Deck Landscaping Ideas

One of the best ways to integrate your deck with the other elements in your landscape is with plants -- both garden beds beside or around the deck and plants that adorn the deck itself.

If you haven't yet built your deck but you do have garden beds in place, consider locating the deck to catch the best views of the plantings. If you don't have garden beds, plan their location, contours, and contents so their beauty brings an additional benefit to being out on your deck. Then use planted containers to pull the garden up the deck, right to the doorway of your home.

Container gardens are more than merely decorative. They can be a most useful tool in making your deck seem like a natural outgrowth of the landscape, not merely an architectural add-on. They are especially practical on sites (or with budgets) that prohibit complex and intriguing deck designs. Plants will turn even the most basic deck into a work of art you can use.

Plants also solve problems. Flowering beds with a rear shrub border and tall plants can hide the unattractive empty space beneath the deck. A hedge can screen out an unattractive view. Potted trees offer shade and privacy, as well as fruit. Large planters help establish traffic patterns.

When you're ready to integrate plants into your landscape design, first decide where they should go. Use your design sketches to tell you where you need shade, privacy, and shelter. Then pick plants that do the job.

Making the beds

Before you decide what to plant, shape the bed first. Experiment by laying out a garden hose to create pleasing outlines. Curved lines -- even bordering a square deck -- generally make a more interesting landscape than straight lines. Mark the contour on the lawn with upside-down spray paint, roll up the hose, and dig the bed into the soil.

Plant in tiers, with the shortest species in front, and gradually increase the height of the plantings toward the rear of the bed. Plants right next to the deck should be no higher than eye level when you're seated, unless you're using them to screen out a view or increase your privacy.

Making use of trees and shrubs

Trees are the environmental workhorses of the natural world. They cast shade, reduce erosion, and help clean the air. Shrubs make excellent transitions between larger elements -- other trees, sheds, or decks, for example. They're a great substitute for trees where trees won't fit.

Trees and shrubs are either deciduous (they lose their leaves in the winter) or evergreen (they keep their leaves), but these are not the only criteria for selection.

Consider their mature sizes and characteristics. The sapling you buy today may root into your foundation in 10 years, or what you thought was a low-maintenance addition to your landscape might drop seeds, twigs, and blossoms that call for constant cleanup. Remember that a cute little shrub by your deck might prove to be an unwelcome guest when it is fully grown.

Research your choices and plant species that will adapt to your climate and the soil and drainage characteristics of your yard.

Groundcovers

Low plants that hug the ground reduce erosion and can act as a living palette for other plantings. Wide, sweeping beds curving around a deck define areas without dividing the space into smaller parts. Where grass won't grow, a groundcover will -- and it won't need mowing.

Container gardens

Container gardens are the colorful actors of deck landscaping. You can grow just about any kind of plant in a container, even when you're faced with hot, dry weather or lack of space. Besides, they allow you to quickly change the scene when you tire of the current one.

When you start planning your deck's planting scheme, sit on the benches and chairs, and look carefully at the views. Check the view from the adjoining room. Wherever you see distractions, such as power lines or the neighbor's storage shed, block them out with a container. Wherever you need more privacy, plant a plant. Tall species can add perceived height without making the deck seem isolated.

Look for empty corners, blank walls, unattractive structures, and unruly plants on the property line. Dress up these areas with container-grown plants. And if you need to provide some unity to a large deck, plant the same kind of plant in more than one place. The repetition of color and texture will pull the spaces together.

Boxes and baskets

Window boxes and hanging baskets are the perfect containers when you want to create a composition on a small scale.

Generally speaking, all the plants in a window box or basket should have the same nutritional requirements and the same needs for sunlight or shade. That will keep their care to a minimum, but it doesn't mean you have to plant all the same variety.

To make things interesting, combine plants that have similar colors with plants that have different and contrasting textures. Fine-textured species, such as baby's breath, make contrasting companions for species whose foliage is spiky, such as rosemary. Upright forms, such as coneflowers, make a good backdrop for low-growing or trailing flowers.

Window boxes and baskets offer perfect habitats for edible plants too -- lettuces, herbs, and edible flowers create an outdoor salad in a basket, just ready for the picking.

Build your window boxes as deep as your design allows -- but don't make them obstacles to the natural traffic flow across your deck. Deep window boxes are healthier for your plants, but a sharp corner that you need to avoid on the way into the house will prove annoying. Ten to 12 inches of soil allows room for adequate root growth.

If you're building your own boxes, drill at least two holes in the bottom for drainage and insert a sheet of rigid foam insulation inside the front before filling it with soil. The foam will keep roots cool and reduce soil-moisture evaporation. Then, before planting, mix water-retaining polymers in the soil. The pellets swell when wet and hold moisture. Check the container for the proper proportion of pellets to soil.

Water window boxes daily or if needed, twice a day during hot weather. How do you know when the plants need watering? Poke your finger into the soil about 1?2 inch deep. If soil feels dry to the touch, it's time to water.

A short course in plant buying

Plants for your deck will be close to you, not in a garden far across the yard. So follow a different strategy when you buy plants for deck containers.

  • Buy plants that are at their best in the season when you'll use your deck. Flower beds are big enough to accommodate a variety that will last throughout the seasons. Containers aren't.
  • Choose low-maintenance varieties, those that don't demand deadheading and other botanical chores.
  • Select species whose mature sizes will not overwhelm their surroundings and won't need a lot of pruning to keep them that way.
  • Include fragrance on your list of criteria. Some flowers may be too fragrant to be close.
  • Give your plants an environment in which they'll thrive -- check the USDA plant hardiness zone map at a nursery and buy plants suited to your zone.
  • Balance flowers and foliage. An overwhelming display of blossoms can be just that. You'll show off your choices more dramatically against a backdrop of foliage. Vary the texture of the plants -- the shape and size of their leaves -- and their colors, too.
  • Find your favorites first. Then build the rest of your choices with plants that provide attractive complements or contrasts.
  • Add color with plants. Woods commonly used to build decks -- pressure-treated lumber, cedar, cypress, and redwood -- all turn to various shades of gray if left untreated, providing an excellent neutral backdrop for plants. The natural brown tones of stained wood also offer a pleasant contrast to the greens and other colors of container gardens.

 

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