610.530.8752

A Pergola in Landscape Designs – Add Form and Function

Timber Frame Pergola
A natural timber frame pergola set on a bluestone flagstone patio beside a natural stone outdoor fireplace

A pergola can add form and function to outdoor living spaces and define an outdoor room. The columns signify the corners and walls of the room, while the beams & joists create a roof overhead. It will denote the main room for gathered activates while creating a visual point of convergence and architectural interest. These elements of the form are also main elements of the pergolas function to define a space.

Style is the element of the form that will define the character of the outdoor room. White Palladian columns with clean white beams and joists will create a formal space when situated in gardens of strong architectural and organized plantings such as boxwood hedges. Rough timber frame posts, beams and joists produce an informal feel to the room and blend seamlessly with loose informal planting and a more organic garden structure. The materials used for the pergola construction will influence the resulting style but should also be considered with respect to long term maintenance of the structure. Cedar or other timbers will require some sealing or oiling over time.

There are a variety of companies that produce synthetic pergolas with vinyl, fiberglass and polycarbonates. The higher quality of these products are almost indistinguishable from painted wood, though the lower quality clearly have a plastic feel to them. These synthetic products tend to work best when a more formal style is desired. Shade can be an important function of the pergola. The pergola alone may not offer enough protection from peak summer sun.

Vines grown on a pergola create additional shading and aesthetic interests. Another shade option is a retractable canopy that is set on tracks in the beam structure. These can be either mechanical or manual and provide a much lower maintenance option for shade when compared to the vines. Retractable sun screens can even be fitted between posts to provide protection from the sun when it is lower on the horizon. A pergola can create architectural interest, define and outdoor living space, provide retreat from the elements, and give structure for fruiting or flowering vines. It will contribute both form and function to your garden and outdoor living space.

Pennsylvania Bluestone in Formal Landscape Design

 

Pennsylvania bluestone is the most prominent paving material in formal outdoor living spaces throughout the northeast regions. Some people may refer to it as flagstone or slate, but the proper name is bluestone and the majority of it is from Pennsylvania. The natural stone paving material can be found in estate gardens from northern Virginia to Boston. Here in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, bluestone patios are common around the majestic old homes of West End Allentown, Saucon Valley Bethlehem and College Hill in Easton.

In formal landscape designs, the natural stone is cut in rectilinear patterns for patios. The limit of the pattern design is tied to the creativity of the landscape design and the landscape designer. Random patterns are the most common, but a good landscape designer can come up with multiple paving pattern options to uniquely fir the design. One approach is to install a band of stone on the perimeter of the patio, a running bond pattern in the field and a diamond pattern as medallion in the center.

Pennsylvania bluestone is sorted into various colors, grades and sizes. When left natural cut, the top has a finish known as ‘cleft’, meaning that it has ridges and variations. This rougher finish can be refined by flaming the tops which causes the stone to regularize and leaves a more even textured finish. This finish is most common on the uniformly color range called ‘Blue Blue’ or ‘Thermal Blue’. Classic and formal landscape and patio designs tend to call for the uniform color. Pennsylvania bluestone also comes in ‘Lilac’ ‘Green’ ‘Brown’ and a full color range mix.

bluestone patio
Formal Bluestone Patio in landscape design courtyard project

Bluestone patios can be installed several ways. The stone can be installed on a concrete slab with mortar pointing in the 3/8” joints between stones. Bluestone can also be ‘dry set’ on compacted stone base much like a concrete paver patio is installed. In that approach, polymeric sand or screenings are swept into the stone joints. A good installer will cut each piece of stone such that they all fit into the pattern with less than 1/8” joints, but 3/8” or more is the common joint for ‘dry set’ bluestone installers. A hybrid method involves installing a bluestone curb and then setting the stone on a damp masons mix mortar bed with each stone custom cut to make the tightest joint possible. This technique is expensive and reserved for only the best masons and the higher budget projects.

Front of House Landscape Design Project – Agrarian Setting

Front Courtyard with Fountain_Stone Walls_Pergola_Pavers I worked on this front of house landscape design and construction project several years ago in Bucks County PA. The homes design was developed around a rustic barn type architecture that fit naturally into the rolling agrarian landscape of the large property. To create architectural interest to the otherwise flat front of house façade, a pergola was added in a rough timber style. The pergola support columns are natural stone masonry construction with a taper to create dynamic interest.  The pergola is designed as a ‘roof’ for the front porch outdoor living space.

From the front porch, a wide set of bluestone steps flows to the front motor court. The motor court is designed in classical form on axis with the front door and the symmetry of the home. A natural stone masonry wall with bluestone caps delineates the gardens from the cart way. The concept is to create a garden experience and transition as the visitor moves from the motor court to the front porch outdoor living space and entry to the home.

The design axis of the front door, the front porch and the motor court is accentuated by a central fountain. The fountain is located in the center of the motor court and serves as a functional organizing feature for traffic flow as well as an aesthetic attraction. The fountain surround is a masonry stone wall using the same stone as the transition walls and the pergola support columns. The water feature itself is a granite millstone handcrafted in Maine. Water circulates up and through the stone, over the edges and back into the pool.

The form of the motor court is delineated with concrete paver bands and patterns.  Concrete pavers were chosen over granite cobblestones as a cost savings option since the entire long driveway to the main road also received a triple band of concrete pavers on each side. At the main entry to the property, a 15’ skirt of concrete pavers was installed as a transition to denote the entry.

Plantings in the front garden included boxwood hedges, shrub roses and groundcover. The garden design is classical in form, linear and organized in a geometric principle appropriate to the style of the home. A more intimate and informal cottage style garden was developed at the side porch where the family tended to spend more casual outdoor living time together. That side garden includes a wider variety of flowering shrubs organized around a pallet of hydrangea varieties and perennial geranium varieties.

Perennial Garden Theory & Design

 

Perennial gardens have a long tradition in landscape designs going back to some of the earliest gardens of Asia. However, they are most associated as beginning with the renaissance gardens of Europe. During that period, international travel expanded as did interest in horticultural specimens from across the world. The English perennial garden of the late renaissance and modern era are held as the prime example of design and excellence. These gardens were often extensive displays of color and variety requiring a staff of gardeners to maintain. Today’s homeowner can learn from those gardens and incorporate the concepts at a scale appropriate to their property and the amount of time they can invest in upkeep.

Perennial Flowers
Perennial Garden

A classical perennial garden can vary in dimensions and is designed in at least three layers. That requires at least 10’ of depth minimum, though 15’ or more is needed to really pull off that classical landscape design of the perennial garden. The length of such garden designs is at least 10’ and can be as long as 100’ or more. The design depends of the scale of the space and the outdoor living environmental that will contain the perennial garden.  The three layer minimum layers are a tall backdrop, a medium care and a lower growing foreground. Four, five or six layer gardens follow the same principles.

The key to a beautiful perennial garden is understanding color theory, plant texture combinations and plant bloom periods. I will address color theory in landscape design during a future blog as it is a topic of its own. The relationship between the varied plant textures creates an important aesthetic result in the landscape design. Use perennials with distinctly unique textures adjacent to one another in order to help delineate the garden and the design. Textures can be as important as colors in a successful perennial garden. The goal with bloom periods is to create a garden that has color and interest throughout the season. Don’t forget to consider the fall leave change color of a perennial in this part of the design.

Annual flowers might be considered cheating by some landscape designers, but they are a great way to ensure a beautiful garden throughout the season. Annual flowers have long, dependable bloom cycles and are great for tucking into bare spots. Some annual flowers have displays that are simply unachievable with a perennial.  Delphinium for example create a powerful color display early in the season while other perennials are just getting started (Delphinium are technically a bi-annual but are best used as an annual in the gardens of the north east).

When laying out the perennial design, create a repeating pattern throughout the garden. This creates a pleasant and somewhat logical aesthetic. It is a more relaxing experience for the viewer. Avoid perennials that are self-seeding or you will fight their spread throughout the garden and that will ruin the intent of the design. Double dig your planting beds incorporating as much rich compost as possible. Mulch with a very light, highly ground and composted peat based dressing. Do not use a standard mulch in a perennial garden since you will be working, turning, and maintaining it often. A regular triple ground hardwood mulch will just get in the way if your are a true perennial garden creator. A perennial garden is dynamic and ever evolving as the designer or gardener learn and adapt.

Deck Design & Construction – Options for Deck Materials & Styles

TimberTech Deck
Deck with Gazebo and Outdoor Kitchen

Deck designs have evolved in recent years. The range of decking and railing choices has expanded drastically. Designers are expanding the program for uses and finding new, creative ways to combine materials to make each project unique. Homeowners have a wide range of decisions to make when designing their dream deck.

The deck industry has continued to grow even through this recession. Designers have capitalized on this by expanding the planning of uses that can be choreographed into a deck project. Outdoor kitchens, pergolas, gazebos, porch roofs, hot tubs, fire features and more are all now commonly included in deck designs when the budget allows. The vast array of decking styles and colors allows deck designers to create patterns within the decking that can delineate the various use spaces. The same is true with railings where a design can combine aspects of varied railing systems.

For years the choices for decking were cedar or pressure treated wood (redwood on the west coast & mahogany for the big budget projects). Then composite decking was invented in the early 1990’s, and has since become the predominant decking material used today. Trex Inc. developed the first composite decking, and along with TimberTech Inc., they have led the way in developing the highest quality and most attractive products. Each company makes several lines to fit varied budgets. Beyond the variety of choices in style & color, a benefit of composite decking is reduced maintenance since they do not need to be stained & sealed regularly. Composite decking still needs to be cleaned regularly with soap and water to keep that sharp appearance.

Exotic tropical hardwood decking is an option for the homeowner who may be averse to synthetic decking. These woods are very dense and have natural tannins that resist decay over time. And they are beautiful wood. Brazilian Ipe is one of the more popular and highest quality choices in this class because of the rich, dark appearance, high density and high tannin levels. Batu, Cambara, Garapa & Tiger Wood are other readily available choices in this category. The installed cost of exotic hardwood is about 15% higher than the highest quality composite decking.

Homeowners and designers have a wide range of choices when it comes to picking a railing system and design. The composite decking companies (Trek and TimberTech) make railing systems of the same materials as the decking to create a unified appearance. The composite choices range from a railing that looks like the standard deck railing used for years to higher price options with ornate spindles, detailed rails, and integrated lighting. Iron & Aluminum railings have become increasingly popular due to the ‘lighter’ profile appearance. These railings allow greater visibility through the railing and create less of a sense of being fenced in on the deck. Fortress Railing Inc. makes both iron and iron simulated aluminum railings with a variety of decorative detailing options and integrated lighting. Iron, Aluminum and Composite railings are all generally in a close cost range, so the choice tends to be one of preference and not budget. Braided cable railings create a distinctive contemporary appearance, a very light profile and the best through visibility, but homeowners will spend significantly more for this system.

Pergolas, gazebos and porch roofs on and over a deck have become increasingly popular. These elements allow homeowners to escape the rain and/or sun, while also designating specific use areas of a deck. Gazebos and porch roofs allow for ceiling fans, recessed lighting and infrared heaters to extend the use late into the fall and early in the spring. Outdoor kitchens and bars on a deck create variety and interest within the space, and keep everyone from running in and out of the house for food and beverages.

As with any project, proper planning by an experienced, creative and qualified designer will lead to the best final results. Hire a company that employs an educated design professional, has a track record of building unique decks, roofs, kitchens etc., and uses in house journeyman carpenters for the construction.  There are plenty of companies that can slap up a deck, but there are few that can provide high quality, experienced design and construction.