Form Follows Function in My Garden

Posted on September 28, 2016 by Becky Staneruck

A few years ago I took a Permaculture Design course, and while I would not consider myself a purist by any stretch of the imagination, one principal has really stuck with me:  “Every element in the landscape should have multiple functions and every function in the landscape should be served by multiple elements.”

For example, if you have multiple shade trees in your yard and one dies unexpectedly, you still have shade.  If you string a hammock between two of them and add all the leaves to your compost pile each fall, each tree is also providing a pleasant spot to relax on a hot summer day and wonderful compost and/or mulch materials to use in your garden the following year.

This not only leads to redundancy and therefore resiliency in the landscape, but also forces us to ask the right questions when choosing hardscape and plant material for our yards.  Rather than asking “What would look pretty here?” as the first question, you’ll have more long term success and enjoyment of your outdoor spaces if you ask the following questions first:

What purpose am I trying to serve?  How do I want to use this spot in my landscape?
Provide shade
Seating area
Low maintenance
Attract pollinators
Provide fragrance
Year round interest
Fall color

What growing conditions exist in this location?
Sun or shade
Moist or dry
Sheltered or exposed
Soil pH

Once you nail down how you would like to use that portion of the yard and what growing conditions exist, you can then focus in on the plant material that would be suitable for the spot and choose one that also appeals to your aesthetic preferences.  I highly recommend reading Rob’s recent post, “Right Plant Right Spot.”

Hardscapes can be expensive, labor intensive, and rather permanent, so it’s even more critical to examine function when designing these.  For example, upon moving into my current house, one of the first things I noticed was that all of the beautiful flagstone pathways weren’t in any of my natural travel patterns.  Perhaps they were for the previous owners, but I kept feeling forced to move about my new yard in a way that didn’t feel natural.  After I had lived there for a few months and observed my natural travel patterns, I reworked the pathways to reflect that.  After all, a pathway isn’t very functional if you never want to walk on it!

I also have a cement patio in the backyard that bakes in the hot afternoon sun all summer long.  Clearly I needed to provide shade in order to enjoy the patio on summer evenings.  After considering several options, I opted to build a pergola along the west side of the patio (blog on pergola design and construction to follow).  Not only does the pergola provide shade, it also helps transform the patio into an inviting outdoor room.  Additionally, it will support an edible vine like grapes down the road and provide a structure to hang my removable clothes line.  I love the smell of sheets and towels dried in the sunshine!  Since there are still extra flagstones lying around, I’ll use these to extend the patio under the pergola, providing more comfortable seating options for entertaining.

By examining function and site specific conditions before aesthetics, we ensure that the materials and plants we choose for our landscapes will thrive and provide years of enjoyment in addition to being beautiful.

By Lisa Rapalus  :  Annual & Perennial Buyer

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