A Guide to Patio Landscaping Ideas to Improve Your Outdoor Space

Ways to Make Your Patio or Deck More Attractive, Functional

Patio landscaping has a dual mandate. Your outdoor living area should look great, but it should also be functional. Privacy, safety, comfort and low-maintenance are four aspects of functionality in this case. I touch upon all four below, while focusing on ideas for improving the appearance of your deck or patio area.

Patio Plants: Good Things Come in Small Packages

Outdoor patio with plants

penguenstok/Getty Images

Patios and decks are rather uninviting if not furnished with plants and accessories. Plants soften the uncompromising lines of hardscape features, breathing life into them and beckoning you in to sit down and relax.

Although there are other ways to do it (such as patio planter pockets), the easiest way to incorporate plants into a deck or patio setting is to use container gardens. Because containers are portable, Northerners can easily grow tropical flowers in them during the summertime, then simply move them indoors when Jack Frost beckons. But you can grow almost anything in a container. The idea of using patio plants can even obviate the costly project of removing an old patio and constructing a new one, as plants are capable of hiding many eyesores.

Regarding safety, one caveat is in order here: if you’re allergic to bee stings, avoid patio landscaping geared flowers, because they’re bee magnets. Stick instead to foliage plants such Joseph’s coat.

Select the Right Tree for Your Patio Landscaping

My picture of Bloodgood Japanese maple shows its leaf color.

Picture: Bloodgood Japanese maples are valued for their foliage colour. David Beaulieu

Big plants can cause big problems. Trees are the biggest class of landscape plants, so one thing you definitely have to get right with your patio landscaping is tree selection:

    • If you want a shade tree for your patio, choose a tree that will be of intermediate height at maturity.
    • Avoid installing trees with aggressive root systems
    • Choose trees that are relatively clean to reduce maintenance

Japanese maples (image) give you good options for trees of intermediate height.

Some plants are better/worse than others for growing around septic tanks based on the nature of their root systems. These same plants are good/bad choices for patio landscaping — and for the same reason.

Then there’s the issue of whether or not a tree is “clean” (i.e., relatively mess-free). Eastern white pines are one of the messiest trees: they get pine pitch all over everything! By contrast, Sunburst honey locust is relatively mess-free.

Give Me Privacy or Give Me Death!

Photo of yard with deck.

Photo of garden with deck. Copyright 2008 www.gardenstructure.com – All Rights Reserved

I’m the type who craves privacy in my garden, so I’ve devoted two entries to that topic here. You may not be quite as reclusive as I am, but the vast majority of people like to have at least a little privacy.

Erecting fences is one way to gain privacy, but you can also achieve it through the use of plant material. As an example of the latter, observe the arborvitae bushes on the left-hand side of the picture. They help screen out unwanted attention from the neighbouring house. I discuss both methods (i.e., privacy fencing, as well as plant screens) in Ideas for Landscaping Property Lines

Something else is noteworthy in this photo. Note the impact made by the plants installed in front of this patio. Or better yet, try to imagine the area without them. It would be mighty bare, wouldn’t it? It’s just a matter of a few plants, but the difference they make is enormous. The little things can go a long way in patio landscaping.

Formal Hedges for Privacy

Privet hedge photo.

Privet hedge photo. David Beaulieu

In the prior picture, a loose arrangement of arborvitae shrubs furnishes a modicum of privacy. Some folks prefer this informal look. But others may be interested in the more formal screening (and greater degree of privacy) supplied by the traditional hedge. Privet is shown in this photo. But a number of options for formal hedges exist. As for all the entries in this article, simply click the image to access further information.

You’re Not Vertically Challenged, Are You?

Climbing roses are nice over archways. The climbing roses in this picture are light pink in color.

Picture: climbing rose over arbour in side garden. David Beaulieu

When mulling over our choices for patio landscaping, sometimes it’s easy to become fixated on the two-dimensional. But by including verticality in our designs, we open up a whole other dimension, making the outdoor living area much more interesting.

The vertical element can be introduced in a number of ways. The option with the greatest impact — and highest functionality — is the pergola. Put a shade canopy. over your pergola and you’ve transformed it into a room that isn’t quite “inside,” but neither is it any longer quite “outside.”

Some homeowners are more interested in growing flowering vines on their pergolas, just as they’d do on the smaller structures known as “garden arbours” (photo). Arbours. make for easier DIY projects; click the image for a tutorial on building a simple one. If a wall partially encloses your patio, try growing a plant along it espalier-style to create vertical interest.

Use Perennials to Soften Hard Patio Lines

Iceplant is a flowering ground cover. The iceplant in this photo has purple flowers.

Ice plant is a flowering ground cover. David Beaulieu

As mentioned above, hardscape structures such as patios bristle with harsh edges, and landscaping with plants is one of the best ways to provide a softening touch. Among the smaller plants, perennials such as ice plant (image) are the most popular choice for this job. Deploying a mix of mainly long-blooming perennials and small shrubs, even Northern gardeners can have something in bloom all year, as I detail in the article linked to above.

But Don’t Forget What Annuals Offer

Photo of a flower border of just petunias.

Picture: petunia flower border. David Beaulieu

Don’t be hesitant to spice up your patio landscaping with annuals. These plants may be short-lived, but they provide a potent injection of instant colour. Sure, the gardening snobs may look down on annuals such as impatiens as being strictly for amateurs. But these are the same people who pontificate about how some plants are “overused,” how some plants have colours too garish to use, etc. Always remember this is your outdoor space to enjoy. You should be making your own aesthetic decisions, since you know your own tastes better than the know-it-all’s do.

Cool in the Pool

Masonry pool deck picture.

Masonry pool deck picture. Belgard Hardscapes

One aspect of patio functionality is comfort, and that’s where pools come in to play. There’s nothing like sunning yourself on the patio and then jumping into a swimming pool to cool off. You’ll have to decide, though, if this luxury is worth the extra maintenance involved with pools. Moreover, there’s a safety issue here if you have small children.

In-ground swimming pools are also expensive, as are a couple of other patio features popular with the upscale:

Relax with Small Decorative Water Features

Rock fountain made of granite. The rock fountain's height makes it a focal point.

This rock fountain is made of granite. David Beaulieu

More manageable for the water-craving hoi polloi are small decorative water features with fountains. You can’t swim in them, but the gurgling sound made by their waters is ever so relaxing.

In addition to the DIY granite fountain project linked to above, you can get some ideas from this article on building decorative garden fountains, in which a ceramic fountain is used.

Your Landscaping Can Bring Out the Colour of Your Patio

Blue Star juniper picture. An evergreen shrub, Blue Star juniper is a compact plant.

Blue Star juniper picture. An evergreen shrub, Blue Star juniper is a compact plant. David Beaulieu

If you really want to get fancy, you can do some colour coordinating between your patio and your plants. For example, Blue Star juniper (picture) would bring out the blue in some bluestone pavers or even flagstone. For a smaller plant, try blue fescue grass.

Conversely, plant selections that might go well with a brick patio – depending on the colour of the bricks in question include:

    • Castor bean (which is a poisonous plant, so keep safety in mind)
    • Chocolate Drop sedum
    • A dark-leaved ninebark

By David Beaulieu