January 5, 2015

Details make the difference

Attention to small things is key to building an award-winning project


Over the years Alistair Johnston of Strybos, Barron King, a landscape architecture firm in Mississauga, Ont., has been judging green industry awards entries. He and fellow judges have seen some outstanding landscape designs fail to qualify, simply because one detail was overlooked.

Landscape Trades spoke with Johnston and asked him about the most common construction errors judges see year after year. This is not intended to be an in-depth how-to article, but rather give some insight into what landscape design and construction judges look for, and the level of detail necessary to create an award-winning project.

Paving stone
When laying stone along a curved edge the pattern rarely fits perfectly, requiring a lot of careful cutting. In Johnston’s experience, the contractor often pieces slivers of stone in and around the pavers. Some contractors see this as a demonstration of their cutting skill, but is problematic for several reasons. The small slivers can crack apart, or may eventually fall into the bedding sand. Either way, using small slivers of concrete paving stone compromises the integrity of the surface, which is engineered to lock together.
Less is more when choosing a plant palette. Choosing and repeating a few plants throughout the garden has a big impact, as demonstrated in this award-winning project.

The best practice is to remove two smaller stones from the interlocking pattern and cut a single larger stone to fit in the space. It takes a bit more time, but makes a big difference in the aesthetics of the hardscape, as well as its stability.

Time is always of the essence on the job site, and sometimes an installer can get in ‘the zone’ laying interlocking paving. Johnston cautions that it is important to step back from your work every once in a while, as he has seen long walkways with a bit of a wiggle in the lines, meaning the installer didn’t realize he was veering off the string line as he was working.

Another detail that catches the judge’s eye is extended continuous joint lines in ashlar interlocking paving stone patterns. An ashlar pattern is a group of random, shaped pavers designed to fit into one module. The paving stone manufacturer generally supplies suggested patterns for ashlar modules, but some installers create their own random pattern, getting into a routine with their head down, laying stone.

Johnston says the extended joint line breaks up the aesthetic pattern unnecessarily, but more importantly it affects the structure of the paved surface.  The long joint line diminishes the strength of the binding, interlocking effect. “Typically in a driveway, this is the part that will fail,” he explains. Fixing this tendency is as easy as occasionally stepping back from your work to eye up the lines, and make sure you are laying a random, interlocking pattern. Check with your paving manufacturer for recommendations, but Johnston says a good guideline is to lay no more than five to eight pavers in a line without an intersecting joint.

There is an exception to every rule, and sometimes specs will call for uninterrupted lines in paving, but they are usually against the grain and part of the overall landscape design.

Many of the rules in laying interlocking paving apply to flagstone, too. The use of square-cut flagstone is trendy, yet can result in long continuous joint lines detracting from the overall look of the surface if attention is not paid to the joints.

Little sliver cuts and thin wedges cut to fit a curve draw the eye as it picks up inconsistencies in the paved surface, says Johnston. Again, a larger piece should be cut to fit the curve, rather than using several small ones.

Laying random flagstone can be challenging, and over the years Johnston says he and fellow judges have seen contractors use too many pieces with sharp angles or lots of triangular pieces. This results in a ‘shattered glass’ effect, that can be jarring in an otherwise tranquil garden. When laying random flag, the ideal is a five-pointed stone, but triangular pieces can be fitted in tight corners. Experienced craftsmen keep consistent jointing between all the flags for a pleasing and professional look.
This garden sculpture is a great example of a piece that is in scale with the overall garden, and matches the garden style..

Ponds and water features
Sometimes the design and construction of an award entry is impeccable, except for the pond or water feature, which stands out like a sore thumb. In his experience as a judge, Johnston admits it is rare to find a well-constructed pond, and notes that proper integration of water features into landscapes is essential. What makes a good pond? Johnston prefers to emulate nature,  contemporary sheer descent-type features aside.

Judges will mark a landscape down if a pond is plunked down without good planning — liner installed, covered with a few slabs and surrounded by a whole lot of beach stone. Beach pebbles look good in the bottom of a pond, and in pockets or shelves around the side, says Johnston, but they look out of place surrounding an entire pond set in a lawn or garden.  Another red flag for judges is the use of armor stone in water features, “It looks manufactured,” he says, adding it can detract from the look of the entire design. “The placement and selection of rocks takes a lot of time, and over the years we have seen that the use of longer, layered rocks in smaller tiers is more effective. It gives a weathered, softer feel.”

The scale of a water feature is extremely important, as is the placement in the landscape. “Ponds and water features are difficult to situate. A water feature should be placed so it makes sense in the landscape as a focal point, not just stuck in a corner because the owner asked for one,” he says. Designing a water feature requires a different application of art and science than creating the rest of the landscape. If in doubt, Johnston suggests taking a course on how to properly design and install ponds, or ask someone whose work you admire for guidance or advice.

An award-winning planting scheme must have some type of theme, whether it be contemporary, formal or naturalized, and Johnston adds it should match the hardscape.

“When designing, less is more. You get more impact using 10 different plants throughout the garden than with 20 different types.” A little bit of everything is too much.

Judges are looking for plant choices that will provide interest and texture throughout the year, as well as the right plant for the right place.  Judges know that contactors walk a fine line between planting so the garden looks full when they leave the job site, or planting so the landscape looks good in five year’s time without rigorous pruning and thinning. “We see a tendency to overplant in many landscapes, but I think we need to educate the customer and encourage patience to let the plants fill in.”

An often-overlooked detail is the shape or edge of the beds. “If you are using curves, plan them with a broad arcing radius, not tight curves. And, if the garden is a formal design, Johnston reminds contractors to finish the straight edges with a string line. “A poor edge ruins the effect and draws the eye right away.”

Garden art
Using art or accents can be challenging and admittedly subjective, but Johnston says there are universal design rules you try to follow if you can. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but placement of garden art is very important.

“We often see over-use of sculptures. Unless you’ve designed a dedicated sculpture garden, several pieces of art should not be situated in the same planting bed. They should be separated somehow, with structures, screens or set in distinct garden rooms.”

Pay attention to scale of the objects d’art in the garden, too. If the sculpture or piece is large, then it should be balanced with larger plant material or structures. Johnston recommends creating an appropriate base for large pieces so they are stable, stay upright and vertical.

“The key to excellent carpentry work is in the details, whether it is trim work, custom made lattice or concealing connections,” Johnston observes. “Make sure your posts are plumb and everything is level.”

Designers call this the fit and finish, and it’s the extra time spent in sanding, filling holes and careful painting or staining that makes the difference between a nice landscape and an award-winner. “It’s always in the details.”

In the end, Johnston says, the most important part of the landscape is underground, and primes you for success up top. It’s the granular base for paving, the topsoil, the footings and foundations for fences and structures; get them right and you are well on your way to recognition.