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Elements of Landscape Design: More than meets the eye.

Today’s post on on elements of landscape design comes from former classmate and colleague Heidi Wilk.  Heidi is a Landscape Designer, located in Stillwater, MN and holds a Master’s degree in Horticulture from the University of Minnesota.  Her company, Spruced Huis, is a women’s owned company, offers services including landscape design, seasonal container design and front porch styling.  Landscape design is something Heidi really enjoys.  She loves the challenge of creating a space of seasonal change, plant diversity, and admiration

Several years back, I worked on my thesis for my Landscape Design Degree.  I won’t bore you with the lengthy details, however, I wanted to share a few key principles that I learned from this project that I continue to find important today. As landscape designers and architects, we follow a few key principles that allow us to create unusual and interesting landscape designs.  For example, asymmetrical balance, seasonal interest, authenticity (materials and habitat), proportion/scale and simplicity.  In addition, I would like to share a few more unique design principles, often utilized in Japanese garden design.  They will surely add value to your curb appeal!

Hide and Reveal

One of the most prevalent elements of subtlety and mystery in the garden is the quality of “Hide and Reveal”.  The Japanese believe that in showing the viewer the whole garden all at once, the interest of the viewer is lost.  Gardens should be looked at from several different angles and viewpoints in order to discover the hidden treasures of the garden.  To best use the method of “Hide and Reveal” elements in the garden ought to be partially concealed, creating a sense of mystery and encouraging visitors to continue their journey.  It is the glimpse before the reveal.  For example, imagine walking along a winding path.  Around an upcoming bend you can see a branch sticking out with brightly colored blossoms, as you get closer and turn with the bend, the rest of the tree is revealed.  Off in the distance you can hear the bubbling sound of running water.  You follow the sound to discover a small waterfall or fountain.  “Hide and Reveal” can appeal to all of the human senses.  Your space is yours to create.  Try using “Hide and Reveal” with whimsical elements, such as placing a carved sleeping cat within a glade of ferns or under a low-lying tree, or place a small stone frog next to a pond.  You could even imprint little paw prints or leaf prints into a path.  The path through a garden is a journey.  “Hide and Reveal” makes the journey enjoyable and encourages you to keep looking.


Particularly in the dry landscape garden, communication through implication or suggestion, rather than direct statement, is important.  Sand or stones can be placed in a manner to imply water.  Implication is becoming more common in the form of dry creek beds.  These are designed to capture and guide rainwater to an area where the water is then dispersed.  A winding trench is dug out and replaced with river rock and boulders in the same pattern of a creek.  Dry creek beds can be very beautiful in the landscape.  Using implication is a low maintenance and inexpensive way to imply water in the garden.

 Inspiration from Famous Landscapes

Capture the essence of locally well-known scenery in the garden.  For example, you may want to create an impression of the local river valley, lake or sea shore.  To accomplish this, use materials and elements found in the region to make the scene convincing, such as rock, boulders, native plant material, wood, and metal.  A second example of a more common landscape might be a site with a pond.  To accomplish an authentic habitat, plant a weeping willow along the shore, aquatic plants in pond, scatter regional rock along the perimeter, and finish the site off with plants native to the area.  Be sure to interpret the most interesting points without literally copying them.  Copycat gardens are empty of significance and lack integration with the landscapes around them.

Signs of Maturation

Aged quality and time is an important concept in Japanese gardens.  Using materials or elements with mature characteristics help make Japanese gardens unique.  It is simple to include signs of maturation in the garden.  For example, encourage the growth of moss and lichens on trees and rocks, include rocks with water stains and striations, and use weathered wood with bleach marks in the landscape.  These subtle characteristics will give the garden an overall feeling of peacefulness and mellowness.


For many Japanese people, wabi-sabi describes a mind-set for how they live their lives.  Living a wabi-sabi lifestyle means living modestly, learning to be satisfied with life as it is, without materialism, and living in the moment.  Wabi-sabi is also the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection, accepting the natural cycle of aging.  When applied to outdoor spaces, creating a wabi-sabi environment means designing a humble and simple space using organic materials and elements that will show their wear with time.  The space should be uncluttered and well maintained.  Examples of elements in a wabi-sabi space would be a boulder with divots, scratches and moss growing on it, a wood fence made from weathered and twisted wood, or an old wheelbarrow or shovel with wear marks on the handles and rust on the metal sitting against a crooked shed.  It also includes plants, such as an old, gnarled, bur oak tree with large crevices in the bark, or a peeling river birch tree with lichens growing on it.

Regardless of the size of your garden space, try to utilize some or all of these ideas.  You will find that it will make your space more interesting and others will too.

Turf Aeration and Overseeding: Fall Work for the Vermont Lawn

August 7th and almost 8:30 PM and the last of the daylight is fading.  The days are getting shorter and fall will soon be here.  Not to despair—there a quite a few days of good weather remaining for all of us to enjoy our summertime activities.  Now is a great time to improve your lawn.  As we head into cooler weather lawns are bouncing back from the summer heat and it is the perfect time for you to seize that momentum and get the lawn setup for better performance through the winter and in seasons to come.

The best way to get the lawn performing in the late summer/early fall is core aeration and overseeding.  Core aeration is a process where a machine is run over the lawn and a series of tines poke holes and pull out small cores of soil.  Typically these holes are about 2” to 3” deep and are the thickness of an index finger.  These channels into the root zone of the lawn allow better air and water penetration to the roots of the plants.  Additional air and water helps with the growth of new roots, healthier crowns, and a reduction of thatch due to improved aerobic decomposition.  These holes into the soil also allow for more efficient uptake of fertilizer and provide good soil contact for new seed.  Late summer and fall is the best time to perform this service—the weather is cooler and the cool season turf that we have in northern Vermont is actively growing.  Fall typically brings regular rains as well as heavier morning dew which provides ample water and moisture for optimal germination and establishment.  The new grass will have the remainder of the fall and the following spring to establish before it must survive the heat and drought stresses of summer.  Seeding rates vary depending on the variety of turf.  We suggest a tall fescue blend for Vermont lawns and tall fescue gets overseeded at a rate of ~8 lbs of grass seed per thousand square feet of turf.

Fall is also the best time to fertilize the lawn for cool season turf types.  The grass is resuming active growth after some summer dormancy and it is looking to store up nutrients for the winter.  Fertilizing now helps restore any summer damaged areas and helps with faster spring green-up.  There is a state imposed limit to fertilization and we cannot apply fertilizer after October 15th.

Perennial turf weeds also begin making preparations for winter and begin moving sugars down into their root systems for storage.  The last cooler days of the season are ideal for spraying these tough perennial weeds—lawn ivy, dandelions, plantains, and violets and getting complete kill.  The same mechanisms that move the sugars down into the roots for storage also move the herbicides completely through the plant providing complete elimination.  Spraying these weeds in the spring or summer generally just stunts the weed and allows the weed to make a comeback.  Fall is the best time to get control of your lawn weeds with minimal herbicide input.

There is no one “silver bullet” when it comes to developing a healthy, dense turf.  Rather it is the consistent practice of solid cultural practices—mowing, trimming, fertilizing, weed control, aeration, and irrigating—that produces excellent results.  Our Essex, Vermont based landscaping company seeks to be a one source management solution for all of your landscaping needs.  We schedule and coordinate all maintenance services—spring clean-up, fertilization, pre-emergents, mulching, mowing, trimming, gardening, pruning, weed control, and fall clean-ups to deliver you the finest landscape management experience in our market.  We would love to talk to you about managing your lawn and landscape.  Contact us to schedule a consultation.

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Mulching A Vermont Landscape

Spring is upon us here in the Champlain Valley and even with the snow on Tuesday the grass is greening and trees are beginning to break bud.  Spring brings the landscapers out of hibernation and crews are out all over town cleaning-up from a long winter and helping the landscape wake-up into the warmer weather.  The number one thing in Chittenden County we see landscapers doing right now is mulching.  Mulching is an exceptionally helpful enhancement you can make to your landscape in performed correctly—sadly many mulch jobs are “dump and run” and cause more detriment to the landscape than good. Why do we mulch?  If you asked most homeowners they would tell you we mulch for aesthetic reasons—which is a reason, but it is not the primary reason.  Mulch reduces soil erosion from rain drop action.  The layer of mulch absorbs the impact of falling rain drops and helps keep drops from displacing soil into runoff.  Mulch regulates soil temperature—keeping the soil cooler in the heat of summer, and protecting plants in the deep freeze of winter.  Mulch also helps regulate soil moisture and reduces evaporation—the layer of mulch keeps the water in the soil from evaporating.  Mulch can, under traffic situations (walking paths) help reduce soil compaction as it provides a cushion.  As mulch breaks down it adds organic material to the soil which in turn aids in improving soil capacity for nutrients as well as water management.  In nature plants self-mulch using a duff layer generated from cast off years of leaf and needle litter.  This leads to the next point—what makes a good mulch. Mother Nature uses leaves and needles—in the south, harvesters collect long needles from long needle pines and bale them.   These needles are uniform and mostly clean of other organic debris and make an easy to spread mulch for a diversity of plant types.  They break down well and really enhance the quality of the garden soil.  Sadly pine needles are not commercially available in the northeast.  In north western Vermont we typically use bark mulch, wood chip mulch, compost, or stone as mulch.  They all have a place in the built landscape. Bark Mulch—hands down the most prevalent and popular mulch in Vermont.  It is made from the bark of softwood trees shredded and ground to a uniform size.  Typical “flavors” are hemlock bark mulch, pine-spruce bark mulch, and aged bark mulch.  Great uniform product with a higher carbon to nitrogen ratio (higher C:N requires more nitrogen or more time to break down—to high C:N ratio can rob soil N away from plants).  Perfect for mulching trees, shrubs, and acceptable for perennials. Wood Chip Mulch—least expensive mulch per unit.  It is made from chipping up trees and limbs both hardwoods and softwoods.  It can be high un-uniform containing all different sizes and shapes of chips and can contain shredded leaves and needles.  It has the highest C:N ratio and can last for a very long time.  Because of the C:N ratio and how well it can shed water this mulch has an excellent ability to suppress weeds.  It also has a great ability for cushioning and is perfect for woodland walking paths and (if “clean” enough) excellent for underneath children’s playgrounds Compost—for most people this does not come to mind as a mulch, but it is!!  It is made from biodegraded lawn and leaf debris and also can contain biodegraded animal manures.  It has the lowest C:N ratio and can act like a light fertilizer for some plants.  It does not prevent weeds as well as the others, but has great water management abilities.  This is the best choice “mulch” for annual and perennial flower installations-particularly at establishment.

Stone mulch—definitely has more of an institutional feel, but can be a great low maintenance choice for commercial and some residential applications.  Stone mulch requires fabric so that the stone doesn’t slowly get absorbed into the soil over time.  It has great weed prevention and does help manage water loss and erosion.  In addition to fabric stone mulch usually requires edging to keep the stones separated from the turf.  This is a better choice for shrubs and trees in larger bed spaces in sites where maintenance is difficult.  Stone has the highest labor cost at installation.

We’ve learned a little about what we mulch with, let’s discuss elements of how to mulch.  Preparation is key—throwing down the mulch is the fun part, but preparation is what separates the professionals from the amateurs.

-Scrape out un-decomposed mulch from the beds.  This is primarily the wood portion of the bark mulch mix.  Mulch that is too deep can smother plants.  Mulch that covers root flares and trunks of trees causes stem girdling roots and trunk rot.  TREES BURRIED TOO DEEPLY IS RAMPANT.  ALMOST ALL MULCH JOBS LOCALLY HAVE THE MULCH TOO DEEP AROUND TREES.  Trees are an investment that grow and appreciate with time.  Saving a few bucks on a cheap landscape maintenance provider who dumps and runs with the mulch can cost a fortune in tree removal and replacement down the road.

-Spade edge the beds.  Putting a well-defined cut in the turf 3”-6” deep makes a nice definition between lawn and bed space and if maintained skillfully can keep grass from creeping into mulch beds.  Clean up all of the edging debris—don’t bury sod chunks and edging swill under the mulch.

Install a 2”-3” layer of mulch, being careful to not cover plant stems or root flares.

Mulching doesn’t simply involve dumping mulch into the beds every year.  It takes thoughtful and skillful preparation to insure that your mulch is providing positive benefits and not short changing your long term investment.


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