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Green Landscaping: Greenacres


Wild Ones Handbook


"Nature is the
ultimate model for
us to follow.
Everything in
Nature has its own
carefully selected
place." - 

Colston Burrell


Observational Design

Observational Design
by Barb Glassel, Mandy Ploch, Gloria Stupak, Landscape Designers

Throughout the design process, we need to educate our eyes by observing Nature. Notice how a forest canopy protects the under story of smaller trees and shrubs. Note the ground layer and forest litter providing nutrients and protection for still more plants. Underneath it all, the terrain tilts and rolls. Move out to the forest edge where tall tree profiles are met by shrub borders that grade down to the meadow. Consider the spacing, groupings, lines.

Now take these observational lessons to the drawing table to develop your master plan. Your goal is to unify all elements into a natural harmony. Once made, you can prioritize implementation of the plan according to your time and budget.

THE BASE MAP [image 45k]
Map courtesy of Naturescape British Columbia. Use plants native to your area.
Determine the dimensions of your property and choose a scale for your map. A map drawn at a scale where a four-foot distance equals one inch on paper will allow you to jot in more details than one that is eight-feet-to-the-inch. Mark a north-pointing arrow and indicate the following items.

Prepare a list of needed and wanted elements.

"Nature is always
hinting at us. It
hints over and over
again. And
suddenly we take
the hint." - 

Robert Frost

Map courtesy of Naturescape British Columbia. Use plants native to your area.
Overlay your base map with tracing paper or make copies of the base map on which to enter your ideas from the wish list. Make blobs of space, not specific details. Draw many variations to see which work best.

Draw bubbles around areas where you want activities, such as children's play, entertaining, or wildlife viewing. Use symbols for features such as a birdbath or bench. Draw arrows where you want views, dotted lines for potential pathways, and hatch marks in areas of steep slope. Note general types of plants, such as conifers, low shrubs, vines or a tall hedge. Note some of your ideas, such as a low area for a pond -- will you be able to see it from a frequent viewing point?

Establish general lines in the garden before selecting plant types. Plan gentle, flowing curves. 

Backgrounds obscure objectionable views and emphasize nice ones. They should be plain -- just a backdrop. They may be fences, walls, shrubs, trees or a combination of these. Keep in mid the year-round effect and incorporate both evergreen and deciduous plants. Avoid planting shrubs in rows; let them weave in and out.

A focal point attracts the eye; it should be interesting and fairly obvious. Lesser focal points can be put along the path to the main one, i.e., sculpture, furniture, fountains, ponds, a distinctive plant or grouping.

Flowers can be divided into two color groups -- blue/red through blue and orange/red through yellow. By sticking to one color family you can create a harmonious effect; although Nature pleasingly creates her own combinations. Regard leaf color in summer and fall, the fruit, even the bark. Consider house colors, existing trees, and fences as a starting point.

Paths guide the eyes, then the feet. Paths should have a purpose -- lead somewhere, bend around an element, lead to a bench or sitting stump, and visually encourage exploration. Use curves and turns to slow walkers for viewing of special features. Establish paths on your basic plan, then outline them on the ground with a hose or rope and stakes. Construct paths wide enough for two people to walk abreast. The surface may be turf, crushed stone, shredded bark, or constructed of wood, brick or stone.

Coarse plant texture (Oak tree, Wild Ginger) is aggressive and strong -- moving toward the viewer and holding attention. Fine texture (Maidenhair Fern, Flowering Spurge) is less obvious -- it is least noticed and first to be lost in design. Medium plants should predominate to provide unity and transitions between coarse and fine textures. Contrast provides interest.

Sunlight affects your selection of plants, but it can mean much more. Note how light travels through your yard over the course of a day and through the seasons. Consider how shadows create niches and the sun selects highlights in the landscape. Landscape designer Jens Jensen often used long, low openings to the east and west to take advantage of the views and waves of color that come at sunrise and sunset.

Maximize forms: Look out the windows, especially during cold months when color distracts less. The shapes and shadows of trees and shrubs are enjoyable throughout the seasons. Retain their natural form. Use proper pruning methods to keep them healthy.

The sound of trickling water will attract wildlife and charm your visitors. By providing habitat, you'll benefit from the songs of birds, frogs, and insects. A covered porch will let you watch and listen to the rain. Berries growing along a path are a taste treat, as are the plants from which you can make tea. And then there is fragrance...the bouquet of individual flowers or the sweet blend of a whole meadow in bloom.

Provide sanctuaries and safe travel corridors for sensitive wildlife. Disturbance to wildlife can be lessened if areas with human activity are clustered and kept small. 

Well-established trees are valuable. Avoid putting new features or structures where they will damage trees. Roots extend far from the trunk, and construction close to the roots may harm the tree. Some species cannot tolerate soil applied over their root zone; as little as one inch can kill some oaks.

Upright dead trees (snags), large logs and stumps serve as sculpture and provide food and shelter for many organisms. Locate patios and decks for wildlife viewing. Also consider views from inside the house.

"When you spend
enough time
outside, It dosen't
seem like outside
anymore." -


Map courtesy of Naturescape British Columbia. Use plants native to your area.
Compare your preliminary plans and choose the one that best fits your needs. Now add the details of plant species and materials, and exact locations and dimensions of these features. If you want a pond, for example, you must determine how it will be lined, how it will be cleaned, and if you want recirculating water. Details of grading and drainage must also be designed.

When all details are complete, draw your final plan. Accuracy is important because this is the blueprint that will guide your construction and development over time.

The most exciting part of the process is selecting the plants. Ideally, you will have become familiar with plants native to your region and site and know their basic cultural requirements. Collect lists of plants and plant communities for sun, shade, wet, bird-attracting, etc. from which to make your selections. Remember: 

Be aware of each plant's ultimate height and spread at maturity. Do not over plant nor plant too close to structures. Enjoy the growth process.


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