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Landscaping - Swimming Pool Cool

by Nellie Neal

Pools can be a family’s center of entertainment and exercise, and a simple landscape plan adds to the enjoyment without creating maintenance chores to keep you out of the pool. You can create a relaxing mood and soften the sharp edges of most pool shapes and still not crowd the action by using plants and soil wisely in the pool area.

The Place

Keep the pool itself at the center of your landscape plan. You must maintain safe access on all sides, so leave the concrete bib free of obstructions like planter boxes. A fine design places large planters at all four corners of the bib, not the pool, to leave a clear path and prevent leaves or soil falling into the water.

Step back from the pool to consider other plantings along its edges. Groundcovers and lawns can ring the pool site in a neat five or ten foot wide solid border and put it in dramatic perspective to taller plantings further away. The consistent effect of one type of plant in this area adds to the relaxing mood you want around the pool. Stay away from perennial borders and annual beds that must be replanted frequently. Both make for busy areas visually and take frequent regular maintenance to look good. If you’re thinking about taking care of the plants, they’re distracting and you can’t relax.

Behind the border

Once you’ve established a solid ring around the pool, choose several places to add plantings or groups of pots at its outside edge. These plantings add height and stability to the design and draw your eye upward from the water’s flat level to the inspiring sky above. Simplicity remains the watchword for beds along one side or containers arranged at the corners. Choose one or two small trees and repeat them along with no more than three different shrubs. Repeat the groundcover you used in the border for continuity of form and color. Remember, the pool is the point, and plantings should simply enhance its beauty. 

The Plants

Choosing plants to use around a swimming pool can be confusing unless you set a style and stick to plants that meet three basic criteria:

1.       Heat tolerant - able to withstand the reflected heat given off by concrete.

2.       Bold texture - to make a style statement and lead your eye upward with strong lines

3.       Plants with neat habits – those that don’t propel their litter through the air but drop flowers and leaves all at once or not at all and those that grow slowly to strong forms (like small conifers.)

Suit your style

The usual rectangular inground pool lends itself equally well to a classic, elegantly formal planting or a wild rainforest theme. Aboveground models surrounded by decking are more suited to a looser style where decorative containers filled with annuals, herbs and even bananas work well together.

Many gardeners like tropical plants near the water and even though most are not hardy everywhere, you can still use a few for their powerful effect. Combine striped leaf cannas with elephant ears or caladiums and a vine like ‘Marguerite’ spilling over the sides of a big container. Or plant gingers and jasmine with a princess tree for fabulous flowers and fragrance. If you have a favorite spring-flowering shrub, show it off in groups of three and bring the visitor’s attention to the pool area even before the season begins. Add more offseason color and interest to a nearby wall or fence with a climbing rose or espaliered fruit tree. Where mild winters mean you can entertain outside even when the pool is covered, use upright evergreens – and drape them in holiday lights to make a festive mood.

Don’t invite trouble

Avoid plants that create hazards or abundant litter around your pool. Stiffly arching branches and border shrubs with thorns can poke visitors, and fleshy plants that drop leaves over a long period make for slick spots that can trip guests. Build a retaining wall around plantings to keep the pool deck clean and choose lawn or a substitute like dichondra for walkways to and from the cabana if a concrete sidewalk isn’t in your plans. Stepping stones used here will be easy to miss, giving you dirty feet and dirty water.


Bring the pool landscape together with accessories that match your style and mood. Decorative planters in carved concrete emphasize the formal setting while wooden box planters make it casual. Use highback chairs with strong lines and add a tall trellis, patio umbrella or obelisk when your design puts most plants at ground level. And don’t forget lights: line the edge with solar powered garden lights, add a string of lanterns to the trees or use candles in luminaries around containers for a welcoming glow.  

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