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How to Landscape Without Plants

Most landscape design consists of a combination of turf, ornamental plantings, and hardscape--walkways, patios, fountains, decks, and other non-living aesthetic or utilitarian features. However, an attractive hardscape for a residential yard, urban courtyard or commercial property can be designed without any plants at all, minimizing maintenance costs. A mix of material colors and texture and a large sundial installation will play with elements of light and shadow, creating visual interest, while inclusion of a water feature will add motion and sound.

Sketch a rough map of the area to be landscaped on graph paper using pencil. Measure the area's dimensions with tape measure and note those on the graph paper sketch. Observe the landscape throughout the day, marking areas of sun and shade on the sketch.

Set several wood stakes into the ground around the edges of the landscape area. Run string across the area between pairs of stakes, tying it tightly to each stake several inches off the ground. Assess the grade or slope of the area by placing the bubble level along the string. Sketch a cut-away view of the landscape area on graph paper with pencil, noting all slopes and grades.

Grade the landscape area to nearly level, with a slight slope towards one central area for drainage, using lawn tractor, small bulldozer or, for a smaller area, shovels. Terrace steep slopes, leaving nearly-level surfaces between the vertical rises of the terraces, tapering slightly downward towards the lowest surface level. Build vertical walls to front the steps of the terraces, using pavers, bricks, or field stone. Include stairs for comfortably descending the terraces.

Assess the size and topography of the landscape area to determine where a watercourse and a large-scale sundial feature may be installed for best aesthetic and functional effect. Outline the location for installing these features on your graph-paper sketch map. Draw complementary shapes between these features, to be filled in on the ground with edged blocks of contrasting materials.

Dig a 3-foot deep hole, about 1/20 the width and length dimensions of the landscape area, at about the center of the lowest level of the landscape area, centered on the point to which the area's slope has been graded. Disperse the removed soil to the outer edges of the landscape area with a shovel, lawn tractor or bulldozer. Fill the hole with 1 foot of pea gravel and 2 feet of sand.

Lay landscape weed cloth over all horizontal surfaces of the landscape area. Outline each section of the landscape design, as indicated on the graph paper sketch, with pavers or bricks.

In center of area designated for a sundial, cut a hole in the weed cloth with utility shears. Dig a hole 2 feet deep and the outer dimensions of your obelisk or pole, using a shovel. Stand the obelisk or pole vertically in the hole and backfill around it with removed topsoil. Press the obelisk or pole firmly into place by tamping down the earth around it with your feet. Set 12 fieldstones around the obelisk or pole, at a distance of 4 to 10 feet from it, indicating the locations where its shadow will mark each hour of the day. Set cobblestones in concentric circles around the obelisk or pole and stones, filling the surface of this segment of the landscape. Fill in between the cobblestones with white sand.

In the center of the area designated for a water feature, cut away landscape weed cloth with shears in the size of the desired water pool. Dig a hole to the desired size, and line the hole with pond liner. Set recirculating water pump in the pond liner.

Stack concrete slabs and silver-colored metal culvert piping to provide an attractive waterfall course, ending in the pond. Connect hose from recirculating water pump to the top of the stacked materials. Fill pool with water and prime the pump. Plug the pump into an electrical outlet and turn it on to test the water flow. Adjust the stacked concrete slabs and pipes until you achieve your desired flow effect. Fill remainder of ground surface of the segment of landscape around the water feature with pea gravel.

Fill the remaining outlined segments of the landscape area to the top of the pavers or bricks used for outlining, each with one landscaping material (crushed marble, pea gravel, white sand) to make an attractive pattern. Stand field stones in the white sand portion and rake the sand surface gently with a metal rake to create a zen-garden effect.


Consider alternative materials, like dry corn, pine bark, or sea shells, set in blocks or geometric shapes edged with pavers or brick to create additional textural and color interest.

Add black and white or color tile to poured concrete in mosaic forms to echo the classical piazzas of the Mediterranean. Complete a classical look with a colonnade and sculptures on architectural pedestals.

Install marble benches or wood or rattan seating to enjoy your plantless landscaping. A fire pit also makes an ideal hardscape feature, providing a focal point for sitting groups.

Include sculpture and lighting to enhance your hardscape landscape.

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