Garden design tips

Garden ideas for Tacoma and Olympia

We came back from the 2021 Portland Landscape Architecture + Design Tour with some great pictures to help you with some design choices in your own garden. We managed to see eight of the nine gardens on display (we had six hours to do it and some gardens were 30 minutes of more apart from each other). We were pretty excited to see as much as we did. Following are photos and notes of what we liked.

We not always a huge fan of modern design, because many folks make these gardens look more like a quilt or a grange’s county fair display. But this work by Fusion Landscape Design rooted their work to form a solid, strongly structured composition that had us standing across the street looking for the secrets that made this design work. We walked away convinced it was the repetition of miscanthas grass moving in perpendicular fashion and mirrored through the back gate, as well as the second tier of the front beds plus the steps down from the door forming the basic principals of the Golden Ratio, offset, by the front row of grass, closest to the street, split in a different geometry. The whole thing is a lovely movement rooted in classic shapes. We also loved how the designer took the age-old concrete steps that are a fixture of the neighborhood, which harkens back to the 1940’s, and repeated that style in the backyard, plus, whimsically, brought the line under the fence to the front. Here are three other photos from the garden …

Next …

This garden designed by Olivine Land showed us a couple things we found delightful. First, we loved the off-kilter facing half circle shapes formed in a rectangle side yard (try saying that ten times fast). This creates great movement and unpredictability plus runs counter to its location to the street that runs straight on both sides. Second, here is an awesome use of pampas grass in a layered bed … loved it!! Here are a couple other beds created by Land on this property …

And next …

How about a 60 foot putting green in your yard? The folks at GRO Outdoor Living put this bad boy on the third level of a retained backyard. Not only was that super cool, but check out the outdoor speakers.

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Talk about an awesome focal point. Casa Smith Designs put this in a Lake Oswego home to provide a wonderful mid-break in the long view from the house and front patio down to the lake. Breaking up a long view to let the eyes rest for a moment is a key design concept. This fountain was perfectly set to the scale of the front yard and house which makes such a large one work (you can’t carry this off in a smaller space). The proportions of this focal point are spot on!!! Here is what we also like about this design. Check out the orange edging on the circle drive. The contrast to the other colors are stellar, but also complimentary to some of the orange colors in the other stone.

Moving on to the next house …

Bethany Rydmark :: Landscapes tackled a small backyard for homeowners looking to mix a Mediterranean feel with Scandinavian influences, calling it Puglia surrounded by coastal Denmark. The paths are a nod to Danish runes with sharp angles and natural stone (incredibly unique and well executed) while the plants are for a drier climate packed with grasses and sun loving perennials and shrubs (and a few ferns in the shady spots). It’s a lovely balance. Here is more …

Also from Rydmark …

This Beverton home is a combo of formal and informal that is solidly rooted in the space offering a balanced left and right but not a 100% mirror on both sides … which is what makes it so well designed. There is just enough formal structure to make us feel safe and comfortable in the space, but entertained by the whimsy at the same time. We are also huge fans of sitting spaces further inside a garden to move the homeowner into the entire space and not just an observer from inside or the main deck. The garden also features a nice cutting garden with fountain …

And now for something a little different …

This is not a garden installation by a designer … it is a designers garden that has been curated for 18 years. Which is so cool it was included on the tour because for many of us designers, we cut our teeth in our own spaces where we’ve had the benefit of years to work the space. This garden in Clackamas by 4 Seasons Gardens is a delightful peak into an Asian-themed space that has been tinkered with by a professional for decades. The layers, hardscapes, dry creek bed, art and more bring all of the key elements of design into a classroom. This is a study in texture, color, shape, scale, and so much more. A treasure!!

The homeowner in this north Portland home says they wanted a drought-resistant garden with a beach theme, and the designers at LEVER Architecture accomplished that in spades. Working around the sides and back of the house are vignettes of beachy grasses with dark railings and burndt orange screens. The effect is marvelous. On the shady side the grass gets more lush, as seen here …

Garden design tips

We added an ideabook on Houzz

See our post on layered gardens … here

Garden design tips

3-D mock ups

One of the great things about designing gardens is showing clients what there gardens can become using 3-D pictures and drawings. This really helps a homeowner imagine the options. We use Vectorworks for our CAD system but also add other elements via Canva to build out a bigger picture. Below are some examples of these.

Garden design tips Garden Health

Benefits of an informal garden

The number of anecdotal studies pointing to natural, green space as not only calming, but physically healing, is abundant in scientific, religious and metaphysical papers, articles, books, videos and even Ted Talks over the past 30 years (though discussed for millennia). 

In more recent years, scientists have studied brain waves in controlled research to support those claims.  Less, however, has been studied on what “types” of gardens are more restorative to our mind and body … until recently.  In 2016, a group of researchers provided evidence to what many designers already guessed – informal gardens, those mimicking the “natural world,” are more restorative than formal spaces.

“Conceptually, gardens are often considered to be restorative spaces and to contain an abundance of natural elements, though there is great variability in how gardens are designed that might impact their restorative potential” stated authors in a study titled Designed Natural Spaces: Informal Gardens Are Perceived to Be More Restorative than Formal Gardens, by Twedt, Rainey, Proffitt, in Frontiers in Psychology, 2016. “Participants perceived informal gardens to have greater restorative potential than formal gardens. In addition, gardens that were more visually appealing and more natural-looking were perceived to have greater restorative potential than less visually appealing and less natural gardens.”

You can take these words to heart in your garden designs in the following ways.

1. Keep paths wavy and adjacent to free-flowing, less manicured plants.

2. Look for ways to have a “local” feel with trees and native flowers you see in natural areas close to your home.

3. Keep your outside less paved over with sitting places surrounded by nature.

4. Choose plants that attract wildlife.

5. Avoid the tendency to make everything centered. Align the design in terms of the Golden Ratio and Fibonacci sequence. Google these terms and learn more about them.

6. Don’t deadhead and cut everything to the ground the minute they look dead or ragged. Give nature her due – allow the beauty of seed heads and more to add to the complexity of the garden space, especially over the winter.

You will be amazed at what an informal garden can do for you and your guests. As the study suggests …

“These … green spaces (are) intended to provide relief from stress and to foster cognitive restoration.” (Twedt, Rainey, Proffitt)

Garden design tips

Great Bluestone for aggregate side by side … go “off color”

Most people would call aggregate patios grey. But take a closer look. Most likely there is a ton of brown and blue rock in there too – not to mention yellow, white and more. So when wanting to design with a complimentary rock, I love the Pennsylvania Bluestone “off color.” This is perfect for steps leading off an aggregate patio, for example.

The off color Bluestone has a more natural look – and it really picks up what else is happening in and around the aggregate patio. With all of the browns in the dirt, stems and more, I like a little brown in my Bluestone.

Some people also choose the off color for their patio. Take a look here for an example. I’d go for this look any time you want a little informality in the garden, as well as garden designs that are wooded.

Pennsylvania Bluestone is a popular hardscape for gardeners – especially the all blue rock. Pure Bluestone is popular for both formal and modern gardens.

Garden design tips

Adding to nature’s design

A design technique calls for bringing focus down to a path and then encouraging visitors to walk on that path. While in Oregon, I snapped this picture of a pine forest. I love how the scale in this space is grand and beautifully composed with a path that moves through it like a stream. To highlight the design technique of drawing the visitor’s eyes to the path, plus encouraging them to follow the path, I added some Digitalis (Foxglove) which does well under pine trees to show this process. Notice how the Foxglove is positioned not just in front, but is carried throughout the path to keep the motion moving. This repetition of one plant also works well when moving a visitor forward.

Garden design tips

The scary sounds of silence

Three “sound” principles guide our design choices with customers.  1. Natural sounds like water and birds have been proven to relieve stress. 2. A silent space means danger and should be avoided.  3. Studies have proven that urban noise has a negative effect on health.

“Nature sounds have been used therapeutically to relieve stress, and perceived restoration and attention recovery have shown positive reactions to birdsong.” (A Review of the Benefits of Nature Experiences: More Than Meets the Eye, Franco, Shanahan, Fuller, 2017, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.). According to this research, forest sounds have been found “to improve stress recovery more than the same forest without sound, implying that the sympathetic nervous system shows increased recovery with nature sounds.”

While this is desired, it is also important to avoid what is not positive for health and healing. Spaces without sound, or completely quiet, are not considered “zen” or anything like it, and spaces with urban noise are equally disturbing.  “Together this suggests that to animals (including humans), a silent landscape would generally prove disturbing or unnerving. In the urban environment, we are often faced either with situations that have an overabundance of anthrophony (human-generated noise), or an absence of any noise at all (e.g., a deserted alleyway late at night). Both situations are devoid of the reassuring animal noises that can be identified with a safe (i.e., predator-free) and abundant (i.e., prey-full) environment,” the study concluded. “Therefore, in addition to nature sounds providing the positive benefits described above, a lack of nature sounds could contribute to negative outcomes such as apprehension and anxiety.”

Our designs chose to focus on bringing in positive sounds through birds and water, while using those and the plants to dampen out any possible urban noise emanating from outside the space.  We do this consistently in two ways. 1. We choose plantings that support birds and their need for food and shelter to encourage their presence, and we often look towards water features to carry the sound to all corners of the space.

All sound choices!

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Scale in the garden

The massive expansion of a small patio into two large circles better fitting of the large garden space (scale is important in a design) is complete. Next part is the acid wash so the two slabs match, plus softening all of the edges with plants!!

Pictured the previous patio, construction and finished project.

Garden design tips

More questions to ask your Seattle, Tacoma Garden Designer

Part #2. Looking to hire a garden designer for your Tacoma, Seattle, Olympia home? For life in this part of the country, here are even more questions to ask when choosing your team.

  1. How do your designs take advantage of borrowed space from the neighbors?
  2. How do your designs maximize cuttings and division of plants to reduce my costs long term?
  3. How do your designs evolve over five to ten years as I evolve too?
  4. How do your designs create the least impact on my envoronment?
  5. How do your designs provide space for guests, kids and quiet moments alone?
Garden design tips

When opposites attract

First, green makes a garden shine, especially on a sunny, blue-sky day in the middle of winter. Want more color this time of year, then get the leafy greens in your design diet. Want to make things pop, too? Add splashes of red, as seen here with the Cordyline australis ‘Red Star’ and Coral Bark Japanese Maple. On the color wheel, green and red are the perfect “opposites attract” colors!!!