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Winter Landscaping Tips, Tricks & Ideas

Winter is when so many homeowners realize the backbone of their yard’s landscape is too barebones to be interesting. Without the defining structures like evergreen trees, pergolas or pathways, garden landscapes gone dormant can look barren. While in winter, it’s too late to plant berry plants and too cold to build a retaining wall, but there are plenty of ways to add immediate interest to your yard, and at the same time plan for next year’s winter landscape.

Why it Works to Decorate Your Yard in Winter Time

Instead of regretting you didn’t get your winterscape planned in time for winter, you can add instant color, texture and form to your garden landscape with other structural elements—from benches to boxes. A few well-placed items transform the view out your window and create a picture for people driving by.

By decorating with garden items and things you already have, you save money while personalizing your winter landscape. In the process, you have the opportunity to study and plan your yard’s design for future seasons.

Create Focal Points for Winter Contrast

Garden architecture, from big to small, provides needed contrast against faded winter backdrops. Even a solitary pot, or a clump of long grass, stand out with winter interest. Anything can become an architectural element—from sculpture and statuary, to boulders and birdfeeders. String some tiny outdoor lights almost anywhere for effect.

An arrangement of outdoor furniture or a bench under a tree creates a congenial scene. Paint an old chair in a bold or subtle color. Drape a few antique garden tools on top of a small table.

So-called junk, like vintage farm implements, becomes art with character. Fill a wheelbarrow or a crate with logs, greenery or favorite trinkets.

Paint a gate or part of a fence. Take advantage of architectural pieces you come across. A section of fencing or a decorative panel leaning in the garden or against the house adds new dimension. So does a castoff window frame or a detached door with some original décor attached to it.

Consider the many possibilities of garden art—from metal sculptures to birdhouses and plant stakes to rustic signs.

Plan Your Spring and Summer Garden

Winter is the perfect time to study the bare bones of your garden landscape and plan its future design. As you add focal points to this year’s winter landscape with furniture or sculpture, think about year-round possibilities.

You might not have a pond, pathway or arbor in place now, but now is the time to imagine where those elements would best be situated within your landscape. Notice the shapes and outlines of existing trees and plants and where spaces need to be filled in. Visualize where hedges, stonewalls or walkways will provide natural borders and functional flow to your garden and yard.

Turn Winter Interest into Enduring Design

By decorating your yard in the winter, you have the opportunity to study the bare bones of its underlying structure and plan for year-round design elements.

An out-of-season landscape lets you see what’s missing. You can see where to plant evergreens for greenery, deciduous trees with interesting branches, shrubs or berries. You can determine colors, which will enhance pathways, arbors and other hardscaping.

But no matter how nondescript your yard looks in winter, you can make it more interesting with a few well-placed objects. It will transform the view out your window and your home’s curb appeal.

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How to Create a Successful Hardscape

Hardscaping is an attractive feature and offers many appealing options, from a rustic stacked wall to a fully developed outdoor living room and kitchen. Once you’ve decided to create an outdoor space, you must plan carefully to meet your hardscaping goals.

“Research really pays off, especially when you consider that a fixed object in the landscape is not going to move easily — and you don’t want to put in a lot of effort and then have your materials or design fail within a couple of years,” says Samuel Salsbury, a member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers and partner with Sabrena Schweyer, APLD, in Salsbury-Schweyer, an Akron, Ohio-based landscape design group.

By following these simple tips and avoiding some common mistakes, you can create hardscaping you’ll love for years to come.

Consider the Landscaping

As much as you can, consider the entire area available to you for hardscaping before you design an element, even if you’re just tackling one space for now.

“At the bare minimum you should plan a design for the whole area, or consult a professional to create a design for you,” Samuel says. “If you don’t consider the site comprehensively, it’s like building one room of a house, and then a year or so later, a second room. You may decide to plop down a patio, and then decide you want a barbecue, pond or walkway and the patio blocks your plan.”

Delve Into Draining Issues

Samuel says he’s seen more hardscapes messed up by people ignoring drainage requirements than by all the other errors combined.

“You must plan how the drainage will be affected when you place, say, a wall or a patio,” Samuel says.

There’s also an environmental consideration, says Weston, Wisc. landscape designer Susan Murphy. “You should plan runoff so you can capture the water and use it on site, instead of letting it hit that concrete and go down the drainage pipe.”

Develop a Focal Point

“You want the eye to travel toward a destination, and one or two visual elements that make you pause, either visually or literally, like a weeping evergreen with an Oriental lantern,” Susan says.

Choose Balanced Elements

Susan’s pet peeve? “Boulders that are supposed to be helping to naturalize an area, but instead have been dropped right on top of the ground and are sitting there like dinosaur eggs,” she says. “To successfully use boulders in hardscape, you need to make sure they’re large enough to fit with the scale of the landscape, and bury them deep enough so they look like a naturally-occurring element.”

Too-linear elements can create the same unnatural feel, says Sabrena, a certified landscape designer. “I see way too many people plop in a straight or L-shaped sidewalk, or stick a linear or rectangular patio or deck on the back of the house without giving further thought to the natural lines of the space,” she says. “You should try to include curves and shapes in a way that the hardscape elements transition gracefully into the rest of the landscape.”

Keep the Greenery

Sure, you see all-stone or concrete areas in the Southwest, says Susan, but there the focus on hardscapes can be a matter of necessity, not a trend to follow. “Southwesterners sometimes have to have a hardscape without greenery due to the strong sun and too little water,” she says. Everyone else, she says, should definitely include ample vegetation in relationship to hard surfaces.

Barbara Pleasant, author of “Garden Stone: Creative Landscaping with Plants and Stone” takes the idea even further. “You can have a beautiful backyard comprised of a hardscape framed by shrub and flowerbeds, but keeping a small swath of lawn is a good idea,” she says. “Grass is a safer playing surface for children, and a patch of turf will help cool down the landscape on hot, sunny days.”

Choose Proper Materials for Your Style

“Hardscapes can be relaxed or formal, but the best ones show a well-defined style,” Barbara says. “Think of a two- or three-word phrase that describes your vision and stick with it. An intimate courtyard, for example, has little in common with a Grecian garden when it comes to style.”

After selecting your style, choose a few materials that complement your home’s interior and exterior. You don’t want to have to look at a hardscape with all one color or material, Samuel says.

“The idea is to find two or three materials that are visually creative and coordinate not just with each other but with the interior and exterior of the house,” says Susan.

Textural variety is important, too, Barbara says. “In most hardscapes, it’s OK to have two textures going, for example flagstone underfoot and landscape blocks for low walls, but more than two textures tends to look messy. If a wood deck is part of the picture, try to stick with a single type of stone or brick for your hardscape,” she adds.

Call In the Experts

Hire a designer or landscape consultant who knows your style. If you do opt for a hired designer or contractor, get recommendations and check portfolios and references, says Samuel.

Samuel insists that anyone embarking on a project that involves a structural wall or a hill with stability issues first contact — or have their builder contact — a geotechnical engineer to discuss the implications.

“They can prevent really serious damage, or you get the best case scenario, which is when they come out and say, ‘I don’t see an issue.'”

Buy More Than You Need

“Whether you’re working with brick, stone or another material, buy a little more than you need for the project,” Barbara says. “Later on, you can use the extra materials to accent pretty beds with temporary edgings, or to add steppingstones or landings, knowing these little features will match the dominant hardscape.”

“It’s rarely a cost-effective strategy just to purchase the least expensive materials or services for a hardscape design — too often you get what you pay for,” says Sabrena. “There are a lot of considerations besides price, including how long a material will last and whether it will suit the architecture of your site. It makes more sense to economize by scaling back a project or the number of design elements, with the help of a cost-conscious professional, then to always buy the least expensive materials.”

Properly Prepare the Site

“The most common mistake I see people make is putting in a hardscape element without preparing the site appropriately, which is a sure formula for future failure,” says Susan. “If you don’t put the correct amount of base material down, or compact it well enough, you risk having a wall sink or settle or a patio settle and heave in frost.”

Not everyone needs the 4-foot frost footing that’s required to withstand Wisconsin winters, but you can determine the specifications in your area by talking to an inspector at your local building authority or contacting the American Landscape and Nursery Association (ALNA) or your state landscaping association.

Samuel says, “People who aren’t skilled tradespeople think, ‘If I can’t see it, it’s not worth spending the money,’ but a level surface to build on and the proper depth for the freeze line are everything in hardscaping. If you don’t have them, five years out, your project will be breaking up.”

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