ASK THE EXPERTS

CANADIAN BACKYARD GURUS NAN KEENAN & ROBERT BOLTMAN

I want to redesign my backyard but I want to do the work myself. Is there a point at which I need to call in an expert?

Much of that decision will depend on the scope of the design says Nan Keenan of Keenan Design. Putting in a vegetable garden may simply involve a trip to the local nursery or garden supply centre for advice, but she says larger projects need some long term vision. The Canadian-based landscape designer recommends finding a qualified person who will offer a consultation without fee or obligation, even if the project is small but might be part of any future renovation.

“It’s a personal decision,” says Robert Boltman of B sq. design studio inc., but he adds it might be time to call in an expert when the yard project gets beyond the client’s design capabilities. He says often clients have difficulty visualizing the space outside. Designing inside with walls that define the space is one thing but moving outside is a whole different scope. “When you are outside it’s hard because the ceiling is enormous. We have to create that space; we have to bring down that ceiling.” Boltman says part of the job of a designer is to create structure and bring things to scale. Often people will decide on elements they think will work but once installed they either don’t fit very well or don’t really flow together. “We put things in perspective for people. We can show them what a 20’ by 40’ pool looks like. We’ll tell them if it’s too big.”

Boltman recommends having a good idea of what you want in the yard and then seeking a professional to make it all work together. “A lot of people are using the internet these days to focus in more of what they really want.” He says that’s great and saves time and energy for everyone involved. He laughs as he says sometimes people don’t do that and will start arguing about design elements in his office. “It’s always fun being in that conversation.”

What are some of the common mistakes people make when starting a backyard project?

It can be hard to visualize size and space in a backyard and often that means people over estimate what will fit. Robert Boltman says clients sometimes want a bigger pool but they can’t understand that doing so will mean there is no room for a seating area or other spaces that will make the yard comfortable and useable. Boltman says it’s also important to really think about how the space will be used in all season and over time. A good example is a hot tub. Boltman says he often asks if clients plan to use a hot tub in winter. If the answer is yes, moving the tub close to the house can save a cold run through the winter snow.

Nan Keenan says often people make the mistake of doing a project piecemeal. “They work in one corner and get that all done and then do another corner. What ends up happening is it doesn’t really flow well.” Keenan says, even if people are doing the work themselves, it’s worth the money to get a good design from which to work. Another big mistake Keenan sees is when it comes to choosing plants. She says it is important to look at the atmosphere and space the plant will be growing in and choose appropriately. The trend is now moving towards opting for native plants, but just because the plant is native to the area doesn’t mean it is native to your soil. “Take the dogwood, for example,” says Keenan. “They require water and a certain amount of light but because it is native people think it will grow in their yard.”

Taking care of my lawn is becoming difficult with increasing bans on chemical and water. How do you recommend keeping a healthy lawn?

“Don’t under estimate an irrigation system,” recommends Robert Boltman. “An irrigation system is by far one of the most valuable things you can include in your garden.” Boltman says water sensitive irrigation systems reduce work and unnecessary watering and can utilize rain water and rooftop run off. “It is an added expense to the garden” he admits, “but you can store water these days, you can save that water and water your lawn of course.”

For her part, Nan Keenan admits lawn care is difficult in the current environmentally sensitive environment. More and more municipalities are banning pesticides and other lawn chemicals. Keenan says companies are moving to more environmentally sensitive products, but she says battling weeds is still a difficult fight. Choosing a different grass seed might alleviate some problems says the landscape designer. “There is seed that you can buy that requires very little water, doesn’t require a lot of sun and doesn’t require a lot of cutting.”

I want to start growing my food. How should I go about putting in a vegetable garden?

Growing food at home is a great idea for both your health and the environment but Keenan says people need to be aware of the space they have available. “I often suggest growing vegetables in containers,” says Keenan. It also offers the advantage of controlling the soil content and adjusting the location for sun. If you do want a traditional garden, prepare the soil well and make sure the location gets lots of sunlight. “Sometimes incorporating it right into the garden is not such a bad idea either. I would encourage putting a tomato plant amongst your other flower shrubs. There are a lot of lovely looking herbs that also work well in that kind of environment.” Taking that route also lets you keep the garden looking good all season long. A vegetable garden can look unsightly at certain times of the year but mixing the veggies in with other plants can keep it looking lush.

On May 16th, 2011, posted in: Summer by
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