BY BRUCE CRAWFORD Manager of Horticulture, Morris County Parks Commission; Board Member, NJ Nursery & Landscape Association
All gardeners wrestle with the design of our home garden. The challenge comes from our familiarity with the property, making it difficult to visualize alternative designs. Obviously, you can become inspired from books and magazines, but it is difficult to visualize how those printed images will feel in person or relate to your home. Hence, the advantage of hiring a landscape designer who has experience in such tasks and can translate your ideas into reality. However, it is good to understand a bit of the design process yourself, so you can talk intelligently with the designer to get the delightful results you want rather than a disaster! To hopefully provide some insight, this is the first of 5 articles focusing on landscape design.
To start, most gardeners wish to focus on color or arranging plants, but success actually begins with the somewhat abstract concept of arranging spaces. To me, there are three initial criteria that are important to a garden’s success. First, it should meet your Program Needs. Second, you need to develop a Site Map and finally it’s important to develop proper Spatial Sequences to ensure the spaces are properly sized and organized to best serve your Program Needs.
Program Needs is the list of what you and your family actually need from the garden for it to be a delight. Of course, your needs should be within your maintenance and financial capabilities. The list is endless, but some considerations include:
BBQ or outdoor kitchen
Swimming Pool/Hot Tub
Water feature (pond or fountain)
Solar clothes dryer (clothes line)
A Site Map includes the location of elements that will impact the design including the orientation of north, downspouts, wet areas, existing trees and so on. Everyone receives a survey when purchasing a house, which includes the property boundaries, the location of the house, any additional structures, easements and the orientation of North! Knowing the location of north will let you understand where the sun rises and sets and where shade will be cast throughout the day. This helps in locating spaces and plants best suited for sun or shade and the direction of those chilling northwesterly winds! When starting the design process, it is best to enlarge the survey from 1"=30' or 1"=50' to 1"=8' or 1"=4'. It will be far easier to design and develop the details at the larger scale.
Space and Spatial Sequencing is something designers spend a lot of time discussing. Creating spaces that have the appropriate size, shape and location in relation to the home for a specific activity is truly the key for the development of a usable garden. In general, spaces that are circular, square, octagonal, or in some manner have uniform length sides, are spaces with low ‘energy’. They subconsciously inform us that this is a space in which to pause, sit and enjoy, as seen below at Chanticleer Gardens. Conversely, if the space is long and linear it has more energy and propels people through that space as seen below on the Highline. Simply put, we do not feel comfortable lingering in a linear and narrow space. A reason poorly behaving students were once tasked with standing in the hallway in elementary school! An easy way to layout these outdoor spaces is to use circles to represent the spaces and construct what is informally call a ‘blob diagram’, as pictured on the right (images by Roy DeBoer). The advantage to this approach is the detachment from any thought of plants or architectural details, which is distracting at this stage. Initially, we need to think about the use of the spaces and how one space properly relates to an adjacent space.
When considering your Program Needs, each one typically correlates to a space, which becomes a circle or oval on a piece of paper. Where circles or ovals overlap, one space freely flows into the next, much like a kitchen transitions into a family room without any blocking walls. However, where they do not overlap, they are separated by some form of a physical barrier. The barrier can take the form of plant materials, architecture elements (fence, wall, a building) or a landform (a berm). It is the shape of this barrier that will determine the vertical shape of the space and affect how the space is perceived or felt. For example, a space created by tall over-arching shrubs and trees creates a welcoming and embracing space, analogous to a cathedral ceiling. A space which is surrounded by shrubs that protrude into the space can create a more melancholy or unharmonious space.
It is also important to locate important and unobstructed sight lines for views or vistas, which are indicated below by the arrows. In some instances, the sight line may not be a path that you can navigate physically but rather visually, as the ground plane could be covered with groundcovers. The sight lines could be highlighting a distant view of a mountain or a view within the garden of a bench or water feature.
These spatial diagrams have the advantage of not only allowing you to organize your outdoor spaces, but to organize them quickly. It typically takes 15-30 minutes to think through and craft a diagram. Put that diagram to one side and think how the design would work with a patio, pool or vegetable garden in another location or reconsider how a different circulation pattern could work. Walk about the inside of your house as well and consider what views through windows are most important and should be strengthened, as well as those with unpleasant views that should be screened. I have always found it best to put together a few conceptual plans and then revisit the designs a day later. It is amazing how things become apparent after a break!