The Principled Gardener Part 7 – Scale

Part Seven? I’m beginning to feel like I’m writing the script for a “Rocky” movie. Anyway, we’re nearing the end of our months-long discussion on Landscape Design Principles – are ya bored yet?  Well hang in there, there’s only two more to go. Today we look at Scale.

The principle of Scale refers to the size of landscape elements in relation to their surroundings. There are two factors to consider – one is the size of your house, and the other is the size of objects in the larger landscape (existing trees in the community, size of your neighbour’s house etc.).

In the examples to the left, the top image illustrates a house that is visually overwhelmed by the landscaping – the shrubs next to the house are as tall, or taller than the house, with some even obscuring windows. And the shade trees are huge in relation to the house – this scale is too large. The middle example is the exact opposite. The trees and shrubs look like toys in comparison to the house – the scale of this landscape is too small. The bottom example is what we’re after. The landscape elements are well suited to the size of the house, hence this represents appropriate scale.

So what makes for proper scale? Well for one, the shrubs right up against the house shouldn’t be much more than about ¾ the height of the house (walls) and the trees that are out a bit further, not more than about twice the height of the house. It just looks “right”.

But what if you live in an older neighbourhood, like mine, where the houses are small, the lots are huge and so are the existing trees in the community? In this case, the large shade trees may indeed be in scale with the neighbourhood, but any plantings against the house will still need to be in scale with the house, like in the example below right. Note the larger shrubs bridging the scale between the smaller plants and the big trees.

I spend a lot of time exploring various communities while walking our dog, and what I see is yard after yard where scale is consistently ignored, even in the simplest landscapes – either the house is dwarfed by the landscape or the landscape is dwarfed by the house.

I think what happens is one of two things. Many newer communities boast large homes, but at the expense of usable outdoor space – the house takes up most of the lot, leaving very little room for landscaping. Homeowners then opt for groupings of smallish shrubs that take up less space, without considering their size relative to the house.

A large house on a small lot creates a design challenge in terms of good scale. Here, the small plantings in front of this house appear overpowered because they are too small for the house.

The use of a few tall narrow trees can be helpful here – they relate well to the height of the house without taking up too much breadth. With just the addition of a columnar tree or two, a whole composition can be brought into scale.

The two columnar trees flanking the house provide necessary scale to this landscape, relating the large stature of the house to that of the smaller plantings.

The same house, now with mature boulevard trees, illustrates proper scale in the context of the larger landscape, i.e. a neighbourhood.

The other thing that happens is illustrated on the left. In the top example, the diorama represents an older home with plantings typical of the time it was built – Cotoneaster hedge, Potentilla, and little Johnny’s ‘Arbour Day’ tree, a Colorado spruce (Picea pungens). Not particularly inspired I realize, but at least it’s in scale with the house.  Fast forward a few decades and the scenario depicted in the bottom photo has likely ensued. Little Johnny is forty years old now and so is this landscape. I guess nobody took into account way back when, that living things don’t remain static. They grow … and grow and grow. So what was once in scale is no longer.

Gardeners, let’s remember to consider future size – the mature size of the plants we choose – and locate them accordingly.  Let’s not plant Colorado spruce or the even larger white spruce (Picea glauca), in our small urban yards. They are for acreages and parks, and maybe very large residential yards, but too big for any other urban application.

There are smaller evergreens much better suited to our gardens, for example Picea pungens ‘Bakeri’ (Baker’s blue spruce) or Pinus uncinata (mountain pine).

In my own neighbourhood I see tall cedars (likely cv. ‘Brandon’) – planted decades ago to frame the entrance of tiny bungalows – that now tower above them. In fairness to whomever planted them, I suspect the literature at the time may have advised that these Thuja species would top out at about 15 feet. Yeah right – gotta laugh when I hear people exclaim ‘cedars don’t do well in Calgary’.

I find this latter scenario (small house, big lot) to be more of a challenge than the reverse –precisely because there is often existing mature plant material that’s way too big, and homeowners are reluctant to part with it.  I don’t blame them. I have a huge Colorado blue spruce right in the middle of my back yard. Though we have a relatively large property, this mammoth evergreen has been difficult to design around. Every winter my husband and I contemplate removing it and every summer we remember why we, as of yet, haven’t done so – it provides much-needed shade from the late-day prairie sun. If you live on the prairies you’ll no doubt be aware, that our late-day sun can be hotter and more intense than our mid-day sun. So unless we decide to invest in central air conditioning, Mr. Spruce gets to stay.

The right side of this landscape is nicely in scale with the house. On the left side, a very large blue spruce precludes the possibility of correct scale for that area. It’s a lovely tree – healthy and very blue, so I understood why the clients wanted to keep it, but it typifies the design challenges of a mature neighbourhood. Photo: Sue Gaviller

If you’re planning a new landscape, or renovating your old landscape, remember to think about Scale. Then think like Goldilocks – you don’t want too big. Or too small. You want juuust right.

Til next time,
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