“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.
I spent most of last weekend trundling through the backroads of three states in a white pickup truck. Usual every-hour stops to hop out and look at wildflowers. Baptisia nutalliana and Rudbeckia maxima in Texas. Phlox drummondii and Rhododendron austrinum in Louisiana. Chionanthus and Narcissus in Arkansas. One of of those stops, no less whistle-stop than the others, I was lucky enough to get to hear Thomas Rainer speak to the Horticulture club at Stephen F Austin University in Nacogdoches. Most of the lecture focused on the plant community design techniques that Thomas (along with Claudia West) wrote about in Planting in a Post-Wild World. But one idea, buried at the center of the lecture, has been running through my mind all week.
Thomas showed a slide of images of statues of confederate soldiers. Cast iron figures of men who didn’t want to admit they could have been wrong, erected eighty years after their deaths to intimidate new generations.
He showed images of several iconic southern landscapes. A misty panorama of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A leafy forest understory near Birmingham. Then he flipped over to photos of cloverleaf highways and strip mall complexes. You see these in every southern city.
Hysterical editorials and radio talk show hosts followed the confederate statue removals. Even I, the most anti-combative person on the continent, almost got in a complete shouting row with a mothballed and mustachioed Uber driver who brought up the statues. But nobody’s even moderately worked up about the destruction of irreplaceable, irreparable ecosystems.
As I’ve often said before, I grew up in a small town on the Mississippi River in southeast Missouri. It’s a weird spot. At various points, the area now considered the Mississippi River Hills was inhabited by the Illini Confederation, who were then displaced by Spanish explorers, French settlers, and German Lutherans. Anybody who grew up in the real Midwest considers it part of the South. Those who grew up in the Deep South consider it part of the North. It’s a messy hybrid region, with no clear and consistent cultural narrative.
Over the time I lived there - and as I hear stories of the town since, I’ve heard the cultural narrative change. When I was little, the predominant stories were of World War II vets, people who grew up without electricity, speaking German at home, people who had benefited greatly from post WWII prosperity. Today, after twenty years of constant cable network vitriol (thanks, Fox News and NRA propaganda), the stories have changed.
Hillbilly Elegy was mostly nonsense. But one thing that it got right was that rural populations, especially low-income white populations, have bought into a narrative that offers them little hope for a better life. These communities need a new story. I need a new story.
But how would we go about bringing southern landscapes to the center of the of the conversation about heritage?
In every place, landscape is deeply entangled with the human dramas that have occured within its all-enveloping embrace. The dramas that have played out across the United States make this particularly tricky. Any narrative about southern history founded in landscape must start from a position of acknowledging the privilege of the people who live there now.
Most of the people who live in these areas now have no ancestral right, no natural heritage, tying them to the place they live now. Even in New Orleans and St. Augustine, those oldest of European settlements in North America, Europeans have only a 400-year history. First Nations people were weakened by disease, killed, and forcibly removed from their lands. Throughout much of the south, there’s the additional complication of enslavement and sharecropping. So any talk of heritage must acknowledge the messy, often uncomfortable, history of these places.
I don’t have a clear idea of what a narrative that adequately represents landscape as a component of southern heritage might look like. Reading, for me, is always the start. For now, I’d start with the the written historical record. Not just the big celebrated southern gardeners. Look to Eudora Welty, who learned to garden from her mother. Read Elizabeth Lawrence. Eudora signed her up for the Market Bulletins, where people traded slips of one heritage plant for another. Read Zora Neale Hurston’s writing about landscape and agriculture in the Caribbean and the south. Read Marjorie Kinnans Rawling on rural life in early 20th century Florida. Maybe a first is just that, to build a primer on the southern landscape.
Beyond reading, I don’t know. I’ll let you know as soon as I come up with a next step...