Landscaping a Patio with Plants
If you haven't yet built your patio but you do have garden beds in place, situate the patio where it offers the best views of the plantings. If you don't have garden beds, plan their location, contours, and plantings when you plan your patio so the flower beds and patio enhance each other. To extend the garden, you can grow plants in containers on the patio itself -- right to the doorway of your home if you want.
Container gardens are ideal for placing plants on or around patios or walls. They help make outdoor structures seem a natural part of the landscape instead of an architectural add-on. Container gardens are especially practical when the site (or project budget) prohibits complex landscape installations. Imaginatively placed containers turn even the most basic patio into a garden paradise.
You can use plants to solve many design problems. Flower beds with a rear border of shrubs and tall plants beautify (and hide) the unattractive space where the patio approaches the edge of the property. A hedge naturally screens out an unattractive view. Potted trees offer shade and privacy, as well as fruit. Large planters help establish and enforce traffic patterns.
When you're ready to integrate plants into your landscape design, first decide where they should go. Your design sketches show where you need shade, privacy, and shelter. Simply pick plants that do the job.Making the beds
Before you decide what to plant, you must first determine the shape of the bed. Experiment by laying out a garden hose to create a pleasing outline. Curved lines generally look more interesting than straight lines, even bordering a square site. Mark the contour on the lawn with upside-down spray paint or powdered chalk, 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. Tops of plants adjacent to the patio should be lower than eye level for seated people, unless the plants are intended to screen out a view or enhance privacy.Making use of trees and shrubs
Trees are the environmental workhorses of the natural world. They cast shade, reduce erosion, and clean the air. Shrubs are excellent transitions between larger elements -- other trees, sheds, or patios, or 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.
Research species and select those that will adapt to your climate and the soil conditions in your yard. Consider the mature size and growth characteristics. The sapling you buy today may root under your patio or into your foundation in 10 years. And many trees drop seeds, twigs, and blossoms that call for constant cleanup. Others are susceptible to diseases and insects. Some trees, especially fast-growing ones, are prone to storm damage; dead or broken branches above a patio are hazardous.Groundcovers
Low plants that hug the ground reduce erosion and serve as a living palette for other plantings. Wide, sweeping beds curving around a patio define areas without dividing the space into smaller parts. Where grass won't grow, a groundcover usually will. And it won't need mowing.Container gardens
You can grow just about any kind of plant in a container, even when you're faced with hot, dry weather or little space. Containers also allow you to quickly change the arrangement of your plants.
Before you plan your planting scheme, spend some time sampling your patio's views. Check the view from the adjoining interior room as well. Wherever you see distractions, such as power lines or the neighbor's storage shed, block them out with a plant in a container. Wherever you need more privacy, plant a shrub. Tall species furnish screening without making the patio seem isolated. Look for empty corners, blank walls, unattractive structures, and unruly plants on the property line. Dress these areas with container-grown plants. For a unified look on a large patio, plant the same kind of plant in more than one place. The repetition of color and texture will link the spaces.Boxes and baskets
Window boxes and hanging baskets are the perfect containers for a composition on a small scale.
To keep maintenance and care to a minimum, all the plants in a window box or basket should have the same nutritional requirements and the same needs for sunlight or shade. That doesn't mean you have to plant just one variety. Combine several plants that have blooms of similar colors with plants that have different, contrasting textures. A fine-textured species, such as baby's breath, contrasts nicely with a species that has spiky foliage, such as rosemary. Tall, upright forms, such as coneflowers, make a good backdrop behind low-growing or trailing flowers.
Window boxes and baskets are perfect for growing edible plants too. Lettuces, herbs, and edible flowers create an outdoor salad in a basket, ready for the picking.
Build your window boxes as deep as possible -- 10 to 12 inches of soil allows room for adequate root growth. Be sure, however, the window boxes don't interfere with the natural traffic patterns that cross your patio. While deep window boxes are better for your plants, they're not worth it if you have to avoid their sharp corners every time you pass.
If you build 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 the box with soil. The foam will keep roots cool and reduce soil-moisture evaporation. Then, before planting, mix water-retaining polymers into the soil. The pellets swell when wet, retaining moisture. See the polymer instructions for the proper proportion of pellets to soil.
Water window boxes daily or, if needed, twice a day during hot weather. To determine 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 patio will be close to you, not in a garden far across the yard. So follow a different strategy when you buy plants for patio containers.
- Buy plants that are at their best in the season when you'll use your patio. 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 near.
- Give your plants an environment in which they'll thrive. Buy plants suited to your zone (see the USDA plant hardiness zone map, www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone/ushzmap.html).
- 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.
- Set plants on homemade display benches. Woods commonly used to build outdoor structures -- pressure-treated lumber, cedar, cypress, and redwood -- turn various shades of gray if left untreated, providing an excellent neutral backdrop for plants. The brown tones of stained wood also contrast with the greens and other colors of container gardens.