Some of Nashville’s best landscape designers discuss how they approach their craft

Some of Nashville’s best landscape designers discuss how they approach their craft

What wall finishes, floor coverings and furniture are to the inside of a home, plants, shrubs and trees are to its outside. And just as interior design makes a house a home, so too does landscaping. “It’s about making your home more beautiful,” says Beth Flood, landscape designer at Bates Nursery. “But it’s also about solving problems and finding things that work.”

Among the problems Nashville landscapers face are the impatient homeowner’s fatal attraction to fast-growing but disease-prone trees and shrubs. “Bradford pears are a standing joke among landscapers,” says Flood of the ubiquitous tree trend than swept Nashville a few years back. “But it’s important not to use any tree as heavily as Bradford pears have been used in areas like Brentwood.” Hardier and more attractive trees that Flood recommends include Golden Full Moon maple, paper bark maple, Japanese maples, dogwoods and redbuds.

Long before plants and trees are selected, though, the landscape designer makes a thorough study of the house and property—and its owners. While the architectural style of a house, its orientation on the property, the soil conditions and climate are all important factors, assessing the needs of the homeowners who actually look at and use the landscaping everyday comes first. “I ask people about their kids, their dogs, whether they want to sit quietly in their garden or use the backyard to entertain 50 people for barbecue,” says Flood. “I also talk to the homeowners about their level of interest in gardening—because there is no such thing as a no-maintenance garden.”

Landscape designer Jason White agrees. “Some landscapers call English ivy and Manhattan euonymus low maintenance, but those plants are prone to insects and disease, so you actually end up spending lots of time trying to keep them healthy,” says White, who is co-owner of Eden: A Garden Shop. “Everyone wants instant landscaping, but anything that grows really fast is also likely to be weak and susceptible to disease.” Some of White’s favorite choices for attractive, hardy plants, trees and shrubs include Yoshino cherry, magnolias, laurel, junipers, ajuga and ornamental grasses.

White also spends time quizzing landscape clients about their outdoor lifestyle. “I need to know where they want to spend most of their time outside and what they plan to do there,” he says. “If you want an area where you can sit and have coffee with a friend, for example, I might create a space with an arbor or incorporate a swing or a piece of sculpture there. If you need a filler along a back fence, I might suggest shrubs to create a faux wall.”

Nashville’s famously fickle weather and clay-over-limestone soil are other factors to be considered when developing a landscape design. “Understanding your soil is the basis of everything, really,” says White, who has a bachelor’s degree in soil science from University of Tennessee, Martin. “There’s almost no way you can add too much acid to the soil in Nashville, for instance, because there’s so much limestone—which makes it more basic than acidic. And it’s so inexpensive to treat your soil that anyone can afford to improve it.”

The 2003 winter has been one of the harshest in years, but native gardeners understand that frigid temperatures, ice and snow are actually pretty normal for this part of the South. Mild winters of recent years have fooled some into planting things that aren’t suited to this climate zone. “Pampas grass, for example, isn’t winter hardy in Nashville—yucca is a better choice,” Flood says. “And 90 percent of the crepe myrtles sold in our area aren’t winter hardy. Most are just labeled 'red’ crepe myrtles, which gives you no indication of what you’re getting.” There are hardier varieties of the popular summer blooming shrub, according to Flood, and a local nursery rather than a chain home improvement store is your best bet for finding one. Red-tipped photinia is another fast-growing shrub that crumbles in extreme cold. “It’s often used as a foundation plant even though it’s difficult to control, has to be regularly sprayed for disease and often freezes to the ground,” Flood says.

Privacy is something many homeowners want to achieve with landscaping. “People who want to make their backyards more private can use a variety of shrubs and small- to medium-sized trees,” says Flood. “Many should be evergreens, like magnolias and hollies. Unfortunately, people want fast-growing evergreens, so they plant Leland cypress and white pines as a privacy screen. White pines in particular have an appalling death rate, so after a year or two, they end up with a line of trees that looks like a mouth with missing teeth.”

Privacy was just one concern for Nashville landscape designer Steve Sirls when he was landscaping a new home in Murfeesboro. “The house was massive and had a French influence, so I decided to keep the landscape design very simple and to use plants sparely, so the overall look wouldn’t be overpowering,” Sirls says. The approach worked especially well in the pool area, which Sirls flanked on either end with semicircles of pyramidal hornbeams for privacy and gloriosa daisies backed by pink fairy roses for color. He also kept things simple at the home’s front entrance, using a single boxwood on either side backed by a Yoshino cherry tree. “Too much repetition of plants around the entrance is totally unnecessary,” Sirls says.

As far as new landscaping and garden styles go, most designers report a trend toward more personalized, less generic approaches. “With so many new homes looking the same, my clients are seeking out landscaping that distinguishes their house from their neighbors,” says White. “People seem more willing to try something a little different—which I like because I tend to use a diversity of plants and asymmetrical designs.”

Sirls also favors a less formulaic approach. “I still get people who think they want a cottage garden (which uses a variety of perennials), though not every house is good for that. And if you don’t tend it every day, it’s a mess,” he says. “My style is really one that flows from the home and the homeowner. I pay attention to the look of the house and listen to the owner’s needs, as well as to the condition of the soil.”

One of Sirls’ most satisfying landscaping designs was one he did recently for a home in Gallatin. “It was a challenge because the property was on a really steep hill and there were problems with wind exposure.” Sirls’ solution was to landscape with plants, like ornamental grasses and witch hazel, that stand up to the extremes and still look good. “I loved doing this because the homeowners had basically given up and didn’t think anything would grow there.” In more favorable circumstances, Sirls favors a mix of perennials, herbs and vegetables in combination with boxwoods and Japanese maples.

Perhaps the biggest trend in landscaping these days is achieving a seamless transition from a home’s interior to its outdoor spaces. “As landscape architects, we synthesize the concepts of site planning, architecture and horticulture, so we are very keen on the relationship between interior and exterior spaces,” says Ben Page, whose firm works on both residential and commercial properties. “We recently worked on a new home where every room had three exposures to the outside. We created courtyards and other exterior spaces that maximized the home’s interior and exterior flow.” Page has also noticed that homeowners are favoring small, better-planned houses over mega-mansions. “Our clients are building more thoughtfully these days,” says Page. “Tying the inside to the outside with landscape design is one way of making a smaller house live like a large one.”

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