Landscape Choices

Starting a New Lawn: Seed vs. Sod

When you are looking to create a new lawn area in your landscape, there are two basic ways to accomplish that: laying down sod or grass seed. While the end result will generally be the same, the process to achieve an even, green lawn is very different.

Growing a Lawn From Seed

For most of history, if you wanted a lawn, you grew it from seed. Seeding a lawn is still an extremely popular option. The biggest factor in that popularity is the cost, as laying down seed is much less expensive than sod. The cost savings increase as the area of grass does, with hydroseeding becoming a fast, economical option at larger scales. Growing a lawn from seed also allows you to choose one or more grass species that are well-suited to your particular site conditions, whereas sod is usually developed for average conditions and can perform poorly at extremes.

The problem with seeding a lawn, however, is that it takes a lot of time and maintenance to get a nice green lawn established. Frequent water is critical to get the grass established, especially while the seed is germinating. The soil should be kept damp during that period, which will likely require at least two watering sessions a day, with more in hot or dry weather. The grass seeds can blow or be washed away, and weed seeds can similarly be introduced into the new lawn. Running and playing, or even just walking on the new lawn can damage the new plants, so it’s out of commission for weeks to months as the grass is growing. It may take multiple rounds of seeding, fertilizing, and weed control to achieve the traditional lush, green lawn many people desire.

All About Sod

Sod eliminates all the work and waiting of establishing a lawn from seed. If you opt for sod installation, you are essentially outsourcing your grass-growing to a farm. The sod farm will deal with watering and fertilizing the grass as it grows and applying pesticides to control weed growth. The sod that gets delivered will be lush, green, and weed-free. It will need a short period of frequent watering for the roots to establish into your existing topsoil, but nothing as extensive as growing from seed. Within a couple days it can take light foot traffic, and is ready for more active use not long after.

Because of the work involved in both growing and installing sod, however, a new sod lawn is much more expensive than the same lawn would be if grown from seed. Sod also is a poor choice if you’re looking for a lawn with specific qualities like drought- or shade-tolerance, as most sod farms generally grow a one-size-fits-all product.

Another downside to sod is the nylon mesh it often relies on. Depending on the region and the grower, sod is often grown with a layer of nylon netting as a substrate. While this makes it easier to cut, roll, and transport the sod, it can cause big headaches down the line. The plastic mesh does not degrade while buried underground, remaining beneath the lawn for decades. Adding or expanding planting beds in the future will require carefully digging up and cutting the old netting in order to avoid damaging the existing lawn. If the lawn itself needs to be revamped in the future, the mesh can tangle up tillers and seeders and add a lot of headache to the job. If there isn’t a local supplier who offers a mesh-free product, removing the mesh before installation can save a lot of work and frustration in the future.

The choice between sod and seed really comes down to the balance between money and time. If you have the time to nurse your new lawn along and can wait for the finished product, seed will certainly save you money. For a quick, low-effort lawn, however, sod might be worth the cost premium.

Choosing the Right Patio Material for Your Landscape

A patio is often the central element of a residential landscape. It provides a space for gathering or entertaining, becoming an extension of the indoors. The specifics of a patio can be customized endlessly to suit the needs and lifestyle of the homeowner, but there are a few broad categories of material to choose from.

Poured Concrete Patios

Poured concrete is by far the most popular choice for an outdoor patio. It comes in a range of colors and textures (see our post on concrete finishes here), which makes it suitable for any style of landscape. Concrete provides a smooth, flat surface that is easy to walk across and is a perfect setting for outdoor furniture. Other than regular cleaning and sealing, concrete is extremely low maintenance option, and properly installed and cared for concrete has a very long lifespan.

A stamped concrete patio creates an entertaining pocket on this hillside.

A stamped concrete patio creates an entertaining pocket on this hillside.

Concrete can be an expensive option, however, especially depending on the complexity of the finishing process. It is also difficult to repair any damage that occurs, and the old saying that there are two types of concrete--concrete that has cracked, and concrete that will crack--holds true, even with the best preparation. Concrete patios also have a heavy environmental burden, requiring a large amount of energy to produce the cement that binds the concrete together. Concrete is also an impermeable surface, meaning that water cannot pass through it. Instead, water runs off the surface, which can cause localized flooding. Runoff from concrete can also carry contaminants, which is an important consideration for landscapes near sensitive wetlands and bodies of water.

Paver Patios

Paver patios are a classic style that still works in modern landscapes. While traditional paver patios were usually made of clay bricks, today you’re more likely to find pavers made from concrete in an assortment of shapes, sizes, and colors. Paver patios can create a rich, elegant look in the landscape, and the variety available makes it possible to find a paver that complements any landscape. Because they are modular by nature, a paver patio is easy to repair if part of it gets damaged, and the pavers themselves can be used if the patio layout is changed at some point in the future. Depending on the installation procedure and the style of paver, the joints between pavers can allow water through, allowing for water infiltration into the soil below. These semi-permeable designs can be a good choice for patios in ecologically sensitive areas, creating less runoff than concrete or non-permeable pavers while still offering a smooth, usable surface.

Modern concrete pavers come in a variety of styles, like this flagstone look.

Modern concrete pavers come in a variety of styles, like this flagstone look.

Concrete pavers, however, carry with them the same energy intensive manufacturing process as poured concrete. They also require a great deal of work to install, especially in regions like Spokane and Coeur D’Alene where extensive preparation is needed to counteract frost heave. When accounting for all the labor involved, paver patios usually end up more expensive than even the priciest concrete finishes. And while well-chosen pavers can give a landscape a luxurious look, the wrong pattern or color will make things look busy or overwhelming, detracting from the overall design.

Flagstone Patios

For a patio that truly expresses the character of its setting, local flagstone can’t be rivaled. A flagstone patio is usually constructed one of two ways. Either the flagstone pieces are set in a bed of sand, similar to paver installation, or they are mortared on top of a poured concrete slab. Either method can be repaired in case of damage, and the former has the added benefit of being permeable to water infiltration. The irregular shape of flagstone can add a natural feel to the landscape, but it can also be cut to size, known as dimensional stone, for a more classic style.

This flagstone patio creates a natural, low-impact entertaining area by the water's edge.

This flagstone patio creates a natural, low-impact entertaining area by the water's edge.

The variation in the surface of flagstone, however, doesn’t make it a great choice for high use areas, especially dining areas where people will be frequently moving furniture around. Additionally, natural flagstone is often one of the most expensive patio options, depending how common the stone is and how far from the quarry the project is located. In addition to the high costs of materials, uncut flagstone requires even more installation time than pavers, as each stone has to be fitted together with others like a puzzle. Dimensional flagstone has the advantage on install time, but more than makes up for it with the increased processing it has to undergo. And when it comes down to it, natural stone simply doesn’t work with every style of landscape.

Gravel Patios

Gravel patios offer a substantially different surface to other options, and the exact gravel choice has a lot of impact on the functionality of a patio (see our post on that here). Overall, however, gravel patios are an inexpensive option for outdoor gathering space. Gravel is fully permeable to water, and of course won’t suffer from cracks or chips in the surface. From modern to rustic landscape designs, there are gravel options to fit.

Concrete pavers set into this gravel patio create a more robust walking path.

Concrete pavers set into this gravel patio create a more robust walking path.

Gravel is best suited to patios that don’t get heavy use, however. Foot traffic and the movement of furniture will displace the gravel, although the degree of movement will depend on the type of used. Sitting areas can be great, for example, but the constant scooting of chairs around a dining table would be difficult on most gravel surfaces.And without some sort of buffer between the patio and the indoors, it’s easy to track gravel particles indoors, potentially damaging floors inside.

One material does not exclude another, however, and it’s possible to artfully mix patio materials in the landscape, or even within an individual patio. If you’re interested in a creative patio design, get in touch with us at Pacific Garden Design to discuss your landscaping project.

Choosing the Right Concrete Finish

Concrete is used more than any other material worldwide because of its strength and durability. At its most basic, concrete is a mix of aggregate and cement which is mixed with water and poured into forms to cure. The exact materials and ratios used can impart a wide range of characteristics, making concrete an incredibly versatile material. In the landscape, the most obvious characteristic of a concrete installation is how it is finished after it is poured into a form. There are four typical outdoor finishes: broom-finished, exposed aggregate, sandwashed, and stamped.

Broom-finished concrete is a popular choice for driveways.

Broom-finished concrete is a popular choice for driveways.

Broom-Finished Concrete

A gray, broom-textured concrete is the most basic outdoor concrete finish. It is commonly used for sidewalks and driveways and, as the name suggests, involves dragging a broom across the surface of the wet concrete to give it a ridged texture. Its popularity lies in the fact that it is a durable and economical finish, as well as one that provides good traction in wet conditions. For a little extra interest, a colored pigment can be mixed into the concrete to give it a tone other than the basic gray.

Exposed Aggregate Concrete

To give concrete an exposed aggregate finish, the surface of the wet concrete is treated with a chemical that stops the outer layer of cement from curing. That outer layer is then washed off, revealing the aggregate within the concrete. Exposed aggregate concrete features a bumpy, pebbled texture, which creates excellent traction when wet. The aggregate, however, often has sharp or pointy edges which can dig into bare feet, making it an uncomfortable choice for a backyard patio. Exposed aggregate is also prone to damage, as the protective cement that binds the aggregate together has been removed from the surface of the concrete.

Sandwashed Concrete

Sandwashed concrete undergoes a similar finishing process as exposed aggregate, but the composition of the concrete mix is different. For a sandwash finish, the mix will have a higher proportion of small sand-sized particles versus pebble-sized particles for exposed aggregate. When the top layer of cement is washed off, the concrete is left with a uniform texture much like the surface of sandpaper. The surface is comfortable to walk on while still offering excellent traction, and the unobtrusive finish is suitable for any style of landscape.

The sandwashed finish gives this concrete sidewalk traction even when wet.

The sandwashed finish gives this concrete sidewalk traction even when wet.

Stamped Concrete

Because of the extensive process for finishing stamped concrete, its final appearance can vary. Stamped concrete typically has a pigment mixed into the concrete itself to give it a base color. Additional pigments are often applied to the surface of the concrete to give it depth and character, and then large rubber stamps are pressed into the wet concrete. The concrete takes on the texture of the stamps, which can be patterned with organic or geometric shapes that mimic stone or other material. The stamping process gives the concrete a very smooth surface that can be slippery when wet, however, which makes stamped concrete a poor choice for walkways or pool decks. The smooth surface also shows wear much more easily than a more textured finish, which may give the concrete a shorter aesthetic lifespan.

The subtle stone texture of this stamped concrete patio blends with the natural stone around it.

The subtle stone texture of this stamped concrete patio blends with the natural stone around it.

New concrete work is a big investment, and it’s the sort of project that you only get one chance to do right. If you’re considering concrete patios or walkways, get in touch with us to see what our expert concrete finishers can do for your landscape.

Gravel Options for Patios and Paths

Gravel is a great, low-impact material for patios and pathways. It is less expensive than solid materials like concrete, pavers, or flagstone; is quick to install; and has many environmental benefits over solid surfaces. The type of gravel used affects the function of the space, but it can also impact the overall aesthetic. A speckled gray gravel can evoke a zen garden feel, golden decomposed granite conjures Tuscan themes, and dark lava rock harkens back to mid-century landscapes. Here’s an overview of a few gravel options to consider for a gravel path or patio.

Pea Gravel

Pea gravel is a popular material because it is inexpensive and comes in a variety of colors and sizes. It’s composed of rounded pebbles, so it is comfortable for pets or bare feet to walk across. Because of its round shape, however, pea gravel can’t be compacted into a smooth surface. Individual pebbles simply shift against one another when force is applied, like plastic balls in a ball pit. Just as a child jumping into a ball pit will plunge down beneath the surface, your feet, furniture legs, and trash can wheels will similarly displace pea gravel as they press down. This makes pea gravel a poor choice for patios, where it will impede the movement of people and furniture, and a high maintenance choice for paths, where it will require frequent smoothing and cleanup of stray pebbles that have been inadvertently flung out of place.

Basalt Chip

Basalt is a dark, volcanic rock that is plentiful across the Inland Northwest, thanks to lava flows that blanketed the region a few million years ago, making it a fairly affordable choice in the region today. The rock is fairly uniform in color, which makes it ideal for understated use in the landscape. Basalt comes in many sizes, from cobbles several inches across to small gravel of less than half an inch. Because of the texture of the rock, chipped basalt breaks into jagged, angular pieces. While this can be uncomfortable on bare feet, it does mean that the edges of the gravel pieces will lock together when compacted. This allows you to create a much stronger surface than pea gravel, as the individual chips do not shift and travel in the same way as round pebbles. Smaller-sized basalt chip will create a smoother, flatter patio, but the smaller pieces can also be more painful to step on.

Small basalt chip creates a stable patio surface, but it can be uncomfortable on bare feet.

Small basalt chip creates a stable patio surface, but it can be uncomfortable on bare feet.

Crushed Granite

Like basalt, granite is a volcanic rock that is fairly common throughout the Spokane/Coeur D’Alene region. Its texture is very different, however, with large crystals of different colored minerals. In addition to giving crushed granite a very different look than basalt chip, those large crystals provide a coarse network of joints at which the granite breaks apart when crushed. This results in gravel with fewer sharp edges, and those edges that remain wear down more easily than basalt would. Even a granite pebble without sharp edges will have many bumps and ridges that allow it to lock against surrounding pebbles when compacted, making it a very good choice for gravel pathways and patios. In our area, it is usually close to basalt in price, but that will vary across the country depending on local supply.

A flagstone path through crushed granite forms a comfortable walkway for bare feet and pets.

A flagstone path through crushed granite forms a comfortable walkway for bare feet and pets.

Decomposed Granite

Decomposed granite offers a compromise between the comfortable feel of pea gravel and the structural integrity of basalt chip or crushed granite. As granite ages, the individual crystals and minerals break apart, forming a material with particles that range from rock dust to very small rounded pebbles that won’t stab a bare foot or paw. A decomposed granite patio or pathway is usually more expensive than using a similar crushed granite, but the small and varied particles compact down to a very strong and stable surface, comparable to a solid product. This means that decomposed granite has much less maintenance than other gravel products, while also being much more comfortable to walk on and use as a patio.

While all gravel patio and path options are more affordable and offer environmental benefits over solid products like concrete or pavers, they counter that somewhat with their increased maintenance. The level of maintenance will certainly vary by material and application, but in general a more expensive material like decomposed granite will need much less repair and replenishing than a material like pea gravel. Each person’s needs and budget will dictate which type of gravel patio is appropriate for their landscape. If you think a gravel patio might be a good choice for your landscape, contact us to look at your options.

Edging Part 2: Surface-Laid Products

In our previous post, we looked at three types of edging that are all installed as long strips anchored into a trench. This time we’ll look at a few options that provide a different look and functionality than the previous choices, all laid on the surface rather than buried. As with most things, the edging product that fits with one landscape design could be totally out of place or unworkable in another, so considering your needs and the attributes of each option is crucial.

Concrete Edging

Concrete edging, or curbing as it is sometimes called, is a popular choice in Spokane and Coeur D’Alene landscapes because it is well suited for our hilly geography. Concrete edging is formed in place, so the wet mix will conform to any terrain and bend around curves. Another reason for its popularity is the ease with which you can operate a mower around it. The wide, smooth surface of the concrete edging allows mower wheels to ride over the top, eliminating the need for string trimming or edging.

As with any concrete, however, the finished product is a solid mass. It can’t be moved in a redesign and can crack as the ground settles. Additionally, the wide, gray strips call attention to themselves and can easily overwhelm the landscape in small spaces. While the concrete can be tinted and stamped with a pattern to better blend into the landscape, concrete itself is already expensive. Add in the specialized equipment used to form the curb, pigment to tint the concrete, and labor to stamp a pattern, and concrete edging usually turns out to be a pricey option.

Paver and Stone Edging

Rather than using long, continuous strips of material, there is also the option to use concrete or natural stone pavers, cobbles, or similar objects to form the edging. The small segments can be easily placed around tight curves or straight lines on any terrain. The choice of product, however, can be customized to fit the character of the space, unlike any other edging option. Whether it’s weathered cobblestones, traditional bricks, or concrete pavers, the edging can truly be integrated into the design of the landscape. A rocky site can even make use of the rocks unearthed in construction for a cost-effective approach that grounds the landscape in its setting.

Native stone harvested during the landscape construction can be unsuitable around lawns.

Native stone harvested during the landscape construction can be unsuitable around lawns.

While paver and stone edging can be a unique look, it does require a lot of labor to achieve, which will account for a large part of the cost. Depending on the exact material, it may also be necessary to edge or line trim around the perimeter of the lawn after mowing. Some materials, such as smaller found rock, may be unsuitable for using around lawn areas and best used only to contain gravel paths and patios.

No Edging

Finally, there’s the option to have no edging at all. While it certainly takes more maintenance to achieve a clean look, omitting edging between landscape bed and lawn can still result in a great finished landscape. It works well on sloping sites that have few edging options available, in relaxed cottage gardens, in small yards with little edge to maintain, and in many other situations.

Omitting edging can be a good solution for hilly landscapes if maintained well.

Omitting edging can be a good solution for hilly landscapes if maintained well.

If that’s not enough information to help you make a decision, get in touch with us at Pacific Garden Design and we can help you design the landscape you’re looking for.