When leafing through a landscape trade magazine recently, I noticed how much emphasis was placed on the “hard stuff”: Large patios and terraces paved with interlocking pavers and seat-walls around them in either stone or concrete block; sweeping staircases, luxurious zero-edge pools, massive built-in outdoor kitchens with the latest in outdoor cooking technology…
Obviously, the homeowners had invested a small fortune into their landscape and I imagined them rightly proud of their yard improvements.
Yet it struck me how little inviting I found these spaces; the hardscape seemed to overwhelm the warmth of nature, which had been defeated.
Clarification: The layout and organization of a garden into ‘rooms’, or the ‘bones’ of a successful garden, is tantamount, but NOT dependent on hardscaping.
When I ask my clients to describe their home landscape design goals, one of the first things they mention is their dream of beautiful, lush plants that draw them out into the garden; they blame the garden’s unattractiveness on the lack of beautiful plants, and this may be quite true!
But I usually respond by pointing to other facts that make their garden uninviting: It is in most cases the poor organization of their spaces that doesn’t allow for smooth circulation. There may not be sufficient room for a comfortable dining table and a clear, logical way to serve food here…perhaps there’s no shade for the homeowner who wants to spend time outside without being roasted.
Frequently also, there’s not enough privacy for a family that likes to take their breakfast or dinner outside, in their PJs or swim wear (or naked, God forbid!)
So I do pay much attention to the layout of a garden and devise outdoor spaces that can be used in comfort, preferably with the most beautiful materials. However, while hardscaping can be used in all aforementioned circumstances, so can “plantscaping”.
Plants should be used more often to solve these problems. I begin envisioning their garden coming to life with plants, color, textures; I see the wildlife drawn by them and begin feeling the mood of the garden.
And I know that these plants will be substantially more than ‘the icing on the cake,’ but will also serve to organize the garden.
So what makes an outdoor space successful and inviting? What is it that draws us into them?
I can think of several groundbreaking ideas in the last 50 or so years that shook the gardening and design world. They called for a new, sustainable appreciation of plants and their function in our gardens.
They use such words as “enchantment”, “romance”, and “plant personalities”…and they describe the variety of their sculptural, dramatic, and attention-getting forms that we should consider in our designs and substitute for hardscaping.
Also, it is important that we consider plants at the very beginning of the design process, so that their softness and drama can be the leading elements of the design, and let the hardscaping once again provide a supporting role.
Hedges can be clipped into formal green ‘walls’ to delineate areas, provide privacy, or simply act as a backdrop. Trees with interesting shapes can give not only shade but supply the columns where we need strong vertical movement.
Trellises covered with vines can also provide privacy or decoration, and plants of different structures, textures, sizes, and colors can let the eye bounce around, lead it through a garden, and provide interest and momentum.
Hardscaping then is scaled back to its more appropriate role, and plants can once again frame a scene or blur boundaries with nature.
Numerous books and beautiful articles have been written about landscapes that make you dream and want to be in them.
Some advice that I’ve learned is to allow for change and growth in plants as well as in people’s responses, and to avoid creating “landscapes that demand that their plants stay in near suspended animation to fulfill the designer’s vision (and impose an unrealistic burden on their owners for upkeep)”. Let’s remind ourselves instead that, “At its heart a garden is a relationship, an ongoing dialog between people, plants and the place in which they both live and grow.” It is this relation with them that builds a garden.
-(“Plant-Driven Design,” pgs. 18 + 19, by Scott Ogden and Lauren Springer Ogden)
In my next post, I’ll give a few examples of the power of plants and examine how they can be used where we traditionally imagine hardscapes:
- How big a pool deck do you really need?
- How do you create boundaries or privacy with plants if not with walls and fences?
- Will you need a retaining wall, or could plants do a better job?
These are some of the questions I look forward to examining, to help you create balance in your home landscape design.