To Personalize Your Garden, Think Beyond Plants

By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, December 6, 2008

When homeowners cut their landscaping budget, they typically get rid of things such as garden pools, fountains, walls, seating, sculpture, containers and lighting. But these elements, which can be grouped together as "site amenities," contribute to the impact of a garden.

These additions can cost thousands of dollars, or they can cost nothing. Whether you are scavenging for the right sculptural element, such as a rock, log, shell or driftwood, or commissioning a $200,000 work of art, the investment can be worth it. Once you get used to site amenities, you'll always want them for the comfort and interest they provide. Even pink flamingo lawn ornaments can look good if placement is considered in advance, perhaps under a banana tree or by a pool.

· Garden pools. Position garden pools in sunny areas so plants will thrive and the water won't collect a lot of leaves and debris. Bring the pool into balance by creating a complete, living, breathing ecosystem. Install flowering aquatic plants. They will shade the algae and subdue its growth. Snails will clean the pool and a pump will recirculate and aerate the water. Add tadpoles and fish that can be trained to eat out of your hand. You can get complete information on installing and maintaining a water feature from companies that specialize in fountains and ponds. Local companies are listed under these headings in the Yellow Pages.

· Fountains. The appeal of water is so strong that almost every garden has an area that can benefit from a fountain. In addition to beauty, fountains add sound. Self-contained, freestanding units are available in fiberglass, metal, ceramic, stone, bamboo, glass and concrete. Styles vary from plain to ornate; rustic to formal; bubble to spray in a wide range of prices. Most homeowners can install a self-contained fountain. The constant flow of water in fountains is not conducive to growing aquatic plants.

· Walls. Walls add stability to a site. Retaining walls can provide level areas for seating, water retention and plants. Stone walls can serve as sculptural elements, too. Building a low rock retaining wall can be a simple garden project for cool weather. Natural fieldstone walls can add appeal to a property, especially one located on a slope.

· Seating. A comfortable place to sit provides function, aesthetics and somewhere to relax in your garden. Lash a hammock between two trees for the classic picture of summer laziness or attach it to a self-standing frame so you can move it around from patio to pool to perennial garden. Anything can serve as a seat -- rocks, walls, tree stumps. You can sit on simple folding chairs or ornate stone benches. A well-placed, well-designed bench can sometimes be the most appealing amenity in a garden. Place a bench in a separate area off the path and you have a destination. Use cast stone, wood or iron, whatever is consistent with your design. Put it in a location that will provide maximum enjoyment and incentive to stay in the garden. Comfortable sitting heights for most adults are 17 to 22 inches with a seat depth of 12 to 20 inches.

· Sculpture. Objects that add ornamental interest are excellent accents to your garden. Sculptural elements can make a plain space special. Use one to grace an entry. Integrate a favorite found piece or statue into the garden or in some way use ornamentation that reflects its surroundings. Back up sculpture with shrubbery. Relate it to a grove of trees. Set it in a bed of ground cover. Work it into the landscape design. One way to use the size of statuary or ornamental objects to psychologically influence garden proportions is by placing a large sculptural element directly across from a smaller piece. This makes sculptures appear farther apart than they actually are. A small statue placed on a low level makes its surroundings look larger. A small object elevated appears farther away. Large statuary near the observer diminishes the importance of the other surroundings.

· Containers. For thousands of years, urns and vases have been used as sculptural elements. Ornate containers are probably most ornamental without plants, so keep greenery simple in these. But the intended use of most garden containers made today is to be planted, and many containers not intended for use as planters are also being used. There are no limits to what you can do. New, used and increasingly more recycled products are on the market.

If you are growing plants in heavy shade or over tree roots, you might try a wheelbarrow filled with containers. Rotate its location periodically to more sunny locations. It's an excellent way to put plants where you wouldn't ordinarily have them. With enough room, light and humidity, you can even wheel them indoors in winter. For plants to thrive, their containers must have drainage. Outdoors and indoors, a hole in the bottom of the container is a must. A soil-free potting medium is superior to soil from the garden. Use a water-soluble, balanced fertilizer, such as Jack's Classic Water Soluble Plant Food (20-20-20). Follow the label directions.

· Lighting. Once you see the difference lighting makes in your garden, you will always want it to be a part of your landscape. Lighting extends the time the garden can be used and offers an element of security and safety, such as top-lighting stairs, walks and entries. It adds enormous value to your property. Purchase quality, low-voltage lighting (12 volt). Don't install a special 120 volt line unless it's needed for other uses. There is quite a selection available as far as design styles and type of fixtures. Try different combinations. Graze walls with light from above through branches, creating a moonlighting effect and a play of shadows on the ground. Aim lights up into small flowering trees for a dramatic effect. Backlight to silhouette a plant and accentuate its form. The effect of backlighting in winter is dramatic, especially behind specimen trees. Hide fixtures and keep light beams from aiming toward people's eyes.

Lighting the garden can bring romance and mystery and completely change a landscape's identity. Just as the gleam of copper or glass can add a new dimension to a well-furnished room, so can the addition of site amenities to a well-planted garden.

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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