57 Landscape Design Terms You Need to Know in Southern California
Most folks will never have the opportunity to slip terms like architrave or entablature into casual conversation. You may never need to know what it means to espalier a tree or have to decide between an allee and a patte de oie, but if you would like to design functional, visually appealing landscaping around your home, you should probably at least know the difference between a pergola and a portico.
Knowing at least a few basic landscape terms will help facilitate communication with your landscape designer or contractor. It will help you achieve the look and function you want and avoid an end result that is not exactly what you had in mind. Even if you are not working with a designer and will be doing your landscaping as a do-it-yourself project, knowing landscape terminology will help as you research features you might want to include in your design and when you head to the home improvement store or garden center to buy plants and materials.
And, of course, it never hurts to throw out a few fancy landscaping terms to impress your friends and neighbors while giving tours of your finished project.
You will find lots of long, alphabetical lists of landscaping terminology online, many of which contain terms you will likely never use and that your landscaper might not even know. So, to help save you some time and find the terms that pertain to your projects, we have put together this truncated – or, shall we say, pruned – list of basic landscape terms, terminology commonly used in Southern California, and a few slightly-above-basic terms that might be helpful. We also organized them by category to make finding what you are looking for in regards to your particular project quicker and easier.
Landscaping Terms: Plants, Flowers, and Trees
Annuals are flowering plants that bloom for a single season and need to be replanted each year. Annuals are usually used to add fast, easy color in containers, borders, and flowerbeds.
Biennials have a lifespan of two years, which means that they germinate, grow to maturity, flower, and die over a two-year period. Biennials will germinate and grow the first year, and then bloom the second year.
Perennials continue to bloom each year for many years. Because you will have them for several years to come, make sure you pick a good spot for your perennials where they can beautify your outdoor living areas well into the future.
Deciduous trees and shrubs lose their leaves each year and are usually bare and dormant during the winter months. If you are strategically planting trees to reduce energy consumption and lower your utility bills, this is the type you want. The reason you want deciduous trees is that their leaves will help shade your home in the warmer months of a Southern California summer to help keep your home cooler, but their lack of leaves in the winter will allow your home to soak up the warming rays of the sun.
Evergreen trees and shrubs keep their foliage throughout the year and do not lose their leaves in winter. This makes them a better choice for privacy screens and is often appealing to Southern California homeowners, since we can entertain outdoors all year long.
Herbaceous plants have non-woody stems and grow to maturity and bloom in the first year. They will then die back in winter and return in spring to do it all over again.
Monoecious plants and trees have both male and female sex organs, which means they are self-fertile and can produce flowers or fruits without the need for cross-pollination. If you are planting fruit trees, this is important information to know, since you will need to know if you need to plant a male tree and a female tree or if you will be okay with just one tree.
Dioecious plants and trees are either male or female and require cross-pollination with an opposite sex plant in order to produce flowers or fruit. This is important to know when planting fruit trees if you are hoping to get fruit. It is also important to know if you are choosing trees for landscaping and do not care about the fruit, since female trees are more likely to shed fruit, pods, or seeds and often require more cleanup; whereas, male trees produce more allergy-inducing pollen.
Ornamental Grass –
Ornamental grasses include both true grasses and sedges and come in many varieties, which makes this a versatile option for landscape design. Ornamental grasses generally require no mowing or only occasional mowing, so they are also a low-maintenance option. You can use taller varieties to add height to borders, low-growing varieties as low-care groundcovers, or clumping varieties as privacy screens. Look for drought-tolerant options for Southern California gardens.
Living Ground Cover –
Living ground covers are low-growing plants or grasses planted to cover bare ground. This might include ground covers used around larger plants in containers or borders, or it might be large swathes of land covered by mass plantings for erosion control.
Some ground covers and grasses come in either clumping or spreading varieties. It is important to research the varieties you are considering to see if they are clumping, which means that they spread slowly forming clumps of plants. Clumping plants are more likely to stay in the area where you planted them and not invade other parts of your garden.
Spreading (or Running) –
Spreading plants spread quickly, which is good for mass plantings and areas where you are looking for a fast-growing ground cover. The downside to spreading plants is that they may spread outside of the area in which they are planted to overtake your lawn or nearby flowerbeds.
Underplanting is the practice of planting smaller plants and flowers close to the base of larger plants in an effort to fill out your space and add more color to your landscaping design.
Barrier Plants –
Barrier plants include thorny varieties and others with deterring characteristics that help protect all or part of your yard. Their purpose is to keep dogs from getting into your vegetable garden, keep wildlife away from food plants, or keep bad guys out of your yard.
Native Plants –
Plants that grow in the area naturally and were not introduced to the area are considered native plants. Native plants will thrive with little maintenance needed, which means less irrigation and no need for fertilizing. In Southern California, landscaping with drought-tolerant, native plants conserves water and requires less maintenance while adding texture, color, and visual appeal.
Exotic Plants –
Plants that are not native to the area are referred to as exotic plants in landscape terminology. Exotic plants may be invasive and may require more water and care, but this is not always true. Some exotics may be from parts of the world with similar climates and soil, so they may be drought tolerant and able to thrive locally.
Invasive Plants –
Invasive plants are those that were introduced to an area and grow and spread in a manner that is detrimental to the local environment. They may increase the risk of wildfire or flooding, may crowd out native plants, or may be harmful to the health of people or animals in the area.
In Southern California, espalier is generally used with fruit trees as a way to control growth and, in some cases, grow fruit in smaller spaces. Espalier is used as a noun to describe trees and shrubs that are trained to grow flat on lattice or a trellis against a wall and also as a verb to describe the process of training the trees or shrubs to grow flat against a wall.
Landscaping Terms: Garden Structures and Features
An arbor is an open framework structure often shaped in an arch and usually made of wood. Arbors provide trellis-like support for vines or plants and provide shade to walkways or seating areas.
Trellises are often made of wood, metal, plastic, or lattice and are used to support vines and plants.
An allee is a walkway lined with trees, a tall hedge, or tall shrubs.
Patte d’oie –
A patte d’oie is a landscaping feature made up of three, four, or five allees radiating out from a central point.
This landscaping feature is an open framework structure, like an arbor or trellis, but are larger and sturdier. Pergolas are designed to provide shade for patios or walkways and can be left open at the top or covered with fabric or vines.
These free-standing garden structures have roofs usually made of wood. They are generally open-sided structures with half walls made from wood or lattice with columns or beams holding up a solid roof.
Belvederes look like gazebos or open galleries. They differ from these structures because they are designed specifically to accentuate an amazing view or a focal point in the garden.
Privacy Screen –
Privacy screens include pretty much any landscaping feature that is used to block the view of a particular area of your yard to hide an air conditioning unit, trash cans, or some other unsightly item or to enhance privacy by blocking the view of your yard. Examples of privacy screens include shrubs and hedges, trellises, fences, patio curtains, and hanging planters.
A deck is usually a raised structure made of wood or composite material made to look like wood.
Patios are outdoor living areas generally made from pavers, concrete, bricks, river rocks, flagstones, other hardscape materials. Some are covered, while others are open. Some are attached to the residence, while others are detached and providing a seating area in the yard. The term patio is the most common word for residential outdoor living areas used in Southern California.
A terrace is very similar to a patio. They are made from hardscape materials and may or may not be attached to the house. The difference between a terrace and a patio is that patios are directly on the ground, while terraces are built above ground level.
Veranda is a term more often used in the South but sometimes used in Southern California. This landscaping term describes a covered outdoor living area that is attached to the house.
Porches are covered outdoor living areas that are attached to the house and are associated with the main entrance or back entrance to a home.
Portico is Italian for porch and describes a covered structure that is attached to a house and associated with an entryway. A portico functions as a porch but may extend out to cover a walkway.
It should be noted that veranda, porch, and portico are landscaping terms that are often confused and sometimes used interchangeably. There are subtle differences, but the term you use in SoCal is most likely to be determined by the architectural style of your home. For example, Craftsman-style homes have porches, Mediterranean-style homes have porticos, and if your home happens to be a Nantucket-inspired mansion, you are probably going to call it a veranda.
Retaining Wall –
This functional landscaping feature is used to prevent erosion and stabilize slopes. Retaining walls can be built from concrete, bricks, paving stones, rocks, wood, or other solid materials.
Raised Garden Bed –
Raised garden beds, which are often just called raised beds, are garden structures that allow you to grow food, flowers, or other plants above the soil line. Some gardeners choose raised beds because of their orderly visual appeal, while others use raised beds to overcome drainage issues or to better control the soil content and structure.
Landscaping Terms: Legal Stuff
Building Codes –
Building codes are laws and regulations that tell you how, where and with what you can build structures and features in your yard. One of the benefits of working with a professional landscape designer is that he or she should be well versed when it comes to building codes.
Building Permits (aka Construction Permits) –
Some landscaping features require a permit from your local government. This will entail submitting plans to your city or county so that they can approve your project before you begin. Fences, patios, swimming pools, and permanent structures are examples of some of the features in your design that will likely require a building permit. Electrical work and plumbing work also usually require permits.
You know that strip of land between the sidewalk and the curb in front of your house? That is called an easement. Depending on where you live and the zoning in your area, there may be other easements on your property as well. Basically, an easement gives someone land use rights for land that does not belong to them. For example, that strip of land between the sidewalk and the curb is most likely your responsibility as far as maintenance goes, but a utility company can come in and dig it up any time to repair or install lines.
Set Back –
A set back is the required distance for placement of trees, plants, or structures from houses and property lines. For example, most cities will not allow you to build a shed or other permanent structure within five feet of a property line.
General Landscaping Terms
Hardscape refers to walls, patios, walkways, and other non-living structures in your landscaping design often made from wood, brick, stone, or concrete. Artificial grass is also considered hardscape.
Softscape refers to the natural components in your landscaping, such as plants and soil.
Ground Cover –
Ground cover is pretty much anything used to cover soil, which may include low-growing plants, mulch, gravel, wood chips, or bark.
Landscaping Fabric (aka Weed Fabric) –
Landscaping fabric comes in rolls and can be placed over bare soil prior to installing your ground cover to limit weed growth.
This process is used to move earth to adjust the slope of the land to allow for proper drainage and functionality.
Zoning laws control how properties can be used in a community. This likely will not apply to you in regards to landscape design, unless you need to be zoned for horses or livestock as part of your plan.
Drainage refers to how surface water moves, including into the soil and running through your yard to an exit point. Working with a grading professional will help ensure your property is graded for good drainage.
Drought Tolerant –
Drought tolerance refers to a plants ability to survive and produce in times of drought or arid conditions.
Land with a significant slope may benefit from and become more usable with terracing, which is the process of creating multiple level areas in a stair-like fashion that often includes the use of retaining walls to control erosion and soil movement.
This refers to a type of landscaping that is most often used in areas that are prone to drought and focuses on reducing the amount of water used for landscaping by selecting native plants, improving the soil, and designing with water conservation in mind.
Urban Farming –
Urban farming is landscape terminology that is used to describe different things but, for the purpose of landscape design, it refers to the current trend of homeowners dedicating at least a small portion of their property to growing food, tending bees, or raising livestock.
Soil Test –
When your landscape designer or contractor says they want to do a soil test, they just mean they want to conduct a simple test on your soil to check out its nutrient levels and see which improvements they might recommend adding before they begin planting your plants.
In landscape design, backfill generally refers to the soil or soil and other materials that are added back to an area after excavation.
French Drain –
A landscape designer may suggest adding a French drain to improve drainage in your yard. This will involve a trench with or without a perforated pipe backfilled with gravel or rock to direct water.
Concept Plan –
This is an initial drawing of your landscape design that includes the basic features, such as existing hardscapes, planned hardscapes, and basic plant placement.
Landscape Plan –
This is more like a final plan (although things might change) that will be drawn after you and your landscape designer have finalized your design. It will include much more detail than the concept plan.
Rendering/3D Rendering –
If you are working with a landscape designer, you will likely receive a rendering during the final planning stages. This requires a computer program that creates a 2D or 3D image that really lets you see how your landscaping will look when completed.
CADD/CADD Drawing –
CADD stands for computer-aided design and drafting. Sometimes you will instead see CAD, which stands for computer-aided design. A CADD drawing is a 2D or 3D image created with the use of a computer program.
Landscape Terminology: Final Thoughts
If all this sounds like a bit too much to learn, or you just want to ease the landscape design and installation process, consider working with a landscape designer or contractor who can help you each step of the way. To get started today, contact one of our professional design consultants.