfort, shelter and privacy. It’s called a patio.
Patios should be dry, flat and shady in summer. Some form of paving will lift you out of the mud, but, as Mannion points out, if you have storm water that is compromising the house, you need to fix that before you do anything else. A wet area that doesn’t bother the abode doesn’t need expensive drain systems; you can use it to create a pretty garden of moisture-loving plants, including the common mallow, the swamp hibiscus, ostrich ferns, ironweed and butterbur.
Gordon Hayward, a Vermont-based landscape designer, says a quick and effective floor for a patio might be something as simple as pea gravel, with framing to keep it in place, though it would quickly become littered under a tree.
A step up in materials and price would be dry-laid brick or bluestone (each has more character than modular concrete pavers). Salvaged brick, in particular, can save costs and give an instant look of age.
“If the house is contemporary, I like to use exposed aggregate concrete, edged in stone,” Mannion says. Often, patio terraces need some form of retaining wall to achieve flatness, an investment that will be repaid when the house is sold. Alternatively, a low deck can provide a level patio floor without requiring masonry walls, Mannion says.
Once you have a floor for the speedy garden, you need walls. Fences, trellises and arbors can provide an instant veil that a screen of trees or a hedge cannot. As Mannion points out, many people think that a fence is an ugly stockade or chain-link affair. “I say, get a beautiful fence; they don’t think such a thing exists,” he says.
Find a competent carpenter, show him or her structures you like, and go for cedar, if your budget allows. Tip: Use larger material than you had in mind; scale is different outdoors than inside.