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Landscaping Ideas: 11 Design Mistakes to Avoid

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Landscaping Ideas: 11 Design Mistakes to Avoid

April 14, 2021

Early spring is the season of hope: for the most beautiful garden ever. And you can have that. You also can lay the most charming front path in the history of hardscaping projects. And create the most welcoming outdoor living space that mankind has known. All you have to do is avoid 11 common landscape design mistakes. Here’s how.

Add pots, not pandemonium.

Potted plants on my front porch don&#8\2\17;t distract from the view. See the rest of my garden in our Gardenista book. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista.
Above: Potted plants on my front porch don’t distract from the view. See the rest of my garden in our Gardenista book. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista.

Potted plants are accessories and, as with jewelry, less can be more. You wouldn’t wear diamond earrings, a turquoise necklace, an emerald flower brooch, and a jangling charm bracelet together. Nor should you group together mismatched pots of different styles and random sizes.

Create a group of two or three pots of similar colors, materials, and size for harmony. When choosing container plants, redundancy is good. If you repeat a particular plant in each pot, you will create a visual refrain to make containers look purposeful. When in doubt, plant an evergreen shrub such as boxwood to give containers a strong silhouette.

Buy small.

Photograph by Marie Viljoen.
Above: Photograph by Marie Viljoen.

It’s tempting to buy the biggest plants available to make a garden look more mature, especially if you are getting a tree or plants for a privacy hedge. But the price of impatience is high. A plant in a one-gallon pot costs approximately $5, whereas a five-gallon pot may be $20. After two or three years, you won’t see a difference.

Frame a view.

Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista.
Above: Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista.

Don’t pass up the opportunity to design a garden to be enjoyed from indoors. What’s the view through your window? It should frame the garden. Place focal points in strategic spots and create garden vignettes for each window.

Leave room to breathe.

Above: Photograph by Nicole Franzen. Bare spots in April will disappear by summer. For more of this classic Mediterranean garden, see A Modern California Garden Inspired by the Classics.

Plants grow. Repeat that until you believe it. We all want to ignore spacing recommendations to avoid bare spots when planting a garden. But if you do, your garden beds will soon be too crowded, forcing you to pull out plants you paid for not so long ago. It’s OK to see bare spots, especially in early spring.

Remember the four seasons.

Photograph by Frank Heijligers. For more of this garden, see Expert Advice: 9 Tips for a Colorful Winter Garden.
Above: Photograph by Frank Heijligers. For more of this garden, see Expert Advice: 9 Tips for a Colorful Winter Garden.

Every garden looks beautiful the last week in May and the first week in June. But you also must look at yours the other 50 weeks of the year. Don’t make the mistake of limiting your plant choices to spring and early summer bloomers. Roses, irises, and peonies are wonderful garden companions, but you can’t rely solely on them. Consider plants that look good year-round such as evergreen shrubs and trees with interesting bark and perennial grasses, which can turn into lovely straw-colored feathers in winter.

Celebrate simplicity.

Above: Julie’s mossy patio looks perfect just the way it is. Wonder how a rug would look? See Domestic Dispatches: 5 Outdoor Rugs for Julie.

While it’s nice to blur indoor and outdoor boundaries to increase your usable space, don’t try to turn your garden into just another living room. Remember you came outdoors because you want to experience nature.

Do you really need indoor furnishings such as rugs and reading lamps in an outdoor space? Mossy brick underfoot (as shown) makes a lovelier carpet than any woven material.

Avoid curb repel.

Above: Does your house have this much curb appeal? If not, see 11 Ways to Add Curb Appeal for Under $100.

The opposite of curb appeal is a house with a cracked concrete path, peeling paint, and a dented mailbox. Go stand in the street, face your house, and look at it with a critical eye. Do you need new house numbers? A glossy coat of paint on the front door? A new gate latch? Those are easy fixes that will make a big impact.

Choose comfort.

Above: LA jewelry designer Kathleen Whitaker has an inviting seating arrangement in her backyard. For more of her garden, see At Home with Jeweler Kathleen Whitaker in LA.

Just because outdoor furniture needs to be durable doesn’t mean it should be uncomfortable. Weather resistant doesn’t have to be hard, scratchy, splintery, or cold. Choose chairs with wide seats and sofas deep enough to sink into with a good book. Be generous when it comes to padding: cushions and pillows add comfort.

Arrange an outdoor seating area as if it were a living room. Make sure there are tables on which to set glasses and armrests on chairs.

Plant a serene palette.

Above: When you’re designing a planting scheme, pick a limited palette and stick to it. Silver, blue, and purple plants (shown) harmonize beautifully, for instance. While rainbow colors in full bloom look utterly tempting at the nursery, they can be as jarring as a slash of too-red lipstick after you get them home.

A good rule is to pick a three-color palette (plus white-flowering plants as an accent). For more of our favorite plant color schemes, see Garden Visit: Vita’s Sunset Garden and Color Theory: 10 Perfect Plant Combinations.

Pare down hardscape.

Above: SF-based landscape architect Scott Lewis created a spacious feeling in a small city backyard through the judicious use of hardscape materials. For more of this garden, see Scott Lewis Turns a Small SF Backyard into an Urban Oasis.

Don’t make the mistake of installing hardscape materials that clash. The color of your deck and front path should complement the color of your roof and your front door. Limit the number of materials you use and when laying brick or stone in a pattern, remember that quieter is almost always better. For example, bluestone pavers laid in a simple running bond pattern (shown) create a soothing backdrop to allow plants to steal the show.

Focus on foliage.

Above: A hellebore in a shady Brooklyn backyard. For more of this garden, see The Magicians: An English Professor and a Novelist Conjure a Garden in Brooklyn. Photograph by Nicole Franzen for Gardenista.

Don’t buy plants for their flowers. Buy plants for their leaves—texture, shape, color—because their leaves are what you are going to see most of the year.

For more landscape tips and garden design trends, see:

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