written by DAVID BEAULIEU
Patio landscaping has a dual mandate. Your outdoor living area should look great, but it should also be functional. Privacy, safety, comfort, and low-maintenance are four aspects of functionality in this case. We touch upon all four here, while focusing on ideas for improving the appearance of your deck or patio area.
01 Patio Plants: Good Things Come in Small Packages
Patios and decks are rather uninviting if not furnished with plants and accessories. Plants soften the uncompromising lines of hardscape features, breathing life into them and inviting you in to sit down and relax.
Although there are other ways to do it (such as patio planter pockets), the easiest way to incorporate plants into a deck or patio setting is to use container gardens. Because containers are portable, Northerners can easily grow tropical flowers in them during the summertime, then simply move them indoors when Jack Frost beckons. But you can grow almost anything in a container. The idea of using plants on your patio can even help you avoid the costly project of removing an old patio and constructing a new one, as plants are capable of hiding many an eyesore.
Regarding safety, if you're allergic to bee stings, avoid patio landscaping geared to flowers, because they're bee magnets. Stick instead to foliage plants such as those with leaves.
02 Select the Right Tree for Your Patio Landscaping
Big plants can cause big problems. Trees are the biggest class of landscape plants, so one thing you definitely have to get right with your patio landscaping is tree selection:
- If you want a shade tree for your patio, choose a tree that will be of intermediate height at maturity.
- Avoid installing trees with aggressive root systems.
- Choose trees that are relatively clean to reduce maintenance.
Maples give you good options for trees of intermediate height.
Some plants are better/worse than others for growing around septic tanks based on the nature of their root systems. These same plants are good/bad choices for patio landscaping.
Then there's the issue of whether or not a tree is messy. Eastern white pines are one of the messiest trees: They get pine pitch all over everything. By contrast, Sunburst honey locust is relatively mess-free.
03 Give Me Privacy, or Give Me Death!
The vast majority of people like to have at least a little privacy along their property lines. There are three ways to go here:
- Informal hedges
- Formal hedges
Non-gardeners may prefer to erect fences to gain privacy, while gardeners often achieve it instead through the use of plant material. A row of arborvitae bushes used to help screen out unwanted attention from the neighboring house is a good example of an informal hedge.
04 Formal Hedges for Privacy
Some folks prefer a more manicured look in screening, achieved by trimming the shrubs into a rectangular shape. Thus the popularity of the formal hedge, which also gives a greater degree of privacy. Privet is a popular choice. But a number of options for formal hedges exist, including:
05 Remember the Vertical Element
When mulling over our choices for patio landscaping, sometimes it's easy to become fixated on the two-dimensional. But by including verticality in our designs, we open up a whole other dimension, making the outdoor living area much more interesting. Building an arbor adjacent to your patio is one way to inject a vertical element.
Arbors make for easier DIY projects. Gardeners will love growing flowering vines on their arbors.
06 Made in the Shade With Covered Pergolas
The vertical element can be introduced in a number of ways. The option with the greatest impact is the pergola.
It's also the option with the highest functionality because pergolas can be covered to increase your comfort level outdoors by providing shade. Cover your pergola and you've transformed it into a room that isn't quite "inside," but neither is it any longer quite "outside."
07 Use Perennials to Soften Hard Patio Lines
Hardscape structures such as patios bristle with harsh edges, and landscaping with plants is one of the best ways to provide a softening touch.
Among the smaller plants, perennials are the most popular choice for this job. Deploying a mix of mainly long-blooming perennials and small shrubs, you can have something in bloom for most of the growing season.
08 But Don't Forget What Annuals Offer
Don't be hesitant to spice up your patio landscaping with annuals. These plants may be short-lived, but they provide a potent injection of instant color.
Sure, the gardening snobs may look down on annuals such as impatiens as being strictly for amateurs. But these are the same people who pontificate about how some plants are "overused," how some plants have colors too garish to use, etc. Always remember: this is your outdoor space to enjoy. You should be making your own aesthetic decisions since you know your own tastes better than the know-it-alls do.
09 Cool in the Pool
One aspect of patio functionality is comfort, and that's where pools come in to play. There's nothing like sunning yourself on the patio and then jumping into a swimming pool to cool off. You'll have to decide, though, if this luxury is worth the extra maintenance involved with pools. Moreover, there's a safety issue here if you have small children.
In-ground swimming pools are also expensive, as are a couple of other patio features popular with the well-to-do:
- Outdoor kitchens
- Outdoor fireplaces
10 Relax With Small Decorative Water Features
More manageable for the water-craving masses are small decorative water features. You can't swim in them, but the gurgling sound made by their waters is ever so relaxing.
Choices for fountains include:
- Ceramic fountains
- Granite fountains
- Clay pot fountains
11 Your Landscaping Can Bring Out the Color of Your Patio
If you really want to get fancy, you can do some color coordinating between your patio and your plants. For example, Blue Star juniper would bring out the blue in some bluestone pavers or even flagstone. For a smaller plant, try blue fescue grass.
Conversely, plant selections that might go well with a brick patio (depending on the color of the bricks in question) include:
- Castor bean (which is a poisonous plant, so keep safety in mind)
- Chocolate Drop sedum
- A dark-leaved ninebark