One yard, four seasons
A top Mountain West landscaper shares his secrets for creating outdoor spaces that look great year-round
There was a time when landscaping meant focusing on turf grass or whatever else was cheap and easy. But in the past two decades, that has changed drastically, says landscape architect Seth Bockholt, whose firm, Bockholt Inc., designs and builds residential landscapes throughout the Mountain West.
“Now it’s much more comprehensive, with landscapes designed to be sustainable and have varying interest throughout the seasons,” says Bockholt.
In the Mountain West, seeing a landscape through the three to five years it might take to bring it from a dirt pile to maturity can require much more effort than it might in other regions, Bockholt says. A short growing season, extreme heat and cold, lack of precipitation, salty soil, even an abundance of wildlife can all present challenges.
“But with thousands of plant varieties to work with, we have the opportunity to set each landscape apart,” he says.
The secret to creating varying interest for a single landscape is that every element should be dynamic, changing throughout the seasons, Bockholt says.
“Part of the reason I love landscaping is because of its dynamic nature,” says Bockholt. “Even when something looks amazing, knowing it might not always remain that way makes you cherish it even more.”
And he doesn’t limit the need for an ever-changing look to a landscape’s greenery. Landscape sculptures, for example, should be designed so that they are constantly re-created by the play of shadow and light as the sun goes through the seasons. “The symbolism you can create out of that is amazing,” Bockholt says.
As for going through the seasons, here are some of Bockholt’s ideas on how to make a home’s landscaping stand out in all four.
In the Mountain West, a sure-fire way to produce a colorful spring is by planting bulbs in the fall. One of Bockholt’s favorite bulbs is the daffodil, which is often the first to make an appearance as the snow melts. Another early arrival is forsythia, a shrub whose bright yellow flowers, which appear before its leaves do, never fail to make a grand entrance.
Among trees that can anchor a spring landscape, Bockholt is partial to the deciduous eastern redbud. As its name suggests, it is not native to the Mountain West, but it has habituated itself well enough to make for a great transition from winter to spring because its black bark and sculptural form vividly contrasts with late winter snow and then, in the spring, against its pink flowers.
Summer is the season for humans to most agreeably become part of a home landscape, relaxing in the deep shade of a sheltering tree as its leaves rustle in the breeze. If you have planned well, you might also be enjoying the sound of water splashing from a garden fountain.
For adding color to the experience, one of Bockholt’s summer favorites is the cone flower, a sun-loving, drought-tolerant perennial that blooms from June through August. Although traditionally purple, its blossoms can now be found in just about every color imaginable. And its hardiness makes it a natural for low-maintenance perennial cutting gardens whose bouquets are destined to add color to the inside of a home as well.
Fall is the season when trees that primarily offered shade now offer color: the yellow leaves of aspens, the reds and oranges of maple and oak. Among perennials, a good addition to the color mix are the large orange flowers of the goldenrod, as are the purple flowers of the Russian sage, which, nobody seems to mind, is neither Russian nor sage. Grasses are a favorite of Bockholt’s, too, adding variety year-round, but especially in the fall, when the seed heads of varieties such as Karl Foerster, blue oat, and Indian rice not only rustle and wave in the wind but, in certain light, almost seem to glow.
Fall is also a season of preparation, Bockholt says. Start to wrap trees and shrubs to help protect them from the winter sun, and begin deep-watering the trees, to ensure they will be healthy in the spring.
From a landscaping point of view, a Mountain West winter can seem like the most challenging season. Which is why Bockholt sometimes practices what he calls inside-out landscaping, based on the premise that in winter you most often view a landscape from inside a house looking out, and so want that perspective to be the most interesting. Instead of a typical planting scheme, which begins with a backdrop of larger, darker foundation shrubs set against the house and then progressively scales the plants down as they get farther away, inside-out landscaping does the opposite, with the larger plants out away from the house and the smaller ones closer in.
Besides the visual effect, another benefit of the inside-out scheme is that it helps protect the (typically woody) foundation shrubs, which are more easily damaged than most plants by packed snow and ice sliding off of a roof.
Winter is also a season when a landscape can be brought to life by artificial light. “During the day, the view can seem like it is just snow and the tops of trees,” Bockholt says. “But at night, illuminating the same view is one more way you can make a seasonal landscape look amazing.”
Local landscape hints
For a handful of local, multi-season landscape hints, we went to Mike Baran of Gecko Landscape & Design (geckolandscape.com) for his two cents on year-round outdoor spaces. Here’s what he had to say:
Function and furnishings:
Identify what the space will be used for. This depends on how you plan to entertain, decks or spaces already existing at the residence, features such as water and fire and privacy versus view corridors. And make sure you discuss and account for furniture. Most outdoor accessories tend to be larger in scale, so make sure the space flows well. Also, consider the space’s year-round use. Should it be covered, heated or enclosed?
Material matters: Select materials that complement the existing structures on site. It’s best to honor what is already going on in the area rather than forcing something new. It can feel out of place to use concrete pavers or porcelain tile if the whole house is natural stone.
Steamboat simplicity: Keep things simple and durable in our mountain climate. Select materials that don’t deteriorate or fade, unless a natural patina is desired.
The right light: Don’t forget to add lighting to ensure the space is welcoming and safe at night. And pay attention to your neighborhood guidelines to ensure you’re not creating light pollution on a neighboring property.
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