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Landscaping Around Your Pool or Spa

Basic Landscaping Principles

There are several fundamental principles on which the landscaping plan depends. Landscape architects and designers too, rely on these plans, namely beauty, privacy, safety, convenience, flexibility and easy maintenance. Though not all the criteria can be fulfilled at the same time you can design a plan to your satisfaction by keeping these goals in mind.

Beauty around the pool cab be created by blending the pool or spa and other landscape elements with the house to achieve an aesthetic balance in the whole environment. Privacy should be of prime concern and should include trees, fences walls, screens so as to block the view of the pool or spa area from outside. Comfort should be another thing that you must weigh. For soaking, sunning, entertaining or swimming should be giving you as much comfort, in the correct setting. Safety is another important criteria that should be given lots of thought for the safety of the swimmers. Also when the pool is not in use, the pool should have safety fence to keep away the children and animals from falling in. The area around the pool should be well lit too. For Convenience and flexibility try to plan the area such that entertaining, showering or changing are easily accessible. You can also include the furniture for relaxing by pool side. Ease of maintenance and ever increasing maintenance cost will always want you to choose materials that needs little maintenance. Also planting trees and shrubs that drop minimum of leaves and flowers in the water, will reduce the maintenance later.

As you plan the setting for your pool or spa, keep four basic landscape goals in mind: unity, balance, variety, and proportion.

Unity in a pool or spa setting is achieved when everything looks as though it belongs together. No landscape element stands out; each blends with the other parts, as well as with the house and the lot. To achieve unity, avoid designing too many distinctive units that will have to be tied together. The more units you divide your landscape into, the harder it will be to create unity.

Balance does a lot to make a setting pleasing. Most likely, your pool or spa will be the focal point of your landscape design. Achieve balance by combining elements that produce the same visual weight on either side of this center of interest. A large tree or structure on one side of a pool, for example, can be balanced with a grouping of smaller trees on the other.

Variety breaks up what could be monotonous unity. Differing but complementary grade levels, textures, colors, and shapes arouse visual interest both horizontally and vertically. Proportion demands that the various forms, materials, and open spaces of your landscape be in scale with one another. Nothing looks more out of place than a small pool in a yard as flat and expansive as a football field, or a patio that looks more like a parking lot than an entertainment area.

Landscape elements need to be in scale not only with each other, but also with your house, lot, and pool or spa. If your lot is extremely large, try breaking the space up into several distinct areas. Screens, plantings, patios, or walks become borders or barriers that can divide your yard into intimate areas.

To maintain proportion in a small lot, keep things simple and uncluttered. Tall vertical screens used to enclose a small area will actually make it seem larger, as will solid paving. Use plants with restraint-over planting adds clutter.

When selecting plants, keep their ultimate sizes and shapes in mind. Though a young plant may suit the proportion of your lot, within a few years it may grow so tall that the effect is spoiled.

Landscape architects and designers use some basic design techniques that you can borrow in thinking about your own plan. These can make the difference between a visually pleasing landscape and an awkward, jarring one. If the relationship between elements in your landscape is either too equal or extremely unequal, the result can be visually disturbing. When organizing space, remember that most people find a sense of order in well-known, simple shapes, such as squares, rectangles, triangles, and circles. Arrange plantings and structures to satisfy the need for privacy, but don't carry the design so far that it will produce a cooped-up feeling. You can create pleasing variations in the landscape design and yet maintain unity by carrying a recognizable shape through a main theme. A theme with variations creates a unified landscape. In grouping shapes or masses, make them seem unified by joining or interlocking the units, rather than separating them. The safe way to create a unified landscape is to make a rhythmic pattern of the landscape elements.

Site Evaluation

Lots are not all perfect, like everything else in nature. One of the secrets of landscaping is knowing how to turn liabilities into assets.

Small sites: Function needs to be your foremost consideration when you are landscaping a small area. Besides swimming, or soaking, you may want to use the space for entertaining, sunning, or play; it might also just be admired for its aesthetic qualities. Even in a small site, careful planning can create the illusion of space. Brick paving, with its small scale, repetitive pattern, gives an expansive feeling. To save space, display plants in small beds, containers, or hanging baskets. Built-in storage and seating are practically a must where space is limited. Choose furnishings that don't overpower their surroundings, and avoid clutter at all costs.

Sloping sites: Whether your lot is gently sloping, extremely steep, or somewhere in between, you will have to consider special design requirements.

A shallow slope can be converted with a minimum of grading into two or more level areas. Steps and a raised planting bed serve as retaining walls. Steps, ramps, or both can provide the transition from one level to another. Exercise caution when moving from level to level so as to reduce slips and falls. Grass or ground cover can be used to prevent erosion in large unpaved areas.

A medium slope can be graded to form a series of gradual levels, each marked by a retaining wall and planted with ground cover.

A steep slope can often be conquered by a deck built beside the pool. Steep slopes often require the attention of professional landscape architects and engineers.

Besides their purely functional use in providing a connection between different levels, steps and ramps play a major role in both grading the site and integrating buildings into the landscape. They also separate areas, direct foot traffic, display plantings, and on occasion, even provide extra seating.

Landscaping Design Elements

When landscaping the area around your pool or spa, the scope of landscaping elements available is very broad. The following few are the most crucial: plantings, fences, masonry walls, vertical and horizontal screens, decks and pavement, poolside structures, and final touches such as lights.

Many of these elements can be used in different ways. Be sure to follow all codes and be open to professional advice. Combining the elements wisely is as important as choosing them in the first place. Remember that they should not only complement each other, but also harmonize with the lot, and the house itself.

Fencing your pool

Enclosing a pool with a fence helps keep children, animals, and non-swimmers out of the water when there's no one around, and also provides security and privacy when you are swimming. Check with your local building department before landscape planning, for many communities require fences with self-closing and self-latching gates around pools. A fence is a good safety measure for your own children and those of your guests even for non-swimming adults. Fences should be at least six feet high with vertical members spaced no more than 4 inches apart to prevent entry.

Besides being an important safety feature, fencing can be used to separate your lot from your neighbor's, to designate space, to conceal pool support equipment, and even to hang maintenance equipment. A fence near the pool can keep debris from blowing into the water and reduce maintenance. It also provides more specific climate control in the immediate pool area; you can orient the fence panels to block out cool winds and admit the sun when you want it. Safety or property line fencing should not be less than 4 feet from the edge of the pool; that's the minimum width required to permit safe passage around the pool.

Whether you purchase a prefabricated kit, build the fence from scratch, or have a professional do it, you'll find that advice from a landscape architect or fence contractor can help you decide what type of fence is best suited visually and functionally to your pool landscape.

Wood, chain link, wire mesh, wrought iron, and various forms of masonry are used as fencing materials. For fences around pools, you should choose pressure-treated wood or rust-resistant, non-corrosive metals.

The style of your fence can affect the amount of wind protection you receive. For example, wind rushes over a solid fence like a stream of water. Such a fence provides little or no wind protection past the distance equal to its height. Angling a baffle 45 degree into the wind extends maximum wind protection to a distance almost more than twice the fence height. Or, you can eliminate the downward crash of wind by using a baffle angled 45 degree with the wind. To reduce wind flow, use fencing with openings at least 1/2 inch but no more than 4 inches wide, or use plant screens. Dense plants offer even more protection.

Screens may be lightweight partitions made from bamboo or reed, canvas, wood, safety glass, or translucent plastic; or they may be living screens composed of plants and trees. Either way, they help control unwanted sun and wind while contributing to an attractive outdoor setting. Screens can be portable or stationary, simple or elaborate.

You can position screens to block the sun's heat and glare, the wind's chill, and the view of neighbors. Screens can also define space for showering and dressing, lounging, and entertaining. Trailing, climbing type plants grow well on such screens.

Masonry Walls

Masonry walls are constructed from concrete block, brick, stone, adobe, or poured concrete. They are solid, sturdy, permanent, and practically maintenance-free.

Masonry walls are excellent barriers to sun, noise, and intruders. Because they store and reflect heat, masonry walls can heat or cool the area directly around them. Low masonry walls are also effective retaining walls for raised plants, beds, terraces, or embankments.

Masonry walls do have two major drawbacks: high cost and a tendency to give a closed-in feeling. You can cut costs by tackling some of the construction yourself. To make the area feel more inviting, make the wall the minimum height required by code, usually 5 feet, and at a distance of at least 4 feet from the pool. Arches, wrought iron panels, gates, or grilles created with bricks or concrete blocks can be incorporated in the wall to open up the space.

Plants can soften the lines and texture of masonry walls; the wall itself provides excellent support for climbing plants. But since masonry both absorbs and reflects heat, delicate plants may not fare well near a sunny wall.

Deck and Pavement

The deck around the pool and any paved surfaces such as walks, patios, or steps are functional and versatile landscaping tools. They add usable space, provide a transition from one area to another, allow for drainage, and cover up barren soil.

Decks: Most pools and spas are surrounded by a symmetrical or freeform deck. Besides creating a frame for the pool, the deck provides a safe walkway around the edge of the pool, and, if enlarged, provides enough space for pool furniture and lounging.

In choosing a decking material, remember that the deck must be safe underfoot and not slippery, coarse, or uneven; using a heat reflective material will keep the deck's surface cooler. To prevent hose or rain water from draining into the pool, or water that has splashed onto the deck from reentering the pool, the deck should drain away from the pool's coping by 1/4 to 3/8 inch per foot. Be sure the deck is easy to clean or hose down-it forms the barrier between the pool and your plants and will catch falling leaves, grass clippings, and other debris.

Choose a decking material that blends with or matches other paved areas and is resistant to acid, algae, bacteria, chemicals, frost, and fungus. It should also be non-slippery and cool under your feet. Brick, flagstone, tile, pavement block, and finished, colored, and exposed aggregate concrete are excellent decking materials. Other interesting materials are rubber, broom-finished concrete, and cooltype concrete decking for hot climates. A selection of materials is illustrated below and opposite.

Pavement: Paved surfaces in the pool area include patios, walks, low-level decks, steps, and special activity areas. A patio can function as an entertainment or lounging area, as well as a transition between the house and pool. Walks permit passage from one area to another, provide a border for plantings, and can break up the straight lines of an angular lot. Low-level decks add more surface space on problem grade sites such as hillsides. Steps not only link one level to another, but also separate areas and levels.

Brick, concrete (finished, colored, or pebble surfaced), tile, flagstone, adobe blocks, and wood are durable and reliable pavement materials for the pool landscape. Again, consider surface texture and color, ease of maintenance, weather resistance, and drainage capability.

Chances are you won't want pool traffic going in and out of your house, you'll need storage space for pool equipment, and you'll want to be outside by the pool as much as possible. The answer to all is to build a structure near your pool-a pool house or cabana, a storage facility, a sauna, a gazebo, or some other enclosed or semi-enclosed area. Such a structure will add immeasurably to the comfort and attractiveness of your pool's landscape.

Though your house and poolside structure can differ in style, their scale, texture, and material should be compatible. Remember that your structure must conform to local building codes, and you must have a building permit.

Shade structures: Adding a shade structure such as a gazebo, patio roof, horizontal screen, or overhang makes for a more versatile pool environment. It can become a sheltered play area for children, a shady spot for relaxation and reading, and a place for eating and outdoor entertaining.

A gazebo, fine for entertaining, has storage and dressing rooms in the rear. A pool house can simply be a place to change in privacy and hang wet towels and bathing suits, or it can include a shower and lavatory. Some pool houses are a lot more elaborate, designed as warm weather retreats complete with sauna, living and sleeping areas, and storage space.

A simple approach is to incorporate a dressing area into your garage by erecting a few panels in a corner.

Some pool houses have room for a shower and bath, sauna, changing area, and small kitchen.


Your sauna can be a freestanding structure in a private, unused corner of your yard near the pool, or it can be incorporated into your pool house. You can purchase saunas in kits, either prefabricated or precut, or custom-made.

Storage structures: You'll need considerable storage space for the support system, vacuum, leaf skimmer, brushes, and chemicals. You'll probably also need space to store poolside furniture, game and fitness equipment, and other accessories during off seasons.

Sheltering pool support equipment in a well-ventilated, covered area prolongs its life. If the support equipment is installed near a fence, garage, house wall, or garden storage shed, only a simple windscreen or fence extension with a lean-to roof is required. Allow a clearance of 3 feet for air circulation and maintenance access. Check zoning requirements before building.

Long-handled cleaning equipment can be hung neatly on hooks in a wall or fence. Just be sure they don't block access to the pool support equipment. Keep pool chemicals locked in a cool, dry, dark place.

Protect pool or patio furniture, game equipment, and other pool accessories from the elements by storing them in the garage, in storage boxes that double as benches or in utility storage areas.

Getting the work done: Consult professionals during the design stage for they can offer sound advice and make sure your landscape design conforms to local building regulations. Then you can hire a contractor to do the actual work. They have the skill, and the equipment, especially for the electrical wiring, paving, or excavation.

With a project as involved as developing or remodeling a pool landscape, you may find it best to rely completely on professionals architects, landscape architects, landscape designers, contractors, nurserymen, or gardeners.

Putting your ideas on paper: Whether you're retaining a professional to do designing the landscaping for you, you'll want to draw up some plans based on your own ideas first. If you've already made a plot plan to determine your pool location, you can use that for your landscape design. If not using a tracing paper laid over the plot plan to sketch the various approaches. Plan for what you'd most like to have, then add up the costs. Creating a strong design will help you distinguish between the more important and less important elements of your plan. Try to think in three dimensions to help you balance the design elements and visualize the results.

Planting Around the Pool or Spa

Plants around the pool or spa creates a beautiful, natural setting for your enjoyment. It also adds color, texture, shape, and interest to the landscape. Trees, dense hedges, or vines, when grown over a support, hide unwanted views, thereby providing privacy and security. Tough plant borders or barriers can prevent animals and people from walking across lawns or plant beds and discourage trespassing.

Plants insulate the area surrounding the pool or spa. Plants are even good cover-ups. Use them to soften severe architectural lines, hide construction flaws, camouflage pool equipment, and fill in odd angles or spaces on your lot. Plants must be suited to their climate zone.

Planting considerations: Choosing plant materials and the location of planting beds very carefully will produce the attractive landscape you want and ensure minimum maintenance. If you've ever had to pluck plant debris out of a pool, you'll understand the reluctance of many pool and spa owners to plant anything next to the water. But plants play a vital role in the environment.

Lawns, ground covers, and other plants can absorb quantities of water, to protect this area from becoming saturated and boggy, channel the water before it reaches the plant materials by using deck drains.

Selection of plants: Installing a pool produces high humidity in your yard, especially if it is heated. In making new selections, choose plants that will withstand this extra moisture.

If your pool or spa site is surrounded by eucalyptus trees, pines or other conifers, all of which shed year-round, you might go so far as to consider a screened enclosure for the entire pool, spa, and deck area. Otherwise you'll have to accept the debris problem. Sometimes those who want the benefits of trees plant deciduous varieties, preferring a big leaf drop once a year to the small but continuous dropping of many of the evergreens.

Keep any new tree plantings away from the pool or spa, if possible. Also, be sure you know how far their root systems are likely to spread, so you won't get roots in your water pipes.

Don't plant any fruit-bearing shrubs or trees near the deck. The dropping fruit becomes slippery and can stain the deck; it also acts as a magnet for bees, yellow jackets, and other insects that can spoil your enjoyment of the pool or spa.

Around the pool or spa, choose plants that drop a minimum of leaves, seeds, resin, and other debris; avoid any that attract birds or stinging insects. And if you're fond of shrubs with thorns or barbs, plant them well away from the area.

Some of the worst litter bugs are bamboo and pampas grass, though they look nice near the pool. If you want to use them, plant them on the side of the site away from the wind or where they're best sheltered from wind, to prevent litter from blowing into the water.

As in any garden setting, choose the right plant for the particular location. In small gardens where the pool or spa and its pavement occupy almost all of the garden, container gardening comes into its own. Where a baffle fence is used for privacy or wind protection, or where the pool or spa is enclosed with a wire fence for safety reasons, these structures offer an opportunity for interesting vine plantings.

When selecting flowering plants, aim for good design with beautiful if not bloom-the year round flowers. Remember that in some areas early spring flowering varieties may bloom long before the pool or spa is in maximum use. Plants that bloom during summer months, when the facility is being used, will brighten tubs, boxes, or insets in the pavement.

Lighting the Pool or Spa Area

Swimming pools and spas can provide pleasant backdrops and tranquil settings in which to entertain, offering you and your family and friends more than the chance to swim or soak. At night, with the addition of tastefully arranged outdoor lighting, the view of your pool or spa and landscaping can be especially appealing.

The safety and the level of illumination within the pool with the underwater lighting, is of primary importance. Use full brilliance when children are swimming or when you are hosting late parties or cocktail hours. The extra light is necessary for guests who have been drinking or for those people who have poor eyesight or poor night vision.

Good outdoor lighting is both functional and aesthetic, for it offers the right kind of light when and where you need it for entertaining, outdoor cooking, or just relaxing. At the same time, proper lighting adds to the beauty of the pool or spa area by highlighting architectural features and background plantings.

If you're designing your own outdoor lighting, experiment with lights in various locations. Buy several inexpensive clamp-on lights and reflectors and extension cords. (Keep in mind that according to the National Electric Code, extension cords that are used around pools should not exceed 3 feet in length.) Place the lights in the areas you want to highlight or illuminate and observe the results at night. If you're not satisfied, move the lights around until you get the effect you want. Then have the permanent lights installed professionally.