In Landscape Design, Practical Doesn't Have to Mean Ugly

By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, November 4, 2006

We often overlook the practical components of landscape design. These include the utilitarian areas of your property and the utilities lines that provide electricity, gas and water. They are the elements that make your garden function.

Utilitarian features that might be considered in a landscape design can include firewood -- that is, a place to stack it. Don't leave it in a heap in the yard. A stacked pile not only looks nicer but also seasons better, keeps the bottom layer from rotting and allows air circulation between logs, keeping them dry. During the months you burn firewood, keep some covered to have a dry supply. Stack it as a design element to separate two garden rooms.

A potting table provides valuable work space and tool storage. It should be within reach of your garden hose to have running water. Depending on placement, use a trellis as the back, with a plant trained on it. Build it to double as a bar for entertaining.

Composting is a given for your utilitarian area. Choose an out-of-the way location, because, from a design standpoint, it's difficult to do anything but hide compost. Even using a state-of-the-art compost barrel, bin or other receptacle, it's still yard debris.

Parking is a necessity in the American landscape. It can take innovative thinking to work parking into your landscape design in an aesthetically pleasing way. Driveways are usually a harsh expanse of paving, and parking on the grass is unsightly as well as bad for the lawn. But there are ways to improve the appearance of your parking space. Permeable pavers allow percolation of water. Grassy pavers allow grass to grow through them. Some are made of concrete. Others are heavy-duty plastic and of honeycomb-like structure capable of bearing considerable weight. The honeycomb is filled in with soil so that you can grow grass, and the structure prevents a vehicle from compacting the soil. They are useful for establishing and maintaining turf in areas of foot or vehicle traffic and are available from garden, home improvement or building supply centers. Constant traffic will still break down plant material.

To soften the appearance of a driveway, consider expanding it into the service area to keep both cars and utilities out of view from your ornamental garden spaces. Or consider curving it to disappear behind a grove of trees or shrubs.

If you are building a home, include the garage in your landscape design. Try to keep it from facing front or dominating the front of the house. Provide a way to comfortably go between the house and the cars, especially when carrying groceries or moving items in and out of your home.

If you looked at a garden without its plants, it would be a mass of wires, pipes, steel, plastic, soil, wood and concrete. Through this tangled network run the utilities that make your home and garden work. You wouldn't have landscape lighting, irrigation, an outdoor kitchen, a water garden, a deck, a swimming pool or security without an infrastructure of utilities.

Fortunately, almost all utilities are now installed underground and, therefore, much easier to hide. The challenge is keeping track of where they are so you don't accidentally dig into them.

Here are general guidelines for utility depths. Confirm these with your local utility companies.

· Electricity: Minimum of 18 inches, 36 inches preferred.

· Gas: No standard depth, 24 to 36 inches preferable.

· Sewage: 24 to 36 inches in most parts of the country.

· Water: 36 inches is the national standard; can be any depth if not subject to freeze.

· Telephone: If line is in conduit, it can safely be placed at any depth; without conduit, it should be at least 24 inches.

· Cable television : Can be at any depth, even just under the surface.

These guidelines are often compromised, and when lines are buried too close to the surface, garden tools can easily cut through them. Edging a bed can knock out computers, televisions and telephones.

Low-voltage lighting and irrigation need not be buried deeply. These wires and tubes are not a safety hazard if cut. A five-inch depth is sufficient to bury low-voltage lighting wires to keep them out of the way of aerators and edging tools. An irrigation company will provide the specifications for the type of system you're installing, such as drip, spray or pop-up heads.

The grading of land can change, and a utility line that was installed 30 inches deep might have had the top layer of soil skimmed down 15 inches without your knowledge. Gas lines are installed with pipe that can be punctured with a digging shovel. The gas company responds within minutes because gas leaks pose a serious threat.

Locate outdoor lines for any project that involves digging by calling the Washington area utility line locator service, Miss Utility, 800-257-7777 in Maryland or the District, and 800-552-7001 in Virginia. The law requires notification before any digging. Miss Utility will contact all companies that have underground lines in your area. They will dispatch professionals to mark the lines from the street to the house to ensure that you don't disturb them.

Keep a record of underground lines that are outside the scope of the utilities' responsibility. You might cut a low-voltage line to lighting, a watering system for a clay tennis court, a pipe for a water feature or irrigation tubes for plants. These records are crucial to have and provide to anyone working on your property so they can avoid cutting through lines.

From a landscape design standpoint, it's easier to focus on the aesthetics without telephone poles, but there is still aboveground evidence of utilities. The gas meter can use screening, especially during this season when you begin to notice it. Electric and water meters must remain accessible to the utility companies. You also need access to cables, transformers, junction boxes, air conditioners, driveways and other utilitarian features.

If you are fortunate enough to be able to make utility placement decisions from the start, when building a home, locate junction boxes and meters where they will be easy to screen with plantings. Don't stick an air conditioner or heat pump in the perfect spot for a patio or outdoor dining area.

However, if your house and the utility areas are already established, here are some suggestions:

First, mark locations of all utility lines you know. Once located, pencil them in on a piece of paper and file with your tax plat and other property records. This information will be relevant when undertaking any project involving digging, including building walls and patios or installing plants. Remember, more soil can be disturbed planting a shrub or tree than laying a patio.

There are ways to mask boxes and meters attached to your underground lines. Arrange plantings so they look as if they belong. Do this by strategically placing vines, trees or shrubs on several parts of the property where they also happen to screen a meter, heat pump or other eyesore. Don't call attention to what you intended to hide.

Once you have successfully tucked all of your utilitarian structures and utilities into the landscape and designed them out of sight, they will be out of mind. Then, you can enjoy your garden without any thought to the elements behind the scenes.

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site,

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