Give Your Garden Some Backbone

By Steven V. Philips –

A biologist I’m not but a designer of things I am.

So when a biologist explained to me, the pencil-pushing dirt digger, that animals with a backbone are called vertebrates, I started using that word a lot. Vertebrates. Gives me gravitas. Just like using Latin names of plants to impress a client. “We’ll install a pair of 4″ caliper Acer Saccharum along the rear property line.” You pitch words like that and just watch your fee go up! And if you add, “that will give your garden a strong statement of tertiary hues in the autumn,” you better believe that new onyx and beige Lexus is damn near yours.

Back to reality. Your garden should be like a vertebrate. Give it a backbone, unlike your first husband. We, in the compost crowd, call that hardscape. Or we may just yell, “those rocks sit here and over there and the walkway goes through the arbor here, out to there and back and it’s because I said so!” Sometimes I’m that bossy, though my daughter claims as I’m a sole proprietor, “You are the boss of nobody.”

But, you get my drift. Without hardscape, (backbone!) plus non-growing garden decor features, you will have a wishy-washy mess forever. I daresay, spineless. Since my Lexus is aging, translate these fee-increasing words: “thinkus et plannus for a whileorum beforus.” Or “hire me,” if you don’t understand my Latinesque.

For successful yards, I’m into planning-that-gives-happy-visual surprises. And, OK, also I don’t know from classic formal design. Keep that quiet please.

Forget the lawn in the center (out with your accursed cricket field, Anne) and plantings on the sides. Instead, transform the entire space by weaving a pathway (hardscape) in a big, squiggly loop away from the house and then back. Use pavers, mulch or large stone-to-stone path with mulch surrounding. If you’re a glutton for maintenance, use grass, you young silly.

And simple benches (what are these called, students? Hardscape? Correct!) along the path to sit and enjoy your Eden.

Along this winding path create areas we in the biz call garden rooms. Over here are the perennials, there are the succulents, here are the bromeliads, then the herbs. Or whatever you Northerners plant for your 57 days of summer. Plant that Acer Saccharum, or a Quercus, as cover for the shade-loving specimens. (Notice I use “specimens” rather than “plants”? Very intimidating, no?) Now, divide these areas with screening shrubs so you experience each distinctive room as, but not before, you get there.

You could take the terrain you inherited as is. Better idea? Add fill for sloping hills or carve terrain down from flat areas. Or crazy you, do both! Large stone (s) set into mounds. Use one or three because even numbers tend to be boring. We designers adore odd numbers. Plant amongst the rocks. Insert a water feature – as in pond(s), 300 to 500 gallon size. (Put electric next to it for circulating pump)

Remember that bird feeders and bird baths bring moving sculptures into the garden and are so worth it! And as I said in August, pre-plan for more faucets (plumbers call them hose bibbs) conveniently around the garden. Yes, and electric lines for lighting. Another important topic for another time. But, budget for night lighting.

Now students repeat: hardscape = backbone = appeal

• Mounds of earth built up to vary the topography are known to my generation as “Sasaki mounds” after the well-known landscape architect Hideo Sasaki. Throw that term out to intimidate those Latin talkers.

• Note about “surprise” elements: cutting the phone/cable/water line is not a good surprise, so check before you dig.

• Obviously, I hope you’ll drag in the rocks and/or do the dirt sculpture before anything else!

• Let me add to the British critic who corrected me: “in the UK everyone plays cricket.” OK, maybe, but who won the Revolutionary War? Try to keep up here! Mother country indeed!

Typical hardscape elements are:

* patio or deck
* water feature – swimming pool, fountain, fish pond, bird bath
* pathways of stone, mulch, gravel, brick, concrete
* pool house or cabana
* wall, fence, gate
* arbor, pergola ($10 word), trellis
* fire pit, barbecue station, pizza oven
* metal, ceramic, mosaic outdoor art
* furniture
* lighting
* life-size statue of S.V. Philips

12 thoughts on “Give Your Garden Some Backbone”

  1. Hardscape is probably just the answer we needed for our sorry backyard. We have plugged, sodded, cleared out oak tree limbs, but to no avail.

    Now the problem is finding someone to do it for us. Any suggestions?

    Great article,who knew it could be so easy.

  2. Very nice!
    The info is great and the pictures of the landscape make it look very inviting. It looks like the way to go in our backyard.
    The only thing is they were out of “life size statues of Steven V. Phillips” at the Home Depot (absum statua heros) Any suggestions?

  3. Wonderful ideas! I hate grass & all the chemicals & water that go along with it to keep it looking green. Love the weaving path suggestion. I have been inspired to pull out a three foot brass dolphin that has been in my garage since we moved from MN. It will brighten up my back yard, right?

  4. I have had thoughts of doing this sort of yard decorating, but needed the confidence that Mr. Philips inspires. Here up north, not everything grows as rapidly or profusely, so filling in larger spaces with hardscape will seem to decrease the amount of time spent weeding and watering etc.

    I have been enjoying Mr. Philips articles and the way he presents what could be a dry and somber topic into a humorous and enlightening event. I look forward to his next article and just wonder what he might cover in the months to come.

  5. I like the idea of creating separate sections within the larger garden, right now I have a mix of everything all over the place…it’s a mess, you said you’re for hire??

  6. Great article! I just saw these at Target the other day and was impressed. Your review answered the questions I had about the seats – now I just need to scrape together the cash! Ouch!

  7. Great article on how to totally re-arrange eight years of purchasing bushes ,shrubs,grasses and the like.207, at last count. It makes my back ache just thinking about getting started. As Mr Phillips pointed out, we only have 57 days to accomplish all these labors.Maybe I could entice Mr Phillips to come to Connecticut to assist?????? Keep the great articles coming

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