In the garden

4 most common landscape design mistakes


McClatchy-Tribune News Service

“It just doesn’t feel right,” one woman said during a landscaping consult. “It’s almost like there’s a disconnect somewhere.” Another client pointed to trampled plants and asked, “Why can’t the kids stay on the walkway?” An exhausted retiree cried, “They’re supposed to be low maintenance but these things are so huge I have to shear them all the time!”

But my favorite was a young mom gazing on a mid-season vegetable garden. “They didn’t tell me the plants would look so crummy. I want the really pretty gardens on Pinterest.”

If any of these statements rings true at your house, maybe it’s time for a change. Read on to discover the four most common landscape design mistakes and how to avoid them.

•  It just doesn't feel right. When you look outside your family room to the garden, your brain takes in both the room and the exterior space beyond. If the feeling presented by the interior decor palette isn’t reflected in some aspect of the exterior space, there won’t be any visual flow-through.

Creating a palette of colors, textures and materials that is shared by both inside and outdoor spaces helps you feel the connection before you realize it consciously. The more you blur that dividing line at the threshold, the whole becomes far greater than the sum of its parts.

•  Staying on the walkway. It has always been my contention that kids and dogs find their own routes through life and space. They are the barometer of how well your landscape circulation is functioning, or not. Both creatures always take the straightest line between two points. They also fail to recognize corners that aren’t logically or efficiently laid out. The result is not only trampled plants, but damaged sprinkler heads, altered spray patterns and a perennial mud hole.

To resolve this you must change the design using filler paving or objects to deter traffic. Had it been done properly the first time, such conditions rarely present themselves.

•  Monster plants. Professionals know the biggest cause of unnecessary yard work is plants too large for the space provided. It’s usually caused by plant selection based on flower or leaf without knowledge of its ultimate size.

I draw each plant on my plan at its MATURE diameter so I know it fits into the space I have designated. That takes training and knowledge to select a good candidate. Get that right and every plant grows into its natural form without pruning so you can go play on the weekends instead of perpetually hacking away at the monsters.

•  Food gardens. Everywhere you look there are beautiful photos of raised-bed veggie gardens as prim and tidy as a French parterre. Truth is those plants don’t look like that for long. Any experienced vegetable gardener knows how rangy plants become over the season. Tomatoes get huge, vines ramble and climb, and those quaint little colored lettuce heads you love suddenly bolt and flower.

The problem is created when raised beds or that kitchen garden plot is given a high visual priority in the landscape. When it gets ugly at season’s end, it stands out like a sore thumb. This is why food gardens are traditionally placed at the far end of the yard.

In landscape architecture, we’re trained to avoid these problems. I always consider the interior rooms when designing adjacent outdoor space. We learn where and how to intuitively lay out walkways, edges and connections so there’s no need to cut corners. At least two semesters of plant identification teaches students the parameters of most landscape species in design, and details of how they differ in size and form. And though food gardens are hot right now, that doesn’t mean they belong next to the patio.

Good design is worth paying for because it frees you from anxiety, keeps your home cleaner, reduces maintenance and ensures a beautiful view every day of the year.

Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Her website is

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