Cover Story: Laid-back landscaping

The Alabama Gulf Coast is a unique destination with a personality and pace all its own. The principal towns nestled along this 60-odd-mile stretch of sun and sand are vacation getaways for millions of tourists a year. The vibe here is seriously laid-back: equal parts Jimmy Buffett and Hank Williams Jr., splashed with a touch of Caribbean calypso and glazed with a strong hint of “Fried Green Tomatoes.”

Bonnie Rieman, owner of A Beautiful Yard Landscaping, is perfectly positioned to compare and contrast landscaping on the Gulf Coast. Her company runs two crews in unlikely locations: One is based and works in and around Dallas, Texas, and the other in Gulf Shores, Alabama. On the surface, those two locations seem as different as night and day. Oddly, Rieman says that’s not the case at all. “It’s funny,” she says, “I have clients in Dallas that want a tropical look in their yards. And then down here in Gulf Shores or Orange Beach, I have customers who are sick to death of palm trees. They want green grass and English-style gardens in their yards. So you never know.”

Blue Angels and barbecues
Not surprisingly, Rieman says her Gulf Coast clients are heavily geared toward outdoor entertainment and want backyards that can accommodate lots of frequent guests for sunset barbecues and boat drinks under the stars. One customer is a perfect example of both the styles of landscaping common in this area, and the quirky lifestyle those backyards help homeowners embrace. “I’ve got a project coming up in Florida (across the state line),” Rieman notes. “It’s a pie-shaped lot. And the homeowner wants her back yard to be a tropical oasis.”

Rieman’s plan for the yard is fairly straightforward: flagstone pathways, lots of palms and a series of different planting beds, including herb, perennial and hummingbird/butterfly gardens. “I guess the most interesting thing about this plan is the amount of benches and swings the customer has asked me to install,” Rieman notes.

The Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy’s precision aerial demonstration team, is based nearby at Pensacola Naval Air Station and often practice over the customer’s house. “So she wants lots of swings and benches positioned all around the yard so guests can enjoy these free air shows,” Rieman explains. “I’ve designed it as a series of little vignettes for her guests.”

The gardens and air show seats will be anchored by a swimming pool that Rieman has complemented with a double, pondless waterfall fed by a below-ground waterfall and a score of palm trees and stone benches. “It’s going to be a lovely place to watch ‘The Blues,’ as the locals call the Blue Angels,” Rieman says.

Not surprisingly the emphasis on outdoor entertainment has led many homeowners along the Gulf Coast begin requesting fire pits, outdoor kitchens and fireplaces in their landscaping designs. “These trends are just taking hold here,” she reports, “but they are already more popular here than they are in Dallas. We also see a huge demand for outdoor art and decorations, and metal and wooden arbors are exceedingly popular.”

Given the close proximity of white sand beaches and warm gulf waters, swimming pools are surprisingly common in Gulf Coast backyards. “Even if they have a pool, I’ve started suggesting extra water features to add texture and color and sounds to a yard,” Rieman says. “I like waterfalls; koi ponds and waterfalls are more expensive options. Pot fountains are new, but I expect them to become very popular down here in the coming summer season.”

Sea oats, sand and salt
Beach landscaping isn’t all ponds and stone benches, of course. Rieman and her crew have to battle the elements in the form of saltwater, sand, extreme heat and humidity as well as erosion and ever-tightening environmental regulations. “People always ask me about the heat, but I think Dallas is actually worse in the summer,” Rieman says. “The ocean breeze really helps us out a lot.”

The ocean may provide cooling breezes, but it also gives Rieman her biggest problem: salt. “It’s an ongoing process discovering which plants can tolerate the saltwater,” she notes. “I end up replacing a lot of new varieties; someone will tell you they’ll work fine. And then, of course, you find out they don’t.”

Surprisingly, Rieman says most of the soil inland from the coast is amazingly rich. “I add a few nutrients to it when I’m planting,” she says. “But you really don’t have to do much.”

The famed sugar white sand on the waterline is another problem altogether. “A lot of people on the water want turf lawns,” she says, “and I really work hard to discourage that. It’s so hard for turf to get established on pure sand. The salt is brutal on it. The lawns all eventually die. It’s inevitable unless you’re willing to go above and beyond the call of duty in terms of maintenance.”

Palms work well in the sand, of course. And Rieman likes to use a lot of native grasses when she’s designing down by the water. Sea oats are a protected plant variety along the Gulf Coast since they help anchor sand dunes and combat erosion from wind and waves. “It’s really a beautiful grass,” Rieman notes. “I try to encourage my clients to use lots of it where appropriate because it really conveys a beach-like atmosphere and is a great boost to the environment.”

The most fearsome environmental threat, hurricanes, have so far been kind to Rieman and the yards she’s done. “So far we’ve done a lot of cleanup work in the wake of the storms,” she notes. “But we’ve not had any full-blown destruction yet. And I hope it stays that way!”

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