Garden Variety: Add structure to landscape, garden during fall season
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Patios, walls, raised garden beds, walkways and other structures within the landscape and garden provide space to enjoy the yard and move easily within it, improve aesthetics and create more favorable growing environments for plants. These structures are often referred to as hardscape. Fall is a good time to install them because the weather is usually more favorable than in other seasons for the heavy work that is required and because it prepares the area for spring planting and enjoyment.
Fire pits, outdoor kitchens, dry creeks, gravel beds, fences, gates, screens and other structures are also collectively referred to as hardscape and are nice fall additions. The only hardscape features you might choose to wait until spring to install are water features, such as landscape ponds and waterfalls. Although they can certainly be dug and built in the fall, their full enjoyment comes after freezing temperatures subside in spring.
Hardscapes are best installed by professionals, but adventurous do-it-yourself gardeners can get the job done, too. If hiring a professional, get three quotes. Try to maintain consistency in the quality of materials in the quotes, and be cautious of individuals who want to cut corners. Hardscape materials and installation are an investment much like interior construction and remodeling. They need to be durable and well-constructed to stand up to regular use and the weather.
If you choose to do the work yourself, use reputable online resources for guidance or check the library for books and garden magazines with DIY instruction. Some garden centers may also carry garden magazines with guidance for hardscape features.
Material quality is equally important for do-it-yourself work as it is when hiring a professional. Cheaper grades of concrete blocks may begin to deteriorate after a few freeze and thaw cycles. They may also be smaller and lighter, which sounds great for installation work but means more blocks are needed to fill the same space or provide the same function as larger, heavier blocks. Check with businesses that specialize in professional hardscape materials rather than purchasing the cheapest blocks or rocks available.
If you have an existing structure such as a patio or walkway that could use improvement, the planning process is a little easier. If you are starting with a blank slate or a yard that needs a total makeover, look around at yards you like and hone in on the structures in those. If you have a hill, look at how a wall transforms it. If you have an area where you like to sit outside, look at how a more formal patio space allows you to use it differently. Consider adding a path on a course you regularly traverse, or add a path through the landscape so you can enjoy it from different angles.
Hardscape needs a solid foundation. For patios, walls and walkways, follow recommendations for building a bed of aggregate materials. Use a tamp or make sure the professional you hire is properly compacting the foundation as it is installed. Use a level when setting blocks to ensure a professional appearance and drainage.
The biggest mistake most people say they make when installing hardscape, whether hiring someone or doing it themselves is thinking too small. This is especially true with patios, paths and walls. Visualize it; then go ahead and make it a little bigger. You will be glad you did when you are enjoying your evenings in the garden for years to come.
— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.