“A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot. Rose plot, fringed pool, Fern’d grot.” What a use of language! I wholeheartedly approve of Thomas Brown going full rapper in this bit of verse. I, mean, come on - “ferned” as a verb? Dropping the “e”. Abbreviating “grotto”? Magical. Brown turns this banal sentiment into something unique and memorable - even after it’s replicated on countless items of garden statuary.
A friend asked me to write something that might actually be useful for home gardeners going about designing their own landscape. This request made me think. When my design team and I consult on a garden, we bring the full weight of our combined education and experience to the process. We spend days, hours, weeks walking a property, testing design ideas through drawing and modeling, then mocking up our ideas on site. Our intent is to create a something as memorable and unique as Brown’s verse, something that that will fulfill the owner’s desires while adding value to their community.
So, if I was a homeowner, how would I got about creating a plan for a residential design? I always start with context. The unique thing about landscape design amongst the design disciplines is that landscape is immersive, encompassing, and intact. Landscape is never clearly bounded. It’s always messy. Figuring out the edges of an intervention - and its impacts - is hard. The first defining quality of a property’s context is whether it’s rural, urban, or something in between. In a rural or suburban property, the garden will be outward focused and blend into its context. With an urban property, an inward-focused approach is essential. Lauren Springer Ogden explored this distinction in her books The Undaunted Garden and Plant-Driven Design.
Beyond context in general, approach is another determining aspect of creating a plan for any garden. The approach sequence to a property is usually the most frequently experienced aspect of a garden for both owners and guests. Curating this experience is key. Start a few streets away. What’s the feeling when you turn in to the neighborhood? Do you approach the site primarily on foot or by car? Are there plantings at the subdivision entry? How are houses set relative to the street? Are they nestled up along it, or set back deep in the forest? Is the experience groomed and geometrical - or loose and naturalistic? What plant species and hardscape materials make up the surrounding vocabulary? Approach extends to the site as well. What’s the first glimpse of the house? How is the building mass presented along the approach? When do you have a full reveal of the facade? Is it direct or asymmetrical? Where do guest and resident experience diverge?
Once you’ve thought through the context and approach, it’s time to think about the spaces directly around the residence. Start with the program. Designers use the term programming to describe activities located in specific places around a garden. Some activities take more space. It’s important for some activities to be adjacent to each other - and for others to be separate. If you haven’t already, start a list of activities you want to occur around your garden. These can be people-focused (entertaining, children’s play area, or even a spot to have a cup of coffee) or oriented towards something else (chicken run, motorcycle yard, vegetable garden, or space for a cut flower peony collection). You’ll always want spaces for more program than you have time or budget for, so think about how the spaces supporting different activities can be multipurpose - and staged over time.
If programming is a general bubble diagram, architecture can help guide your formal decisions. As part of P. Allen Smith’s design team, I’m accustomed to starting from the idea of creating a “garden home” composed of clearly defined garden spaces that relate to the site’s architecture - usually a house and its accompanying outbuildings. Your previous consideration of context will help inform your spatial decisions. The ways that a house’s massing and room are articulated will influence garden spaces dramatically. Echoing or contrasting the design language of a building in the garden spaces are both valid options. Time to bring out the stakes, string, and paint gun to figure out how your proposed spaces might actually feel.
Home gardeners like to start with specifics. “Rose plot, fringed pool, fern’d grott.” It’s easy to fixate on the new patio you want for grilling with your friends, the tree branches that are overhanging from your neighbor’s property, the playground your kids need to keep their destructive tendencies in check, or - if you’re a plant geek like me - space for woodland planting full of all your favorite ephemerals. But the benefit of hiring a designer is that we can help you take a step back.
You want to know designer secrets? Design doesn’t start with answers. Instead, we bring a barrage of question to interrogate both client and space. We’re going to take you through a process designed to tease out the possibilities - and identify a clear way forward. Pay attention and your garden, too, will become a lovesome thing, god wot - or not.