If you're planning to fork over big bucks to create the outdoor living space of your dreams, or even do it yourself, you can't afford mistakes. The more time you spend on the design by reviewing its nuances, the more familiar you will be when the outcome is realized.
There are five important design mistakes that can break your project. Avoiding them eliminates unpleasant surprises, misunderstandings and general dissatisfaction, not to mention unexpected cost overruns at construction time.
1. Spaces created are too small to use.
Beware of undersized spaces. A patio should be at least 10 feet by 10 feet to accommodate table and chairs. Functional walkways must be more than 3 feet wide to accommodate a wheelbarrow, lawn mower or garbage can. Consider 4 feet wide a better choice because this dictates the dimensions of the gate so it won't become a bottleneck. It is wise to know exactly what you want to do with the space in as much detail as you can. This tells you or your designer how big the spaces must be if they are not limited by existing structures.
2. Failure to connect indoors with outdoors.
If your outdoor landscape is a visual extension of adjacent rooms, they must be designed to flow together without abrupt changes. For smaller homes, the patio is vital to harvesting more living space for days of good weather. It also provides a view outdoors that ties in nicely with interior themes. This connection is best achieved with hard materials such as paving that may be laid to match the color and texture of adjacent indoor rooms. The same applies to masonry, fencing or walls and even your choice of outdoor furniture.
3. Piecemeal design.
Creating a large or intricate landscape can take time and a lot of money, so many elect to build it one item at a time. Too often the home site is never viewed in the big picture, so there is no overriding guide as to how each space relates to the next. This results in a hodgepodge of elements that may cost more and benefit you less in the long run. With a good design for the entire site as your starting point, all is visually and functionally integrated for maximum beauty and economic efficiency. You can construct any part at any time without conflicts, knowing it will all be fully tied in at the end.
4. Oversized plants.
Excessive maintenance is inevitably caused by plants too large for the space provided. Once they mature to the maximum size of the space, you must perpetually prune and shear and clip plants to make sure they remain at that scale. Good planting design selects the perfect plant for every space in the landscape, so it is neither too tall nor too wide at maturity. A good designer knows the dimensions and character of every plant at maturity before she specifies it for a project. That ensures the plant is maintenance-free, saving you labor, time and money.
5. Underestimating importance of good design.
A beautiful, well-designed landscape costs the same as a poorly designed one. Well-trained landscape designers who work with a large palette of plants and materials as well as a range of styles are geared to give you a fine project. An installer who has little training may get a landscape installed, but it won't be great, and it will do even less for the beauty and enjoyment of your home. Carve out money to hire a good designer at the outset of your efforts, and whether you build it or hire a contractor, the results will be rewarding.
• Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer.