Blowing the dust off a 1970’s book about landscaping committed me to revisit what the author described as goals for the would-be designer, or in this case, homeowners that just moved to a new suburb with houses and yards expressing sameness as their neighbors. Early mass produced suburban house builders sought out sameness for efficiency, and buyers endeavored to draw a fine line between maintaining status quo with just a touch of individuality by keeping up with the Joneses.
Just a few decades later, horticulturalist James Underwood Crockett argues in Landscape Gardening (1971) that “Americans are beginning to look upon their grounds not so much as a means to impress their neighbors, although this purpose will probably always persist, but as usable, livable extensions of the home itself – outdoor rooms to be treated and used in much the way indoor rooms are” (p. 9). This suggests that homeowners wished for outdoor spaces to complement their indoor styles and functional choices. Incidentally, the title, Landscape Gardening, is an interesting choice, since today professionals try to separate the two, but that’s a story for another day.
Crockett endeavored to help DIYers to understand the process of designing an ornamental garden. Known for his PBS series and book by the same name, Crockett’s Victory Garden, he outlines six main goals to consider when thinking about developing one’s own garden: privacy, comfort, beauty, convenience and safety (counted as one goal), ease of maintenance, and flexibility. These goals hold true today, but for the modern garden we can add another goal: in support of the environment. As readers gaze out their windows contemplating the possibilities, these goals will help articulate their priorities as a beginning stage of the design process. Professionals might categorize these goals as client priorities. The purpose of this post is to help readers engage in these goals for their own purposes.
Privacy: When I am feeling bold with a new residential client (I would never ask this of a corporate or institutional client…ever!), “Do you want to run naked in your own backyard?” This is not a question for everyone, but a few clients over time volunteered that “yes, I want enough privacy that I could indeed run around naked outdoors….not that I would.” This isn’t a confession but more of a measure for level of privacy on one’s own property.
Homeowners should ask themselves, “am I okay with neighbors’ windows peering into my home or garden?” While some might not think this is a big concern, I’m perpetually amazed how many homes today keep their drapes or blinds closed 24/7. How different would the experience be if one can keep the windows open to landscapes without feeling all eyes are on them? This is true for “landscaped gardens”, too, when high-end estate gardens to small courtyards are designed for optimal privacy. In the 1960s to 70s, Crockett understood these priorities for suburban dwellers coming home from a long day, commuting in traffic, wishing to shut out the world around them. “Most people want their houses and grounds to provide some sense of shelter from the crowding and tension of an urban world – a place where ties come off, and shirts, too; where tired feet can be soothed by cool grass; where green foliage helps the mind forget highway traffic” (p. 9). Sound familiar? Good, you are on your way to understanding a design goal.
Comfort: What’s not to like about feeling comfortable in your own space? There is nothing more annoying to me than a beautiful bench positioned artistically in a garden but is useless otherwise. And don’t get me started on metal benches in direct hot sun. However the garden is utilized, the design should be intentional and guided by the priorities of joy and comfort of the user. For the DIYer, one question to ask oneself draws upon what to expect verses what the current conditions are. For example, if I enjoy dappled sunlight and cool breezes but my garden is baking in southern exposure right when I want to be outdoors, I will probably conclude that something needs to change if I am going to enjoy my outdoor space. Others might not realize why the space is so uncomfortable and simply ignore it, which then becomes underutilized dead zones. Desirable changes can come from good landscape design that ponders trees and/or structures to satisfy a certain level of comfort and pleasure.
Beauty: To be candid, this is a challenging one, as we know, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” A beautiful garden for one might be a well composed ornamental composition, but for someone else could be purely functional, such as disheveled kitchen gardens or wildlife habitats. While beauty can be subjective, designers are taught to focus on process and composition, and when it comes to plants, a dynamic composition will consider texture, color, and form. This is where DIYers might struggle, since landscape architects will have years of training with numerous clients and sites, whereas a homeowner will not have that training and is looking at one place with a personal bias and interest. Some DIYers may get it right; others, well, will show signs of struggle in the resulting design implementation.
A great place to start is to look through windows to the outdoors and try to critically analyze what is in the framed view. At one of our former homes, the master bathroom window was perfectly aligned with our shower, bathtub AND our neighbors dining room window. Architecturally, it was a beautiful window, but wow what a vision that would be for our neighbors at dinner. Pass the dinner roll! Because their proximity was so close and our budget was thin, the most efficient way we could resolve this was using rice paper-like film on the window, which by the way, created beautiful play of light and shadow…and privacy.
Over time, I composed vines and shrubbery outside the window to deepen the privacy and the shadow play with leaves and flowers. Not all designs have to be elaborate, as in this simple window treatment, but landscape designers can miss their opportunities to control what is inside as it relates to their designs outside.
There are larger discussions here that cannot be addressed in a simple post, such as creating focal points or contrasting spaces. This is where garden design books come in handy for DIYers or hiring a professional to assess any opportunities composing beauty in the garden. Only the homeowner knows which direction is best for them.
Convenience and Safety: It is interesting that Crockett combined these as one goal, and he offers this example: “Paths must not meander meaninglessly, and guests should not have to walk through the kitchen, or worse still, through a garage, to get to a garden; both walks and doorways should be determined by a logical traffic pattern. Steps should be lighted for safety, and the design of treads and risers should make for easy climbing” (p. 10). Clearly, Crockett is not referring to high density homes we see today, where the only way to visit the garden is through the garage…if there is indeed a garden to enjoy. Instead, as with much of this book, we are focused on suburban and estate gardens.
Safety is a primary concern for professional designers. No one wants a lawsuit! DIYers should share this concern, since liability can fall upon them should something happen to a guest, such as tripping on a tree root or falling off a deck with no railing. And besides when convenience and safety are considered, the space will be comfortable, no? Incidentally, my first landscape architecture professor made it perfectly clear, “Avoid designing pathways that have a single step, as the user will assuredly trip.”
Ease of Maintenance: It isn’t just homeowners that should be thinking this goal through. As a plan reviewer, I see designers fail at this all the time. Trees planted in the wrong place is a classic example, but when plants are planted too closely together, maintenance is elevated.
With today’s concerns for stormwater cleaning and capture, rain gardens and permeable pavers might sound attractive, but they too have maintenance regimens that should be taken into consideration. Spatial sequencing should also be assessed when planning a design. A kitchen garden set in the back forty might be visually desirable but carrying the harvest back to the kitchen just added to the labor. Water features and pools add another level of maintenance that can contribute greatly to their long-term costs. These are only a few examples of what good designers will consider when discussing with a client, and DIYers need to research real costs before committing to adding features to the garden. Maintenance, or rather the impact of a design on maintenance, is another topic that deserves greater discussion then here…if I ever can get around to it.
Flexibility: Frankly, the smaller the garden the more flexible spaces should be to adapt to changing interests. Families might prioritize lawns for children’s play, but as kids grow and find their independence, that lawn space might be more useful as a hobby garden, a meditative garden, or a pollinator garden, as examples. A swimming pool, too, might become burdensome if no longer used and when water and maintenance expenses keep going up. One question I always ask clients is how they entertain outdoors? Just for themselves, frequent house parties, corporate BBQs are factors that inform a design and the level of flexibility required by outdoor spaces.
Bonus Round – Support of the Environment: Hopefully, most of us are on similar pages when it comes to environmental subjects such as climate change and excess plastics, fertilizers, or herbicides, to name a few. Many landscape professionals are serious about this subject, in part because they are trained to be stewards of the land. No matter how small or large a project, we can all contribute to the benefit of the environment, our environment, because ultimately a sound environment contributes to our comfort, convenience, safety, ease of maintenance, and most importantly, our health. How designers achieve this is yet another long post that I’m sure someone out there in the ether has already addressed it, but some examples are creating wildlife habitat, capturing rainwater, and promoting healthy soil and plants to minimize the need for chemicals.
I hope this serves as a steppingstone for anyone considering the do-it-yourself path and will come away with an understanding the garden design is more than plopping a favorite posy into the ground. The more DIYers envision these goals for themselves, and research how to approach them, the greater success to create useable, creatives spaces. To be clear, I’ve done both, the posy plopping and place plotting; each have their benefits and pleasures under the right circumstances. Try to assess your circumstances and determine the best approach for you.
Underwood Crockett, J. & Editors (1971). Landscape Gardening. New York: Time-Life Books.
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