Warm summer nights are on the way.
Yet until those balmy days are here, what projects to maximize long, relaxing days in the backyard are on your to-do list?
Whether you're installing an outdoor kitchen to make entertaining a breeze, or redesigning your lawn to be more eco- and maintenance-friendly, three local landscaping experts share their tips and insight for enhancing outdoor spaces on any scale.
While each works closely with their clients from the outset to narrow down needs and visions for a space, it's never a bad idea to start looking around for inspiration for the features you'd love to have.
If you're more of the do-it-yourself type, all three landscapers we spoke with said the top thing they'd recommend is not skipping an expert's opinion on a design plan, even if you'd rather do the physical work yourself. If your design requires concrete pouring or earth grading, however, it's still best to hire a professional, advises landscape architect Joshua Tripp, who owns Place LA, based in downtown Spokane.
"Landscaping is like building a house. You have to have a good foundation," Tripp says. "Grading, drainage, backfill and compaction — those are the things that can prove catastrophic down the road. A lot of people can do their own planting, irrigation, edging and grass, so know your skillset."
If you do hire a landscape firm to bring your dream backyard space to life, consider that many local companies are booking up fast for the 2020 work season, while others advise starting the design phase the year before you plan construction.
BRING THE INDOORS OUT
Bringing the outdoors in, or the indoors out, is one of the hottest trends in landscape design. Think full outdoor kitchens, living rooms, dining spaces and more. Even though the Inland Northwest climate isn't conducive to year-round outdoor living, there are ways to extend a space's seasonal usability.
"Out of all the trends, outdoor living is definitely where it's at right now," notes Coppercreek Landscaping owner Matt Barton. "When I started the business in 2003, it was water features, and those are still popular, but not the popularity that outdoor living has."
Coppercreek is a full service design-build landscaping company based in Spokane that specializes in high-end residential projects. In its portfolio are several lakeside vacation homes in the region owned by celebrities.
When designing, say, an outdoor kitchen, Barton says it's crucial to consider the space's orientation in relation to the home.
"It needs to be convenient enough to use year-round, both when you eat inside and outside," he notes.
To that end, features like a roof and lighting can allow a homeowner to grill outdoors even if it's a dark and rainy October night. In the heat of summer, these covered spaces offer shade and can be outfitted with ceiling fans or misters for more relief.
An outdoor fireplace or fire pit can also turn an outdoor space into a cozy early or late season retreat, says Kelly Mathison, owner of Legacy Landscapes.
"I always caution people, because when you look online for fire pits, you want to make sure it has a high BTU output," Mathison notes. "If you just get an inexpensive fire pit it's not going to put heat out, it's just going to be for ambiance."
While creating outdoor settings to entertain is a top priority for most, Tripp of Place LA says many of his clients often seek to have another spot separate from the house's focal outdoor gathering place.
"Some people want a little secluded space to read, or want a space for the kids to hang out off to the side, so definitely the design of small micro spaces within the overall design and master plan is important," Tripp says.
THE LITTLE DETAILS
Out of the many details that can improve an outdoor space's functionality and aesthetics, lighting can have one of the biggest impacts.
"I'm a huge proponent of landscape lighting," says Tripp. "One of the reasons is to extend usable seasons, and allowing us to extend the hours to enjoy your investment and space when it's dark."
Lighting can be installed along walkways, stairs, deck railings and other structural features, and can create nighttime ambiance when spotlit into trees and other architectural features of your backyard, like a water fountain or pergola. Advances in LED bulb technology also means most of these features use less energy and often can be controlled through an app on your phone, Tripp adds.
"All of the lighting design we do in our studio is low-voltage LED," he says. "You can set up scenes and control every fixture from zero to 100 [brightness]. It used to be just on or off, but now you can create some really cool dynamic environments."
Some systems can even be set to colors beyond the white light spectrum, Tripp notes, which can be fun to use for parties or during the holidays.
Along with creative lighting, many homeowners are adding outdoor entertainment systems to their spaces, including TVs and audio systems rated for outdoor use.
Water features, from small fountains to pools, continue to be popular requests from local homeowners.
"Pools and hot tubs are super popular; we're involved with a lot of pool projects every year," says Barton of Coppercreek. "At the end of the day, I think part of it is that people aren't doing the lake thing as much as they used to, and want that convenience instead of spending a million on a lake place."
Botanical elements, from planters to the trees and shrubbery around the lawn, bring outdoor living spaces to life in more ways than one. For most homeowners, picking easy to care for plants and flowers is a high priority.
"To keep your house the most maintenance friendly I encourage clients, if they want flowers and annuals, to always put those in pots and then in beds we can add color with more permanent plants," says Legacy Landscape's Mathison.
"As soon as you start doing annuals in [ground] beds you have to water more and that promotes weed growth and thus more maintenance."
Planters on decks and patios can be connected to irrigation systems to eliminate the need for hand watering with a hose. There are also pots and urns made from materials that can withstand the freeze-thaw cycle of the Inland Northwest and don't need to be winterized.
While drought-tolerant landscaping is a growing trend that more homeowners are now choosing in order to cut back on water use, Mathison cautions against getting overzealous with grass-free hardscapes, or xeriscaping, which can make it more difficult to cool your home when it's hottest.
"If you did all rock in your backyard with pathways and plantings, you're going to save on water but you're going to increase your energy bill from running the AC longer," he says.
Instead, drip irrigation and low-spray sprinkler heads can help lower water use, along with his previous tip to not plant thirsty, flowering annuals in sunny ground beds.
Incorporating small food gardens into a space has also become a popular request in recent years, says Place LA's Tripp. He advises aspiring home gardeners to start small so that years later the keep up doesn't become a major chore, and the garden is filled with more weeds than vegetables.
"You want to make sure it's something you embrace in your lifestyle and want to use, and that is designed to be easy to access and to take care of."
Living walls and trellises can be a creative and visually striking alternative to raised beds, and incorporating fruiting trees or shrubs into a landscape can also provide a passive gardening experience.
To bring interest to a space, Barton of Coppercreek recommends a mix of textures and materials, both in living and non-living materials.
"Any time we can create some contrast in the landscape, whether texture or color, that adds depth and character," he says. "Certainly boulders and rock mulches are pretty low maintenance but you can also introduce some cool focal elements like yard art or sculptural pieces like ornamental iron or steel."
"Our work goes beyond what a lot of people think of as landscaping, which are plants and grass," he continues. "The built environments we create are pretty diverse spaces when all is said and done."