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Grow a backyard oasis, with splash

Poolscaping with carefully selected plants can turn the most prosaic pool area into a tropical paradise.

By YVONNE SWANSON
Published July 8, 2006


Swimming pools come in all shapes and sizes: in-ground pools, above-ground pools, pools with hot tubs and waterfalls, skinny lap pools, stylish pools with a vanishing edge. Some have ledge seating, some have swim-up bars. They come equipped with remote-controlled fountains, waterslides, underwater speakers and built-in statues.

But no matter how many bells and whistles a pool boasts, it's not complete without attractive landscaping. Otherwise, it's just a lot of concrete and water. Without greenery and color to soften and shade the pool area, it looks harsh and sun-baked on a hot summer day.

The latest trend in pool design is the free-form, natural pool that blends harmoniously with the landscape, thanks to dark surface coating and pebbly finishes; waterfalls, rocks and boulders mixed with lush landscaping set the stage for these pools. And that's fine for the homeowner with plenty of money to spend. But what about the majority of pool owners, who have the typical rectangular swimming pool or kidney-shaped pool without all the extras?

You can soften the harsh edges of your pool and fit it into your backyard landscape with complementary plants and outdoor accents such as rocks and containers. Landscape designers call it "poolscaping," an umbrella term for pulling together all the elements that will transform your pool area into an outdoor oasis - not just in the Florida summer, but all year long.

Pools aren't just for swimming anymore. They've become an important garden feature that can blend the house and the outdoors, notes landscape designer Catriona Tudor Erler in her book, Poolscaping: Gardening and Landscaping Around Your Swimming Pool and Spa (Storey Publishing, 2003; 208 pages). Constantly on view from the living, dining and family rooms through sliding glass doors, the pool and deck are a giant art element that should offer a balance of color, light and shade.

Before you start planting, experts recommend making some important decisions. Who will use the pool and for what purposes? Will your pool be used for occasional swims by adults, or will there be plenty of children and pool parties? Knowing how your pool will be used is as helpful to plant selection as making a list of landscape basics, including sunlight, space limitations, access to irrigation and exposure to salt.

The tropical look is a popular poolscaping theme, especially in climates such as ours, where lush, exotic plants thrive. We have our choice of a wide variety of palms, tropical ornamental trees and shrubs and bedding plants. With so many plant choices available, keep these tips in mind when choosing poolside plants:

Think low-maintenance. Avoid plants that will drop leaves, flowers or fruit in the pool or on the pool deck, causing a slippery mess. Choose broad-leaf evergreens and palms, which tend to hold their leaves and fronds. Good tropical choices include the leafy giant white bird of paradise, which grows to 20 to 30 feet; fishtail palm, a variety with multiple trunks that reach 15 to 25 feet; areca palm, which grows 20 to 30 feet; and foxtail palm, a fast-grower that reaches 30 feet. Although the queen palm is a popular, inexpensive palm, it produces abundant, fleshy fruit that can easily litter the pool.

Size matters. Measure the deck and bed areas around your pool and make sure there is plenty of room for swimmers to walk without brushing against foliage. If the space is limited, choose palms and trees that mature at small to mid-size heights and widths and shrubbery that won't overtake the area. Otherwise, you'll constantly be pruning and shaping plants to fit the space. If your pool area is enclosed in a cage, measure the distance between the pool deck and the top of the overhead screen.

Avoid sharp edges. Some plants have sharp edges or thorns that could scratch swimmers; these plants include crown of thorns, bougainvillea, pygmy date palm and most cactuses and roses. Those plants are better saved for areas of the yard where there is less activity and less risk of injury.

Grow some privacy. Select tropical foliage, trees, palms and shrubs that grow 6 to 8 feet or taller. Evergreens are best for year-round screening, as well as areca and fishtail palms, with their multiple trunks. Some varieties of clumping bamboo will provide fast-growing screening; however, be prepared for some leaf drop on the pool deck and in the pool.

If children will be using the pool, don't place plants (potted or in-ground) where they will obscure the view, for safety reasons.

Add salt-tolerant plants. Because chlorinated water contains salt, experts say plants should be protected from the splash of jumpers and divers, as well as pool overflow. According to the University of California, salt from pool water can be absorbed by plant roots and stunt growth, burn foliage or kill plants. You can play it safe by soaking and hosing off plants with fresh water if they've been heavily doused with pool water.

"The greatest risk (of salt damage) is draining the pool for maintenance or other reasons. But it makes sense to avoid salt-sensitive plants," says Andy Wilson, horticulturist at the Pinellas County Extension Service in Largo. Azalea, gardenia and dracaena are particularly sensitive to salt and should be avoided.

A wide variety of salt-tolerant plants complement the pool area, among them most palms. Also try evergreen trees, such as sea grape, podocarpus and frangipani, also called plumeria; shrubs, for example Florida privet, Indian hawthorn, tropical hibiscus and pittosporum; and bedding plants, among them blue daze, geranium, gerbera, snapdragon, petunia, vinca and zinnia. The most salt-hardy turf grasses for Florida are St. Augustine and Bermuda.

Be bold. Poolscaping author Erler notes that unexpected bold color combinations will spice up any pool area and bring vibrant color right to the edge of the pool. She suggests filling a glazed cobalt-blue pot with lime-green fountain grass and orange canna lilies. Another striking combination is the almost-black sweet potato vine mixed with burned-orange zinnia or copper coleus.

Don't forget the roots. Placing plants in beds close to a paved pool deck, underground pipes and equipment can be a problem if you don't choose wisely. Use common sense. A tree that can grow to a massive size (such as live oak and ficus) will have extensive roots that could damage the pool deck.

If underground pipes aren't cracked or broken, roots shouldn't pose a problem. "Roots grow to areas where conditions are favorable," explains Wilson. "If you have a leak in a pipe, the root will go there. Eventually roots can get in there and clog pipes and cause damage. Usually if the pipe is intact, there won't be a problem."

Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County.