TREND setters

TREND setters

Byline: Margie Holly, The Brickman Group

Ask ten landscape architects and designers for their opinions on current trends in landscaping, and you’re likely to get as many different answers. New technology, more choices in building materials, stricter environmental regulations, and the global economy have all impacted the way designers are envisioning their landscapes.

Advances in breeding plants seem to have created a never-ending supply of new plant material. Technological advances have resulted in new hardscape materials. People are more environmentally conscious; opting for low impact, low maintenance native plantings. And the globalization of the economy has also exposed us to different cultures, which has affected our clients’ design preferences.

“Lately, we’ve been getting requests for Japanese style gardens,” explains Lisa Farina, landscape architect in The Brickman Group’s Northeast division. “Form always follows function, but as we learn about different cultures, we tend to make our ‘forms’ associate with what attracts us about them. But the functions remain, no matter how you accessorize them.”


One thing Farina’s clients are into is accessorizing with planters. Planters have always been used as accents to dress up a landscape. But they’ve gotten much more sophisticated. The global economy has really opened up a lot of great design elements that were not traditionally available in the mainstream. And there are many more choices in plant materials because of technological improvements in plant development, like cloning, which make the choices virtually limitless.

“It used to be you had one choice – terra cotta – so you planted it with red geraniums, vinca vine and a dracena stuck in the middle. Now there is so much more to choose from!” says Farina. “I think people are more affluent these days, and they expect intricate details, which is where unique pots really play into the landscape.” Whether it’s Vietnamese glazed pottery in bright colors, cast limestone in historically accurate Mission style or cast iron Victorian, containers provide uniqueness to a project – a simple way to create atmosphere or add personality to a site.

Farina also notes that there is a huge selection of other popular accessories, like benches, lighting fixtures and paving options. Technology has come into play here, producing high-quality materials at low cost. “It used to be that you had to have custom pieces made for a huge fee, but now the choices in accessories seem limitless and are within the budgets of most clients”


Whether commercial or residential, large scale or small, the most popular “trend” with clients is “low maintenance.”

Low maintenance can mean different things depending on the variables on site – the climate, soil conditions, irrigation, wildlife population and client preferences, to name a few. A good designer will analyze these elements and come up with a landscape design that will thrive under those specific conditions.

Farina shares an example of designing for conditions at Lehigh University’s Alumni Building (Bethlehem, Pa.). The centerpiece of a historic Ivy League campus, this building presents the first impression to visitors, prospective students and their parents. The site featured mature shade trees and aging shrubbery. The biggest environmental element, aside from shade, is the large deer population on this rural campus. The client also really liked Gertrude Jekyll, a famous English designer.

The challenge was to preserve the old shade trees and a shaggy, historic boxwood hedge, and complement the classic architecture with a design that evokes the feeling of an old English garden. “So we trimmed and shaped the hedges to give them a cleaner appearance, and built in layers of astilbe and fern,” explains Farina. The deerresistant foliage adds color and texture, and is less likely to be destroyed by the wildlife.

The casual elegance of the gardens is dressed up with more formal planters at the building’s entrance, which is planted with a bright variety of annuals. Hanging planters of annuals on lampposts throughout campus contribute additional dashes of color that is kept well away from marauding deer and miscreant students.


Low maintenance can also mean opting for a native plant pallet. Dick Mallory, landscape architect at Brickman’s Chicago Design/Build office, explains how they employed native plant material with dramatic results on a large-scale commercial design/build job at Grainger headquarters in the Chicago suburbs. Faced with what had been essentially a flat cornfield, Mallory’s team was challenged to create a pleasing environment for employees and visitors, that would be low maintenance, could not be seen from the road and would have minimum impact on the surrounding environment, which included woodlands and wetlands. In addition, the company’s CEO preferred a naturalized landscape, with little or no use of evergreens.

Between the roadway and the main building, they constructed a 100-foot-wide berm that looked like an extension of the existing woodland area. This was planted in natural layers, with mature shade trees from northern Illinois, an under story of thickets and groves of native shrubbery, which flattened out into a variety of native grasses, such as Indian Grass, Big Blue Stem and Little Blue Stem. Closer up to the buildings, a variety of fescue grasses, allowed to grow longer, keep the texture and visual interest going and create a natural transition from the wild to the manicured.

The resulting natural environment makes employees and visitors feel a part of the natural world around them, while minimizing maintenance costs, and preserving the wetlands and woodlands. The mixture of grasses cuts down on mowing time, and the native plants are naturally hardy, so they don’t require fertilization or much tending.


Beyond the trendy, there is one element that is becoming increasingly noticeable across the board: All the architects and designers we spoke with mentioned the clients’ increased awareness of the impact a landscape can have beyond the obvious aesthetic appeal Most employers understand that providing a pleasant working atmosphere can bolster employee morale. In landscaping terms, that used to mean maybe a few well-placed benches among the flowerbeds, perhaps a fountain at the entry, or picnic tables for al fresco lunches.

In Atlanta, Brickman designer Alison Alvord has noticed employers are paying more attention to adding quality amenities that not only improve the employee’s aesthetic experience, but actually contribute to their quality of life.

A current project for a large healthcare firm has Alvord designing an exercise path that winds around the circumference of the property and parking lots. “Beyond just beautifying the campus, the client is making a significant investment to promote healthy, happy employees,” says Alvord.

At different points along the trail, there will be plantings and seasonal interest, directional signs and indications of distance traveled, resting benches, and self-guided fitness activities. With the landscape keeping the client’s employees health conscious, the employees are also better able to focus on the company’s own healthy mission.


With a growing awareness of our responsibility to the environment, many clients are asking about landscapes that not only reduce chemical treatments, but support wildlife and the surrounding ecosystem. A pleasant side effect of this “greener” approach to the landscape is that, largely through the use of native plantings, long-term maintenance and irrigation costs often are reduced.

A good example of this trend comes from St. Louis, where Brickman designer Molly Potter worked with an employee group at SSM Health Care’s corporate headquarters to establish a National Wildlife Federation (NWF) certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat. SSM’s Preservation of the Earth Committee, an employee group dedicated to promoting activities that preserve and improve the environment, commissioned Brickman to create two wildlife habitats containing native flowering and non-flowering perennial plants.

To meet NWF certification requirements, a habitat must feature the five basic elements wildlife need to survive: food, water, cover and places for wildlife to raise their young, and should use sustainable gardening practices that conserve natural resources.

The 1.7-acre campus design includes perennial flowering plants that bloom from April through October. Area natives, such as Salvia X superba, columbine aquilegia and echinacea purpurea thrive in beds in the front of the corporate building. A second native habitat in the rear of the building features native plantings that will attract and provide food and shelter for butterflies and birds. Bushes such as the Mohican (leatherleaf) viburnum, serviceberry and winterberry holly produce berries in the fall, while plants such as verbena, phlox paniculata “David” and asters were planted for the foliage and flowers they produce during the spring and summer months. Picnic tables, benches, walking paths and a birdbath make the area welcoming for visitors of all species.


All of the landscape architects and designers we spoke with agreed: Following “trends” is no substitute for good design. “Over the past decade or so,” exhorts Dick Mallory, “the emphasis has been on the ‘bling.’ But if the backbone isn’t there, no amount of flash will make up for a poorly designed site.”

Architect Lisa Farina agrees, “I think trends will always be changing, and products we use today will evolve and improve. So today’s ‘new look’ will be different tomorrow. But the basic organization and flow, the layout of the space and the purpose of elements in your plan have to be a result of good design. Once you have the function in place, then the form can follow.”

Margie Holly is communications manager with The Brickman Group, Ltd. (Gaithersburg, Md.).

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