Draw Them In Deep

MAKE THE MOST OUT OF The Far Corners Of Your Garden

The best part about having a garden is…using it! Whether you want to have activities, entertain guests, or just sit back and enjoy, the important thing is that it’s there for your pleasure, anytime. But every garden has an neglected or unsightly corner, right? How do you make the most out of those spaces? Sure, the patio next to the back door gets a lot of action, but how do you draw them in deep to take full advantage of every square foot?


Do you have a junk drawer in your house? No judgment here. Surely we all have at least one. (I think I have three). Unfortunately, for a long time, I also had one in the garden. There were pots with dead plants, 5 dozen bamboo poles I rescued but didn’t have a plan for, an assortment of orphaned pavers and bricks, my son’s punching bag that never got punched. What a mess! The best part was that it was in a hidden patio behind the garage. No one could see it. The worst part was that it was in a hidden patio behind the garage. No one could use it.

There in lies the problem. These garden junk drawers become barriers to using real living spaces. If you don’t fix them, you’re surrendering part of your property! Other common barriers to having functional spaces are:

  • Broken or nonexistent paths
  • Large items stored without containers
  • Broken down fencing
  • Unpleasant views
  • Uneven paving
  • Overgrown plants requiring maintenance

Think of it this way. What if you suddenly found out that your neighbor’s fence was built 5’ inside your property line? Probably you would want to reclaim that space, right? So, let’s look at how we can reclaim space in order to take control over what we already own.

How to make the most out of the far corners of the garden

How do you draw them in deep? The same way we do it inside the house. People use the kitchen because that’s where the food is. The living room has the t.v. and places to sit. The bedroom is where we go to sleep. The bathroom…well, you get the idea. Rooms have a purpose.

Gardens should also be designed with rooms that have a purpose because, when you do, people will go to them.

Include these rooms to Draw Them In Deep

  • Cooking/dining room: depending on the space available they might be the same place or divided, but they are always adjacent to one another
  • Entertaining room: this may be part of the dining or lounging room and has an adequate amount of seating for your needs. It’s the place you bring your guests to enjoy the outdoors
  • Lounging/relaxing room: outwardly looking in to the garden
  • Private room: inside and surrounded by the garden
  • Fun and games room: big open flat space for games
  • Vegetable garden and gardening work room: a great place to have a potting table and shelves for proper storage of garden tools, amendments, and pots

These are all garden rooms that have purpose and that, matched with the right family, would get a lot of great use—IF they are convenient to access. If an outdoor room is inconvenient to get to or cluttered and messy, no one will go there!

do’s and don’ts to creating spaces that draw them in deep:

  • DO make sure there is a smooth, direct, and uncomplicated path to your room. If it is at the top or bottom of a slope, it is imperative that you either have a smoothly leveled and paved ramping system, or a proper set of steps. By proper I mean they should be no shorter than 5 1/2” and no taller than 6 1/2”. The tread should be no smaller than 12” deep. You can still use natural materials like wood or stone, but they must follow those dimensions and be perfectly stable. Even if it’s a flat path, be sure that you have a paving or planted surface that is maintained. Gravel, decomposed granite, even mulch is fine if it’s properly maintained. If it’s planted, be sure it’s trimmed and filled in. No one wants to walk through mud, sand or scratchy, tall brush to “relax”.
  • DON’T store “stuff” outside in or near your destination room. Whether it’s garden tools, extra pavers, or that broken bike that you plan on fixing yourself as soon as you have a free minute, it should be put neatly away in a storage unit. Home Depot or any hardware store will have Rubbermaid units of various sizes. Even an ugly storage unit is better than no storage unit. Trust me on this. Apart from being unsightly, that broken bike or extra pavers will remind you of what you haven’t had time to do. Every. Single. Time. And not only won’t you go out there but you definitely won’t bring guests.
  • DO make creative storage a challenge. A custom wood bench, with the correct dimensions can store tons of stuff. If you get some sizes of plastic storage containers and make a bench with storage in the seat, and a slow closing hinge for the lid you can hide a lot of sins. Also, built in BBQ’s have a lot of storage, and slim cabinets can be built along perimeter fencing or walls just like inside the house.
  • DON’T make a circuitous path to your destination room. We all know that the quickest distance between two points is a straight line. I’m not suggesting that you cut through your flower garden to make a straight path to the courtyard. Just take care that a person doesn’t have to walk around unsightly areas, narrow pathways, or inconvenient terrain.
  • DON’T put your compost bin in the very back of the yard. Unless your car is parked there, you have some other reason to go there daily, or you are a super avid and daily gardener it will get neglected. Compost is one of my most favorite things about gardening. It’s so rewarding to take waste and magically turn it into food for your plants…for FREE! That said, if not taken care of regularly it will turn into a soupy, smelly mess which you will avoid.
  • DO tuck the compost bin right into the garden. Hide it with your favorite plants and make a beautiful pathway to get to it. You can use mulch or gravel for paving around it so you have somewhere to stand and tend to it.
  • DON’T put a stand alone grill in the back of the garden. If you have a stand alone grill and a dining table, it will become inconvenient and frankly irritating to go back and forth to the house kitchen for supplies. For stand alone grills, the best place is with short, direct access to the kitchen door.
  • DO put a full outdoor kitchen deep into the garden. Fully stocked outdoor kitchens will have cabinets, drawers, a trash can—plenty of room to store dishes, utensils and even food and beverages. This makes it not only convenient, but also an excellent way to be sure draw them in deep.
Complete outdoor kitchen under covered patio in far corner of garden.

When designing a garden the best way to ensure that you draw them in deep and achieve the goal of using all of your available space is to resist the “junk drawer” scenario by working in ample storage space to your design. This way you have the things you need tucked away out of site leaving the usable space ready to be used.

Don’t relinquish precious square footage. Get the most out of your garden design by creating the rooms you most want to enjoy to relax, dine, and play!

Have fun!

Boundless Landscape Border Ideas

glass landscape border
Garden in West Seattle with a super-cool idea to separate the front yard from slope out front.

Landscape border ideas? “Boring!” you might be thinking. But wait a sec. Borders are brilliant! Something as simple and straightforward as that border can be the difference between a basic garden and a spectacularly innovative one. Perhaps you think I’m over-selling a bit here, but I assure you, this is exactly the detail that makes a garden stand out.

It’s true, in the most basic terms, borders are just lines in the ground that divide two spaces. But before you draw one of those basic lines in the garden with some bender board you must first ask yourself, What do I want from this design? Do I want a nature-scape where the borders are invisible—grasses, perennials and trailing vines tumbling over one another to make a sea of horticultural communion? Or do I want to separate the garden and the turf to let each region of the garden shine on its own?

Either way, never overlook this oft missed opportunity to insert your own panache into your design.

An aside about Turf

I’m going to break a little blogging rule now and mention turf which is not our main topic of conversation here. It’s related however, and, in my opinion, an important aside. There’s a huge movement for removing lawns, particularly in the hotter, drier regions of the US. The primary goal is to dramatically reduce water usage. There are numerous other angles to explore as well. I have strong opinions about this, and I assure you we will discuss it at length, so I encourage you to stay tuned for our series entitled To Grass or Not to Grass, which will look at these issues and investigate design solutions for turf and turf-free gardens. This post is not that space. Right here, we’re just acknowledging that lawns exist and they often require borders. No judgement! Ok, back to the subject at hand…

FUNCTION: Why Do We Need Borders in the Landscape?

landscape edging with river rock
The edging in front of the stone prevents grass from creeping in.

Separation. A little distance. That’s all we’re trying to do. We want our garden residents—turf, decomposed granite (referred to as dg), shrubs etc.—to stay on their own sides. First let’s look at how things spread.

Grass: By it’s nature, turf grass is a spreader. It either uses underground runners (rhizomes) or above ground runners (stolons) to propagate itself and take over any non paved area within reach. Without a border it’s grass, grass everywhere!

DG: It is strong and inexpensive and if it’s stabilized with a polymer it can be as hard as, well, rock. It’s an excellent choice for walkways and patios. Nonstabilized dg however, has a consistency not much firmer than wet sand. Without a proper border, dg will spill out into the surrounding areas, look messy, alter the soil biology and ultimately cause your space to lose shape.

These are just two factors that make landscape borders so important!

FORM: Why do we need borders in the Landscape?

Because they look great! We now know what can happen if we don’t install physical barriers, but looking beyond that the most important part of garden design is making every item look intentional. The hard objects that help us keep things separate in the garden are just as important and can be just as interesting as the plants they are there to retain.

basic landscape BORDER MATERIALS

Here are the super basic choices for borders. Note I didn’t say bad choices. Every one of them serves a purpose and may be the perfect one for your needs. Here are 7 of the most common ones. I’ll discuss the top three.

  • Benderboard
  • Steel edging
  • River rock
  • Concrete Band
  • Brick
  • Concrete paver
  • Wood
steel edge landscape border
Clean, invisible line of the steel edge

Benderboard vs. Steel Edging
In a battle between the two, steel edging is the clear winner, hands down. It comes in 20’ powder coated 4” sheets of brown, black and sometimes green. You get steel stakes with your purchase to anchor it into the ground, and it is sturdy stuff! The reason I prefer it is that it makes a very clean line—straight or curvy—and it almost never comes popping out of the ground when it’s installed correctly. The cost is typically around $55 per 20′ panel

Benderboard, on the other hand comes in two varieties: one is brown, about 1/4” thick x 5” high, comes in 40’ rolls and is made of HDPE plastic and also comes with plastic stakes, the other is a black edge with a rounded bubble at the top and made of an unspecified plastic. The black one, I never use, ever. It simply looks unprofessional and will often start inching it’s way out of the ground as soon as you turn your back on it. But at a cost of only around $25 for a 40′ roll plus installation, it is an adequate cost effective substitute.

river rock landscape border

River Rock
The third basic edging material is river rock. By this, I’m referring to the white-ish speckled stones that are relatively consistent at about 6”-9” in size, although you can certainly find them somewhat, and even much larger. I often see them used as borders in a garden, marched in a single file row around turf areas. While, I myself often use them in my borders, I assure you that this application (the single row of matching rocks) is not an elegant choice. But we’ll get to design in a moment.

River Rock Pro-Tip: The most important thing to know if you are using river rock is that you must ALSO add edging first! Rocks do not a true border make. These rocks, when laid out, leave holes and openings for sneaky creepy grass to find its way in, or dg to find its way out. If you’re going to be there to maintain the garden and keep the grasses at bay then have at it. But it’s a risky move and extremely frustrating and time consuming to keep that mess managed. I know! I’ve made that mistake exactly 3 times before figuring it out.

Beautiful landscape Border Materials

We know that borders are used to divide spaces, and that’s really all there is to it. No one ever said that it had to be rocks or a straight piece of metal or plastic. Somehow, over time however, that’s just what evolved in most typical gardens. But there are so many interesting materials out there that can be repurposed and used to do the same job.

I have a husband and wife client pair, one is an artist who works with pottery. Along the side of their property lived stacks of cast off bricks, multi-celled cement blocks, and pile upon pile of broken and unused pieces of the artist’s pottery. It was an absolute gold mine!

I started out using some randomly sized rocks and boulders and then interspersed small groups of varying patterns of old bricks and blocks. Finally I selected uncommon and exceptional pieces of pottery from what she referred to as the “chard pile” and voila! We had a border, literally unlike any other!

So many different materials to make a whimsical and unusual border.

unconventional border material ideas

I was lucky with that project. It’s not often that you find such a unique assortment materials all in one place and at no charge. You can however keep your eyes open for all kinds of items that would work well in your border. Here are a few examples of borders I’ve designed and others that I’ve seen and either fallen in love with or been intrigued and amused by.

  • A trench of pea gravel with tumbled glass. Contain it in edging with landscape fabric underneath to prevent weeds from emerging and rocks from sinking.
  • Spanish roof tiles on their ends to create an “S” curve.
  • PVC or metal drain pipe cut to varying sizes. Place on ends in the ground, then add plants into the actual pipes. Cascading plants such as Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ or a wild strawberry would do the trick.
  • Gabions. Wire frames filled with rocks or any other chunky type of material. In collaboration with another designer, we once made gabions out of broken tiles and tea sets and won an award for it!
  • Dried bamboo poles—anything from 2” to 5” in diameter, cut to varying heights and “planted” on their ends. It makes an interesting natural edging with a twist.
  • Flagstone “planted” vertically to be about 6”-9” high, and irregularly organized: this is a great choice if you’ve had a recent flagstone project because there’s almost always leftover pieces that are too small for paving. Use these smaller pieces to make a low vertical border.
  • Skateboards. They will degrade but that’s part of the charm. I recommend wood decks not plastic. The plastic turns to powder with over exposure to sun and moisture.
  • Metal car rims (avoid plastic. See above). You get the best impact with a variety of designs!
  • Bicycle rims. Unlike with the car rims, bike rims are finer and thiner and look modern and streamlined when you use matching ones. But if you want to avoid the problem of many things marching in a row, it would be interesting to bury them to varying depths to make the border of a varying height.
  • Glass wine or other beverage bottles turned upside down and “planted”. Caution: don’t use clear. They get dirty and moldy inside and it’s unsightly. Darkly colored bottles mask this problem.

Try mixing materials! Bottles, bamboo and drain pipe—all round objects—can be combined to make a dynamically interesting, colorful and extraordinary border. If you’re adding something like rims or skateboards, it’s likely going to be difficult to find enough of them to make a complete border with only that subject. Consider using boulders and river rock to supplement with these special items.

So, what do you think? I hope now that you’ve poured over some of these unconventional landscape border ideas that you’ve come up with some of your own. I find that once you break away from the home improvement or landscape supply center’s choices for border materials, you begin to look around your world and consider everything a possibility. As long as you continue doing that, you are going to create some killer gardens!

Send me photos of your great borders and I’ll happily post them here!

Good luck! -Natalie

LANDSCAPE DESIGN IDEAS: Straight Lines, Voluptuous Curves

Straight lines, voluptuous curves

Which Is Right For Your Garden Design?

When you’re designing a new garden, picking plants may be fun but don’t run off to the nursery just yet! Let’s talk lines. Do you like firm, straight ones or curvy, voluptuous ones? I have great news! You don’t have to choose only one! Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too—straight lines and voluptuous curves. But there’s a right and a wrong way to do it.

Landscape Design Theory
Way back when I was taking my very first landscape design course, we were taught the two primary approaches to landscape design—rectilinear, with straight lines and precise angles, to create a formal and balanced look, and curvilinear, with free flowing lines to create a fluid and informal landscape. Over my twenty years in the industry these design principles have been reliable foundations to my designs. Early on, however, I discovered that melding the two can make magic!

Choosing only lines or curves when you’ve got a blank slate is easy, but as a designer or a homeowner, we typically start with some non-negotiables. Perhaps there is an existing rectangular, concrete patio, or a kidney shaped pool. Those are fixed objects that need to be preserved but don’t necessarily need to dictate that every other feature must mimic it. The key is to introduce complementary shapes, not necessarily identical ones.

Combine lines and curves
Let’s take a rectangular patio as our example today. One way to incorporate a curved walkway into this fixed element is to apply the rule of thirds. Imagine the rectangle being divided into 3 equal parts. Intersect your new curvy walkway 1/3 of the way from the end, not in the middle or at either end of the patio. This innately creates intrigue and interest as you interact with the landscape.

Next, create your curves. I recommend sweeping, undulating curves. In a walkway, make them uneven so it widens and narrows. This creates an informal and natural path which can be enhanced by plants gently spilling over the edges.

Once you have the design is in place visitors are forced to walk through the patio to get to the walkway, and again, through the garden. In this way they experience the whole garden, not simply zip past it.

Pitfall Warning

  • Avoid perfectly symmetrical curves. They seem unnatural and forced.
  • Avoid subtle curves. They appear to be a installation mistake.
  • Be intentional, always.

The wonderful thing about a curvy walkway or wall that is anchored with firm lines and angles is that it gives you the opportunity to create an informal, maybe even wistful garden, while maintaining a sense of order and structure.

If we then take this idea to the next stage, you can add shrubs, perennials and a tree on one side and a drought tolerant turf or ground cover on the other. Or if you’re going turf-free, plants all around!

If you only want straight lines in your design

Now, circling back to our original design theories we can see what the same patio would look like if we used a purely rectilinear design approach. The drawing below shows that adding straight lines for your walkway is a great solution for a different style garden. In the case of a formal or modern theme it is no doubt the best choice.

Know the rules. Then bend them.

Great design, be it in the landscape, in the home or in any other creative field, has rules. Curvilinear and rectilinear are just two of the foundational ones. As designers you need to first know the rules before breaking or bending them. They serve as guideposts in creating beautiful, accessible and functional gardens. And once you know how to use these important design tools, you will be able to manipulate them just enough to create unexpected and breathtaking results, every single time.

Good luck!