Ready. Set. Landscape!

A look at what’s hot in landscape design

For those winter-weary readers who want to make the most of the fairer months of the year, there’s nothing like putting some thought — and resources — into creating a more “livable” landscape at home.

One big trend for homeowners is the idea of taking the indoors outside and converting part of the yard into an outdoor room. It could be a living room, a kitchen, an entertainment center or some combination thereof. What’s important is creating a space that draws people into the outdoors — and entices them to stay there while the weather’s warm and nature is on its best behavior.

There’s plenty of time to catch up on television programs and other indoor activities in January, after all.

For the love of fire

“I bring you fire,” might be on the calling card of many an urban landscaper this year.

Fire elements are the most often-requested item for residential landscape design in the Twin Cities this spring, according to a number of landscape design specialists.

“Two years ago, fire pits were all the rage. Now people are taking it to a new level — moving on to outdoor fireplaces,” says Eric Baldus, owner of Northeast-based Terravista Landscape/Design.

Between fireplaces and fire pits, there is a middle ground that is really where the sweet spot of the fire-in-the-yard trend is located: the outdoor kitchen.

What might start out as a desire for a simple grill a la a standard issue Weber, could become a full-scale cooking appliance with multiple burners and oven, coupled with a serving of side counters for food preparation and — for the truly committed, a kitchen sink. Depending on budget, a homeowner can spend a few hundred dollars, or many thousands of dollars, says Kim Radford, owner of Southwest-based KMR Design Group.

Fire pits, fire circles, fire pans, those elements that bespeak of the family outing to the cabin or campground, have been in vogue as an outdoor accessory in Minneapolis homes for some years.

Economical and, in the case of fire pans, mobile, these blaze buddies bring people together —  sometimes for an old-fashioned roast of wienies and marshmallows skewered on sticks plucked from the yard — in a comradely, communal way not much seen anymore in our society of iPad-driven pursuit of personal bliss.

Putting in a fireplace is more of a considered purchase, requiring much thought as to positioning  in the landscape (and the household budget, for that matter).

“If you put in an outdoor fireplace, along with a countertop and sitting walls, you can have almost a theater-like experience for entertaining,” Radford observes. The ultimate outdoor room, in short.

Fire elements also let people make more use of their yards in spring and fall. Huddling around a blazing fire pit in the autumnal cool, talking about the day’s events, perhaps roasting a marshmallow or two — it’s Minnesota bliss, even if the convivial atmosphere is occasionally subjected to an occasional roar from an overhead jet airplane.

“Minnesotans are getting excited about their landscapes,” says Colin Ogelsbay, an associate at Shelter, a Southwest-based architectural design firm. “But in these times, they expect more from their backyards than just luxury and pretty spaces. They still want good design, but they want it to have function. They want to make it work in many seasons, help get food on the table and in some cases, help them cook the food.”

Edible landscapes

Landscapes that don’t just sit there and look pretty, in short, but also do something, such as  produce food are popular.

Backyard food gardens yield an average $500 return on investment annually, according to the National Gardening Association (NGA). For families on a budget, that’s not such small potatoes. But successful gardening isn’t as easy as rolling off a log either.

The challenge with edibles lies in creating a landscape both beautiful and nourishing.

Start small, advises Judy Remington, owner of Minneapolis-based Temenos Garden Services, and think beyond traditional row gardening.

Carve out a portion of the yard for initial production, and pick plants that are easier to grow — tomatoes, squash, strawberries, raspberries, peppers, greens of every kind (Swiss chard is one of her favorites.)

Creative design is important, too. Plant fruit and vegetable gardens with the same care and attention to detail as when developing other aspects of the landscape, such as floral gardens.

“You can put edibles into the mix without making it like the vegetable patch,” says Colleen Corcoran of Southeast-based Sage Landscape Design. “You can do vegetables in containers,” she says. “And it’s easy to grow beans on poles.”

Most edible plants need at least half-day’s worth of full sun — preferably the hotter afternoon sun, Corcoran says.

Krista Leraar, co-owner of Harvest Moon Backyard Farmers in Minneapolis, says experienced gardeners can generally get by with just a few hours of weekly maintenance once a garden is established.  

Ditching the lawn — and the lawnmower

People want to be more environmentally conscious with their landscaping choices — and it’s the old standby, the expansive field of emerald-green grassy lawn, that’s often most ripe for re-tooling.

“Lawns were the crown jewels of the landscape for 100 years,” says Remington. Now people are looking at their lawns as just another aspect of their personal landscapes — and maybe not even an essential one.

There has been a rising interest in rain gardens, especially for Minneapolis properties. Not to be confused with rain forests, a rain garden is a kind of purposefully designed natural sponge, usually built in the form of a circle or oval, that absorbs excess rainwater. In city scapes such as Minneapolis, where impervious surfaces such as alleys, streets, sidewalks, driveways, rooftops, patios and the like predominate, rain water run off — as storm water — is a serious issue. A well-designed rain garden collects and retains run off from rooftop gutters, for example, giving nature a chance to recycle the water instead of sending it into the city storm drainage system. Rain gardens are typically adorned with native perennial plants, such as asters, anemone, goldenrod, bee balm and coneflowers. They’re not intended to be wetlands, but rather catch basins that dry out between rains.

Using recycled products

Working with recycled materials such as pavers is another upcoming trend in the Twin Cities, according to Sage Landscaping’s Corcoran. Sage has accessed a supply of historic stone taken from old buildings in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul and incorporated them as focal pieces into landscapes for clients, and also used them to make retaining walls and benches. Some of the stone hails from places such as the old Ramsey County Courthouse, which was torn down in the 1930s to make way for what is now the Landmark Center in St. Paul, and the long-deceased stockyards in South St. Paul.

Recycled pavers are great for use as alternatives to concrete walkways, Corcoran notes. Other vintage materials in high demand include old iron railings and wooden window frames, which can be used as trellises.

Always popular, but perhaps even more so in these stressful times, water elements have their place in almost every urban landscape. A small bubbling fountain can be added at a cost of under $100, notes Radford. People love the relaxing sound of moving water, she notes. Working with water brings out the creativity in designers, she adds. Rocky streams, burbling fountains, koi ponds — the options for adding water to a landscape are virtually limitless, she says.

Tips on timing

When is the best time to start working on a new landscape design? Anytime between snow melt and snow fall, according to Radford. Often homeowners start with trying to fix a problem, such as a drainage issue or broken sidewalk, or they’re putting in a new addition on the home, she says. That’s when they start thinking about new landscaping possibilities. People also need to know that they don’t need to do it all at once, she advises. They can do one phase this year — maybe fix the steps and add some new foundation plantings — and add a fountain or water garden the next.

Do-it-yourself is always a big thing in home landscaping, Baldus notes. But it’s also a good idea to consult with professionals who understand both the design process and the specifics of creating a successful and durable yard transformation.

“In the long run, a poorly designed outdoor space is more expensive than a well-designed one incorporating professional counsel, because you’re just not going to use the poorly designed space much,” he says.

“You don’t have to break the bank to put something nice in your backyard,” he says. “Even with a $3,000 to $5,000 project through a landscape firm, you can really improve your outdoor living area.”

Besides which, homeowners can farm out the heavy-lifting aspects of a project to the design firm. “Nothing ruins a May like trying to put in a new patio yourself,” he says.