Look at the big picture and be aware of scale when designing landscape

Published on Wednesday, 19 April 2017 18:42 - Written by GREG GRANT, Smith County Master Gardeners

One of the most common problems homeowners experience when tackling their own landscape design involves scale or proportion. Scale involves the relationship between all visual parts of the landscape to the home and surroundings. It’s a bit difficult to explain in words, but try I will.

A common notion with amateur gardeners is that landscaping is all about decorating the outside of a home - scattering yard jewelry about, if you will. Wrong. Proper landscaping is about making a home or garden fit into its site, physically and aesthetically. Homes should comfortably fit into their surroundings like feet in good shoes or baby birds in a swaddling nest.

One concept of scale that is important to grasp right out of the gate is that your landscape includes more than just what you own. Your landscape also includes what is known as the “borrowed landscape,” which is anything you can see beyond your landscape. In other words, all views, surrounding buildings, neighbor’s yards, horizons, streets, trees, fences and forests are all part of the landscape that you have to deal with visually. So like it or not, aesthetically you own everything you can see. If you don’t want to “own it” or deal with it artistically, you will need to screen it from your view, with an appropriate-sized screen, of course.

Without a doubt, the most common downfall in most home landscapes is landscaping on too small a scale for the structure and site. When landscaping a home, or anything for that matter, it’s absolutely essential to look at the big picture, not just the small pieces in front of you. Think of it like this. Most people reading an article or book are focusing on, at best, a few words at a time. But in the landscape thought process, they need to think about the words, the paragraph, the book, the chair and the entire room all at once.

Another reason most homeowners landscape on too small of a scale involves both effort and cost. Naturally, the more blood, sweat, tears and cash you put into something, the bigger it seems. One of the first landscapes I ever installed involved an immense amount of work, literally years in the making. But when I finally finished it and took the time to view it from afar, much of what I did visually didn’t exist. All that time and effort was wasted because I looked at the parts instead of the whole. So I had to start over and make all the beds three times the size they were.

The size of beds, furniture, pots, art and other hard materials in a landscape are much easier to understand than the plants are because they all stay the same size. It’s beyond extremely important that every gardener, designer and homeowner knows the ultimate size of every plant they put in, as they all start out small and they all grow larger, some extremely large. We all know people who planted small shrubs that grew large under windows, and small trees that tried to grow into giants under power lines. But the opposite is just as common with small shrubs and small trees planted around large homes in large spaces.

At this point you’re probably a bit confused on the concept of scale so I’ll leave you with the elementary version. Small homes in small spaces need smaller beds and smaller plants, while larger homes in large spaces need larger beds and larger plants. That’s oversimplified, but it’s true. The size of everything you use and every space you create in your landscape should tie the size of humans to the size of their home to the size of their surroundings.

So don’t just think about the color of a plant you purchase or whether it’s one of your favorites. Also think about how big it’s going to get, how many you need, whether they fit into the space you are putting them and whether they fit into the overall big picture. More times than not you’ll find you are wasting your time and money on small unrelated decorations that don’t amount to a hill of beans in the big picture.

Greg Grant is the Smith County horticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. You can follow him on Facebook at “Greg Grant Gardens,” read his “Greg’s Ramblings” blog at arborgate.com or read his “In Greg’s Garden” in each issue of Texas Gardener magazine (texasgardener.com). For more information on local educational programming, go to smith.agrilife.org.