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Landscaping 101

From s­tyle to color to accents, how to create the perfect backyard landscape; plus, what to plant by your pool

By Kimberlee Courtney

Photos courtesy of Mariani Landscape; Photography by Linda Oyama Bryan

­Landscaping your backyard is a great way to enhance the visual charm and ambiance of your outdoor living space. Designing your landscape, however, is not as simple as placing flowers and shrubs around your backyard; many factors must be considered, including the style and color of your house, its location, and your personal tastes.

Follow these guidelines to help you select the right landscape design and materials for your home.


A landscape style forms the base of your design and allows you to combine the various elements, such as walkways, plants, and structures, into one pleasant scene. Landscapes fall into three main styles: formal, informal, and natural. Each style has its own characteristics and type of home that it best complements.

Formal landscape designs include Italian, French, and Classical English garden styles. They consist of symmetrical layouts with spaces divided by straight lines and materials arranged in geometric shapes in proportion to the home. Plants are neatly maintained and typically include flowering shrubs, such as hydrangeas and azaleas, and low, clipped hedges like boxwoods. Formal landscapes often feature parterres, ornamental gardens consisting of flowerbeds edged in stone or tightly clipped hedges arranged to form a symmetrical pattern. Paths are paved with brick, concrete, or sharply cut Bluestone laid in traditional patterns such as running bond, herringbone, and basket weave. 

Formal swimming pools are rectangular, oval, or square in shape and set on axis with the house. They are meant to stand out as design elements and are typically raised above ground level with sides made of brick, concrete, tile, or stone. Fountains and garden accents such as urns, bowls, and classical statutes of mythical creatures or cherubs also make charming focal points. 

The balance and symmetry of formal landscapes best complement the simple elegance of traditional house plans, including Georgian and Colonial homes built of brick or stone, as well as Victorian, Second Empire, Italianate, Greek Revival, and Contemporary home styles.

Informal landscape designs are less structured than formal gardens; instead of straight lines and centered axes, they use curves and diagonals to convey a casual and relaxed flow. Oriental, Moorish (Southwest), Tuscan, and English Cottage landscape styles follow an informal scheme. Sprawling plants of varying colors and textures are grouped in masses of three or more (called drifts) and arranged in gently sloping beds to create a natural appearance. Although they don’t require the strict symmetry of formal designs, informal landscapes achieve an asymmetrical balance by producing the same amount of greenery on both sides of the yard.  

Meandering paths can be built with tumbled brick, stone, or concrete pavers placed in a random pattern; they may also consist of irregular cut stones, such as fieldstone or limestone. Informal swimming pools often have a curvilinear or freeform shape and include waterfalls and lush plantings to blend more with the surrounding scenery.

Informal landscapes work well with homes that have an asymmetrical exterior where the door is off center and there are an unequal number of windows. These typically include Bungalow, Ranch, Dutch Colonial, Postmodern, Farmhouse, Craftsman, and Stucco or Pueblo Revival houses.

Natural landscape designs are a specific type of informal design that emulate the subtle randomness of nature. Native plants are displayed in irregular patterns with little pruning to mimic the natural landscape of the area. Pathways are crafted from flat rocks, mulch, or gravel and lined with mosses or short grasses to soften the appearance. Water features, ponds, and pools are bordered with rocks and boulders of various sizes and textures, making it seem as if they’ve always existed there. 

Naturalistic landscapes work well for a variety of homes, including log homes, rustic cabins, and contemporary houses that feature timber or stone siding. They can also be designed specifically for a distinct region, such as a desert landscape for adobe/stucco homes in the Southwest, a woodland garden for a stone farmhouse in the Northeast, and a wild meadow for a prairie-style home in the Midwest.

Regional Zones & Climate

It’s best to incorporate plants that are adapted to the growing conditions of your area since they will grow well and require less maintenance. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed a system of plant-hardiness zones that divides North America into 11 different zones based on the average low temperatures of each region: Zone 1 is the coldest (-50 degrees F), and Zone 11 is the highest (above 40 degrees F). In 2006, The Arbor Foundation updated the 1990 version of the USDA map so you may find slight differences when looking up the range of zones listed for each plant. 

Using the zones as a general guideline, you can determine how plants will perform in your region. However, you may be able to grow plants outside of your hardiness zone if you live in a microclimate, an area where the climate differs from the rest of the region, such as around a body of water or in the city where brick, concrete, and asphalt absorb and radiate heat from the sun.

Soil, rainfall, sun, heat, and humidity are other factors that will affect how your plants thrive. 


The goal of designing your backyard landscape is to unify your home with the surrounding scenery. And while you probably want your backyard to be the envy of the neighborhood, you don’t want it to look out of place. Take a stroll around your block and study the prevalent styles. Look at the planting forms, paving materials, fencing, gate styles, structures, and other features. This will give you a good idea of what you like and don’t like, and what may look best in your landscape.

You’ll also want to pay attention to the homes directly surrounding you, as their backyards can have an overall impact on your design. A recurrence of similar plants or paving materials could provide a pleasant transition among the different spaces. If there is too much incongruity, you may want to add a privacy fence to conceal the view of your neighbors’ yards. 

Color Scheme

There are many ways to work with color to form the ideal color scheme for your backyard. You can use:

• hues of a single color contrasted against foliage for a monochromatic look

• analogous colors (colors located next to each other on the color wheel) for harmony

• complementary colors (colors located opposite one another on the color wheel) to add some contrast

• an assortment of mixed colors

The simplicity of monochromatic designs works extremely well in formal landscapes, while a mix of colors can accentuate a more natural design. A tropical oasis calls for a citrus color scheme of bright orange, lime, and yellow. Warm earth tones, such as olive, terra cotta, rusty reds, and warm browns are the essence of a relaxing Tuscan retreat.

When selecting colors, also consider the walls, trim, and roof of your home. A combination of blues, purples, and pinks would contrast beautifully with a home that has green walls and white trim. A harmony of warm tones, such as orange, yellow, and gold would be the perfect complement to a red house. 

Hardscapes & Accents

Paving materials and accessories maintain the style and ambiance of your backyard and provide the final link between your landscape and your home. These elements will be visible year-round, so it’s important that they adhere to the style or theme of the space. 

Patios, pool decking, and courtyards constructed of flagstone, brick, or tile uphold formal designs. Granite benches, marble urns, concrete birdbaths, sundials, and Romanesque fountains made of concrete or cast stone provide the perfect touch of elegance.

Stucco or brick walls and surfaces built from stone, weathered brick, or terra cotta tiles suit rustic or Mediterranean styles. Accents might include wrought iron furniture, glazed olive jars, and an elaborate copper or bronze tiered fountain.

For tropical and southwest-style hardscapes, consider colored concrete, stone, metal, and tile mosaics. Garden art such as metal suns, pottery, and wind chimes also fit well. 

Poolside Plants

Plants can add beauty and privacy around a pool, create a harmonious flow throughout your backyard, and even help to conceal pool equipment. But factors such as chemical exposure, windswept leaves, and buzzing insects mean you’ll want to choose your poolside plants carefully. 

Exposure to chlorinated pool water. All plants need a little chlorine to grow, but too much chlorine from the constant splashing of pool water could cause some plants to die. Typically, plants that have thick, waxy leaves will be more resistant to chemicals. Other plants that are suitable near pools include Hostas, ornamental grasses, Ti plants (or cordylines), Birds of Paradise, coreopsis, catmint, baby’s breath, and yarrow.

Petals and leaf drop. Avoid flowers and trees that easily shed their blooms or leaves so you don’t constantly have to skim your pool. Look for hardy plants that maintain their petals such as cannas, zinnias, and Jade. Perennials like daylilies, Lily of the Nile, and Sea Lavender are also great by pools since their leaves stay on when the flower dies until you clip them off. 

Root systems. Trees or shrubs with extensive root systems can damage the pool’s structure and plumbing system: these include ficus, elk, oak, mulberry, and cottonwood trees, and shrubs like photinias.

Bee magnets. Wisteria, Delphinium, Queen Ann’s Lace, Larkspur and many salvias easily attract bees so you probably want to keep them away from the pool area, especially if you have young children or swimmers who are allergic to stings. 

Container plants. Growing plants in containers provides easy maintenance and mobility: You can replace and rearrange them to create new scenery and move any frost-sensitive varieties indoors during the winter. Plus, the wide selection of colors, sizes, materials, and shapes makes it easy to find containers to match any landscape design. However, keep safety and maintenance in mind. Make sure plants have adequate drainage and that large containers are not in areas that will block your view of children in the pool. Also, heavy planters may be necessary to prevent them from being knocked over during storms and strong winds. 

Photo courtesy of Walnut Hill Landscaping Company; Photography by

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