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Basics of Landscape Design Part Two

Style
How we want our garden design to look…

  • Structures What kind of building are we designing around? (This should be a primary concern for design).
  • Scale How big a garden are we building? How does it relate to existing structures
  • Themes Are there specific themes we want to use? Specific plants? Colors
  • Existing features Are we keeping trees? Shrubs? Walls? Paths? (Etc., etc…
  • Environment What kind of soil do we have? Sun or shade? Moisture
  • Maintenance How much time are we willing to spend in our garden? How much time do we really have to spend in our garden? How much work are we willing to tackle? How much are we actually capable of doing?

Styling a garden to it's surroundings
I am often horrified by the designs I see that have not taken the architecture they surround into account; English cottage gardens around modern ranch homes, overly formal gardens around small cottages… I know that it is easy to fall in love with a particular style of garden and not have the right architecture to support that style; I am a huge fan of Japanese gardens and I don’t exactly have a sukiya style home. If that type of situation arises for you, try to find ways to meld the styles together. I am often reminded of my friend Bob Bonneville’s garden where he set his tea garden a ways from his house and as he moved closer to his home, masterfully morphed from Japanese to a traditional Western style that became brick walkway and formal hedges with nary a bump along the way. Gradual changes in plant material and planting style make the transitory area of his gardens one of my favorite parts of the whole thing; with a little thought you can do the same and keep your chosen style and your architecture compatible.

Another key point to consider here is scale. I caution against the oft repeated mistakes of:

  1. Building a huge palatial abode and then running down to Home Depot to buy $300 worth of two gallon, foot and a half tall shrubs that will take two decades to make any sense in the landscape, or
  2. Using shrubs (like catawbiense rhododendrons) in the foundation planting, that in ten years will engulf the side of your house, blotting the light of the sun from the first floor of your home. Do we really want to plant that Colorado blue spruce twenty feet from our little cottage, knowing that in twenty years it will be thirty feet in diameter and twice that tall?

I always think of a little (1400 sq. ft.) ranch I know that the owner, obviously wishing to draw attention to his estate, placed two 8’ Victorian style, three globe lampposts (no sign of Victorian styling anywhere else, although the rusting truck in the driveway looked as if it may have been close to that vintage), and another right by the front door. I’m sure he was going for that Main Street, USA look, but in his 100’ x 30’ front yard it looked like other parts of Disneyland instead. Keep in mind the scope of the landscape and the eventual size of the plant material; this will keep you happy with the final design decades later.

A word about garden themes
A garden theme can be a wonderful way to start the design process, but too often the theme can begin to override other considerations and become forced (Butterfly gardening is a wonderful idea, but if you have partial to full shade the first part of the process is cutting down a lot of trees, adding expense and perhaps jeopardizing existing plants or gardens. Perhaps this is not the theme for your garden…). If you find your theme to be a little out of sync with the rest of the garden or yard then creating a garden room screened away from the rest of the design is your best bet (what I usually do with Japanese gardens); this is a great way to get the best of both worlds…I often theme the gardens I design as a great way to personalize them; I also find that the restriction of palette that a specific theme brings can simplify and speed the design process considerably.

The existing conditions in the yard can be modified (our butterfly garden example again), but I usually like to find plants and structures that both complement and work with the existing environment. If an area is boggy we could spend vast quantities of time and money to drain or raise that area, but how much easier (and cheaper and better for the environment) to put in a rain garden with plants that not only embrace the wet conditions, but provide habitat for the denizens of such locales. The same goes when considering light, soil and other environmental modifiers; if it’s shady let’s plant shade plants, not cut down trees. If it’s sandy, rather than spend time and money amending soil, let’s pick those trees, shrubs, and perennials that are happy in sandy conditions…

The garden that resembles nature
The scope of Western landscape design up to this point has been about man dominating nature, a natural reaction for societies that have grown by colonization, wresting living space from a “hostile” wilderness. It seemed a natural extension of that “civilizing” process to create garden spaces that showed the hand of man rather than the underlying nature that the garden truly embodies (it is interesting to note that the insular societies of Asia took an entirely different approach by designing gardens that embodied and represented nature, despite the fact that they were generally more contrived than their Western counterparts). In this modern age of global industrialization, the chances of being eaten by a bear are far outweighed by the dangers of losing touch with the natural world. I believe it is time for Western garden style to take a page from the Asian styles and work with nature rather than subjugating it. I believe that the starting point is working within the confines of the site, finding strategies that suit both nature and man in the same garden.

Keeping that in mind, it is often the case (especially in the Northeast where we have been settled for three centuries now) to be renovating the landscape rather than starting from scratch. While this may appear at first glance to simplify the design process, the reality is that you have the added challenge of incorporating design concepts not of your choosing, necessitating either a lot of thought to understanding where the previous “designer” was going, or ripping out (and perhaps redistributing) a lot of plant material (most designers are much happier with the tabla rasa , or blank slate; it allows for the fresh idea to extend to the entire design).

While this is not so difficult where you were the previous designer, it is often easier to wipe the slate and start over if you cannot understand (or for that matter, stand) the ideas of the previous owner (this is one of those decisions often foisted upon designers with the casual “Oh, and I really want to keep those lilacs, as they were my dads…”; now you have a plant that will dominate the visual plane in a place that you did not choose, so you are cemented into a design decision for that area that may have received little, if any, thought to the affect of the mature plant on the landscape). Sentimentality has ruined far more gardens than it has helped; do not become to attached to any part so that it impinges on the whole (Yes Mom, I AM talking about that ratty cedar in the middle of the back yard…)

Planning a garden to fit your lifestyle
While it seemed like a really great idea at the time to design your own re-creation of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, in hindsight it’s a little more time consuming than you’d envisioned… Don’t fall prey to this all too common mistake. We often start with grand plans of all the time we will be spending in our new garden without realistically assessing how much time we are ABLE to spend there; by the time the kids have gotten to ballet/soccer/karate, the dog has gotten to the groomer, and you have completed cooking/laundry/vacuuming/surfing the web, how much time is truly left? Suddenly that formal rose garden is less of a joy and more of a chore. By realistically looking at your lifestyle you will be able to determine how much time in a week you can spend gardening. If you are retired (lucky thing, you…) you have more time to devote and more elaborate plantings and features are possible. But if you are anything like me, or the vast majority of my clients, you will find that “low maintenance” is a key part of the design criteria. Suddenly that mini-orchard or pond and stream don’t make as much sense as it did a minute a go. Being brutally realistic here will pay off in pleasure vs. pain later…

Planning
Laying out the groundwork for our landscape…

  • Drawing Do we need a formal plan for exact measurement? Will a sketch do?
  • Existing challenges Are there issues the plan needs to address? (Light, drainage, soil conditions, etc.
  • Hardscape Are we adding walls? Patios? Walkways? Drainage? Fences
  • Plantings What are we trying to achieve? Are there specific plants we want to use? What plants will relate best to the existing structures and hardscape? How much maintenance are we willing to give the garden? Is the plant hardy? Will it tolerate our soil? (diseases, insects, moisture, wind, pets, kids…) Is it the right size plant? The right shape?

Garden Design Plans
We have become married to the idea of an elaborate drawing as part of the design process. The idea of landscape as a part of architecture has extended the idea of the blueprint into the garden space, despite the fact that these are living breathing organisms that will morph with age, not bricks and lumber to forge into a static structure. I turn yet again to the Japanese model, where the designer usually did a quick 3Dcharcoal sketch of his vision for the space, which he modified to the clients wishes and used as a baseline to refer to, while the actual garden itself was crafted bit by bit, adjusting the different elements to fit as the landscape progressed. It allows for more latitude in the process as unforeseen challenges or changes in concept arise without having to redesign the whole plan; most importantly to my mind is the reduction in time and cost in the less formal design. Any lack of precision (not a high priority in the garden) is offset by the handcrafting of the landscape to fit the space; a more artisan approach is something I find more appropriate to the garden anyway.

Should you remain married to the idea of a blueprint for your garden, a quick trip to the town hall will furnish you with a copy of your site plan, complete with notations on property lines, sewer, water, compass heading and other key features. You can draw out your plans right on this copy or take it down to the copy center and give yourself a few to play with, sketch on, etc. If you are unsure of property lines or underground services this is a good step whether you are going to do the formal drawing or not.

Now that initial walk-through comes into play. Those drainage problems, sight lines, recreation areas and the like, right down to where are we hiding the garbage cans; all these things should be our next thoughts in the process (start with the drainage; it will be your first step in the actual work and should be a primary concern, then environmental issues, then people issues, and finally aesthetic concerns). All these factors will logically lead us into our next step, hardscape.

Details of your lanscape design plan
Figuring out the traffic flow will automatically place drives and paths, which in turn will help delineate areas for beds and borders. I am often thwarted by the ugly habit builders have (it’s that blueprint mentality) of putting squared corners and parallel lines in paths and drives; often these leave 2’ wide borders that are tragically hard to do any sort of meaningful design for (not wide enough for a shrub, maybe one decent perennial or two small ones). Gertrude Jekyll, that Queen of the English Cottage Garden, opined that less than an 8’ border was virtually useless; I think we can find some smaller plants to make that 4’ space work but Gerty, as usual, is mostly correct. Make those beds as deep as possible; I like curves rather than straight lines so the depth varies, but you get the idea. If there is space for a large perennial or shrub in the back, a medium sized plant in the middle, and room for one or two perennials in the fore then you will be able to keep an interesting flow rather than a flat tableau of plant material (besides it gets rid of more lawn).

The horizontal plane addressed, we now turn to the vertical. Plants on hillsides are generally not happy; they receive less water and sun due to their precarious location. Retaining walls help create more level ground and can also help address some of those drainage issues (Mediterranean plants like lavenders or thymes prefer a lot more drainage and are happier in a raised bed). Screening can be addressed by hardscape but I generally like to use plants for that job; fences or walls can act in the same manner as a planes wing and actually increase wind speed behind the wall, while plants filter and slow the wind. Hardscape addresses lots of issues, but never forget that the plants are the stars of the garden.

Planting your garden
Planting is the heart of the project, and while it often provides the most frustration (“You want a plant that flowers all summer, takes shade, AND is low maintenance?”), it certainly provides the greatest joy (when that customer who had no idea what a chionanthus was until you planted one in their yard regales you with how much they enjoy it now). This is where you leave your mark, forging combinations and contrasts that will be the biggest visual impact in the landscape. We could take another hour just detailing the criteria for selecting the plants (see the article on Companion Gardening) but let’s just hit some high points.

We have discussed the concept of the right plant in the right spot, but it bears repeating. My friend’s wife came to me a few years back and said, “Scott, how do I go about putting peonies in my yard?” and I said, “Sue, you don’t. Your yard is way to shady, and besides we could do some lovely things with those woodland plants you already have.” (We had limbed up as far as we could and the neighbors had tall trees on either side of their narrow yard. Besides, she had varieties of ferns, jack-in-the-pulpits, and lots of other woodland wonders just volunteering all over her yard!) “But I want!” sez Sue; end of conversation. I pull into her driveway a month later to find the tree crew taking down the last of the old oaks; Sue was determined to have those peonies. Years (and thousands of dollars) later, she has four or five fitful peonies that barely bloom, and all those great native plants are history. Not enough light to do what she wanted but too much for those woodland beauties…

There is a valuable and powerful lesson here; what nature wants is often not what we do. I feel it is best to bow to the wishes of Mother Nature as she has been gardening longer than we have and usually has a better eye anyway (this is strictly my opinion and not an overriding principal, but there it is…). You can modify the site to fit your needs but it is simpler, cheaper and more environmentally aware to find those plants that will fit the existing conditions. Native plants are great in this respect; they are hardier, more disease and pest resistant and will tolerate a wider range of conditions because they’re home. Plant some natives, especially at the edge of your yard. You will be rewarded with fauna as well as flora…

Remember to keep scale in mind
Also worth repeating is to keep eventual size in mind when planting; the garden may look a touch gappy at first, but that’s why Nature created annuals. Flowers come and flowers go, but foliage lasts all season; find plants that offer more than a single burst of color and then fade to green obscurity. Varigation and colored foliage is becoming more available all the time, so use it! Choose plants that are lower maintenance to cut down the grunt work and increase enjoyment time; ornamental grasses are a once a year chore that offers yearlong appeal in the garden. I use them all the time and there’s a grass to fit almost any niche, so try some today!

You are ready to plan your garden
There are a lot of things to consider when designing a garden, but taken step by step the path becomes clear and the design begins to take shape almost on it’s own. By adhering to a few rules and principles you can design a garden with the very best, and one that bears your own signature more than ever…

The author, Scott Reil, is a garden designer, lecturer, and Master Gardener instructor based in Conncecticut.