Up until the last couple of decades every swimming pool was built in some form of rectangular shape and painted with bright blue. The only design variations remained with the choice of tile, and even then there wasn’t a lot of creativity available for the average home owner. Now swimming pool styles are limited only by the imagination of the designer. Swimming pools offer not only summer cooling, fun and exercise, but they can become the focal point for a beautiful landscape. What you plant around your pool can add or subtract from the overall effect. You can destroy the success of even the most lovely pool by landscaping with the wrong plants – plants that can ruin the design or even cause severe damage to the structure of the pool itself.
Keep the water of your swimming pool clean. That means you need to avoid litter from shedding greenery. Evergreen plants and trees will minimize leaf drop into the swimming pool. Enthusiastically flowering plants will also create heavy petal drop. Most pool vacuums can handle a light dusting of organic litter, but a build up of leaves, petals and berries can choke up even good systems. Be particularly careful about pine trees that dump thick layers of pine needles. Don’t give these trees a home near your pool.
Mulching gardens around the swimming pool will both keep dust and dirt in place and add a decorative effect. Choose a material that will compliment the design of your pool. Stone or gravel is a practical choice. It is less likely to blow or wash into the water like tree bark. Pea gravel is softer on the feet and easier to dig through, but it can kick loose and end up on the pavement or in the pool. If you want to use gravel, consider the rounded stones of river-rock for a neat, formal look or a Japanese design. Or look for ¾ inch gravel that comes in decorative colors and stays in place better than pea gravel. A layer of weed block set under mulch or rock will discourage weeds and keep your design in place longer.
Any trees planted near a swimming pool must be chosen carefully. If the amount of litter from bark, leaves, needles, flowers or seeds is important, it comes second to the damage roots can cause. Larger trees can put out roots that can crack through even heavy layers of cement. Some trees are known for their damaging surface roots, like the Mulberry, Sycamore, Magnolia and Poplar. For poolside, choose smaller trees with well behaved root systems or make sure the trees are planted with root barriers and placed a reasonable distance from concrete structures. Avoid trees that drop fruits and berries that will stain pavements. And to plant the right tree in the right location you need to find out the mature size of the tree. The cutest young tree can turn into a monster in a remarkably short time.
More information is available in ‘Landscaping around the swimming pool, part two’.
During the past decade or two, it has been a fashion for pool builders to design in small pocket beds around the edges of swimming pools. Although these pocket gardens look nice with the cement form of the pool, they are very hard to keep well planted. Too often the plants suffer and die because they are difficult to keep watered properly. Just the right plants should be designed in those spots.
Pocket beds need to be treated as if they were container gardens. They are likely to need regular watering, pruning and renewing. If you want them to look cheerful and you are willing to change out the plants seasonally, keep them filled with annual color. Another approach is to use a few larger, naturally neat-growing plants that are easy to maintain, like Heavenly Bamboo or sago palms (if the sun isn’t too strong) and fill in around them with a low-growing perennial plant like Sea Lavender or Pincushion Plant (Scabiosa) if you have extra space. Spineless succulents are also good choices for plants. Don’t be tempted to put too many kinds of plants into these small spaces and make sure whatever you choose to plant will not only take the sun or shade of the location, but will not grow too big when it matures. Palms are popular choices for a tropical look. The Pigmy Palm is probably the best choice to stay small, but it can still grow over six feet in both height and width. In dry climates, Pigmy Palms can be burnt by hot sun or light frost and are stunted by too little water.
Ornamental grasses offer a good choice for pocket gardens, too. You can find an assortment of different heights and foliage colors to design an interesting picture. Grasses create very little litter to blow into the swimming pool and they move gracefully in the wind.
A simple, easy maintenance solution for those pocket gardens would be to use few or no plants at all. Instead you can fill the space with permeable paving. Adding a couple of inches of decorative stone, crushed brick or other material that will drain water easily will not only look good, but won’t fade in sunshine or need any fussing or watering. There are colored gravels, glowing tumbled glass in an assortment of gemstone hues, or even chips of shale or flagstone that can offer interesting alternatives to river rock or plain gravel. I’d advise against using bark chips (that will fade, wash or blow into the swimming pool water) or pea gravel that will kick out of the planter beds easily.
Despite these considerations, there are many wonderful plants that can transform your swimming pool area into the beautiful magical place it deserves to be. The plants you choose should reflect the style of your pool design. By designing a tropical feel, a woodsy environment, a desert-scape or any other theme, you can blend the pool hardscape (permanent features) with the softscape (living parts of the landscape) of the plants and create your own swimming pool paradise to enjoying the heat of summer.
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