Summer Review Session: An Eye for Design

It does not matter if we are talking about a vegetable garden, an orchard, a courtyard garden, a suburban back yard, or a country manor estate – you can have all the good intention your gardening heart will muster and more than enough plants to fill your space and purpose – a good solid design, will significantly increase your garden’s productivity, its aesthetics, anyone’s efficiency in working in it, and your enjoyment of it for all these reasons. Photo: A Santa Barbara garden.

Last week, I revisited a piece on compost as the first part of a three-week good gardening review session. Healthy soil is hands down where to start in any good garden. This week, I revisit the idea of good garden design. Good design is a great second step to a good garden – whether you are starting from scratch, renovating a section of your garden, or considering new elements to a larger whole to plant this coming fall. Mid-summer is a great time to review and reconsider. Photo: A suburban garden designed by John Whittlesey of Canyon Creek Nursery

Over the past few months Karen McGrath, a Landscape Designer, and I have had an ongoing conversation about the many merits of using a good, trained designer to help in the initial design of a new garden or the renovation/remodel of an existing one. In her well articulated philosophy: “Landscape design is more than just shrubbing up the outside of a building. It is a logical planning process and also an art form that marries a site’s unique characteristics with people’s needs and wishes to create a totally unique outdoor place.” Karen is the owner of Karen McGrath Design, Landscapes for Outdoor Living based in Redding. Photo: A good Landscape Designer can help you choose and articulate good focal point sites and elements in a space.

As a gardener – and I like to think a pretty good gardener – using a designer to help me in my garden was once unthinkable to me. If I was a good gardener, why would I need a designer? I thought. Landscape architects, landscape designer and/or garden designers were for people who weren’t really gardeners, I reasoned. But then my family and I moved to a house with a really oddly shaped lot. And it had odd elements within that shape. And odd plantings – some I wanted, others I did not – numbered among those odd elements. Photo: A home garden in Durham designed by Christy Santos of One of a Kind Design in Chico.

I had very solid ideas about what I wanted as several parts of the whole garden: I knew I wanted raised vegetable beds; I knew they would need to be fenced due to dogs, kids and rabbits; I knew I wanted the fenced veggie garden to be attractive; I knew I wanted a long perennial border; I knew I wanted to create some sort of “space” beneath a grove of old Ponderosa Pines; I knew I wanted a chicken coop, and so forth. But after three seasons in the garden, and after implementing and working on my wish list including installing the attractive vegetable garden, the chicken coop and some nice perennial beds, after planting and transplanting, sketching and re-sketching, I also knew I had reached a wall and was stumped. Photo: Some garden designs are more self-conscious or dramatic for effect than others. This is one of the display gardens at Cornerstone Gardens – Gallery Style Garden exhibits in Sonoma.

Try as I might, I could not come up with a concept that pulled all of my existing and new elements together so that they worked – and looked – like a unified whole. In part, this was probably because I had several carts in front of the horse, but in part it was simply because I was so married to the individual elements, I literally could not see the garden for the plants – and chicken coops. Photo: A home garden whose parts are all integral to the whole pleasing effect.

Around that same time, I went on a garden tour and I visited a garden in which the owners were clearly hands-on gardeners, but which was also clearly marked as having been the work in part of a landscape design and build firm in town. The garden was very different than mine, but the cohesive effect of it struck a chord. I called the firm the next day. Within three months they had “seen” a solution to the cohesiveness issue in my own garden, we had agreed on a design about which I was delighted but which still left me lots of room as a hands-on gardener. I could not have been happier about the whole experience. Photo: A garden design will help you to articulate pathways – where they lead, how they direct movement through the space and of what materials they are constructed in order to fit purposefully into an overall design scheme. Destinations such as this bench in a patch of sun provide drama, interest and purpose in a garden designed by Bernadette Balics of Ecological Landscape Design in Davis.

I was a believer.

And when I thought of it the way I think about writing – it clicked for me. Working with a well-trained editor always improves my writing because they “see” – are trained to see – what I sometimes miss – same relationship between a gardener and a designer.

Granted – some people simply want a “garden” designed, installed and maintained, which is fine. Great even. I am glad they value the aesthetics a garden provides and are willing to put money into it – but let’s face it – they probably aren’t reading my articles.

“Besides working as a partner to a homeowner on their list of landscape ‘dreams’ if you will,” explains Karen, “A good designer – one that suits your style and personality – will save you time, money and frustration. Most people will really only go through a major garden build or overhaul perhaps 2 or 3 times in their life – less frequently than they will remodel some part of their home. Using a good designer will improve the chances that the process is smooth, done correctly the first time and with an end result you the homeowner/gardener are happy with.” Photo: In her own family’s garden, Karen designed embracing walls, which also act as backdrops for dramatic plants and as frames for certain focal points. Her pergola draws you across the garden and pool area with its vision of shelter and relaxation.

Time and again, she tells me, working with a designer saves a gardener/homeowner money in the long run. “Your environment should be a reflection of you, and support your mental health and happiness – no matter what that means to you.” And in this economic climate, improving your landscape – even just getting a phased plan in place to work toward piece by piece will only improve the long-term value of your home and, perhaps more importantly, your current enjoyment of it.

Karen, whose graduate work was in Landscape Architecture, has worked across many areas of Landscape Design, from working with many individual clients in many states to working on city parks and planning projects to serving on the council of the McConnell Arboretum and Gardens at Turtle Bay Exploration Park and contributing to their display garden areas. Photo: In this garden, Karen also used walls to embrace the garden and to clearly delineate public from private space. However, it’s the nuances that are quite genius. The front walls keep the dog in, but are much lower than the rear walls, thereby inviting passer’s by to look into this part of the garden, and allowing for a sense of welcome and neighborliness that higher walls might block. The higher walls toward the rear of the garden provide the sense of the privacy and refuge for the private spaces, without disengaging this family from their community. This kind of nuance is more easily achieved with a well-trained eye and a lot of design experience.

“The design process should be careful and thoughtful,” she says. “It’s important that you do research to find a designer you can work well with – one that listens to you, understands your needs and desires as well as your tastes.” Photo: Karen does a lot of work with native plants and with integrating homes into native/natural plant areas. Here, she has designed an organically-shaped pool and used repeating rhythmic lines in both hardscape and plantings to not only soften a fairly steep hillside but to ease the very cultivated space into the transition to the natural wild areas.

Karen has a pretty standard Landscape Design Procedure Flow Chart that she likes to show clients initially so that they know what to expect, she adds “One of the things I like to make sure of by the time I finish my design is that I eliminate or diminish, if at all possible, the visual or design things that currently bother them.” For instance, that they hate seeing their trash cans first thing when they go out into the garden, or that they hate seeing their neighbor’s parked RV from their breakfast table’s window. Karen maintains that “eliminating these low-level irritations go a long way to allowing your garden to be a nurturing, rejuvenating space for the gardener/homeowner.” Photo: Karen’s Design Procedure Flow Chart.

“Well-trained designers are likely to be able to communicate well with you verbally and graphically, which is important,” Karen points out, “because the work we do has so much synthesizing involved: pulling together the sometimes disparate fields of horticulture, architecture, engineering, ecology, climates, and art.” (I would add psychology). Many designers will do hand drawings or computer drawings of a project. Karen showed me a recent design she’d completed using an advanced Landscape Design program in which you can view the project in 3-D and do virtual walk-throughs of the garden spaces – even look at views from the interior of a house to the garden areas outside. “I have had people jump up and down and cry they have been so pleased to see their garden ideas shown to them in design,” she tells me, smiling. People frequently frame her color-rendered hand- drawn designs. Photo: The walls of this garden act as a perfect neutral backdrop against which this Euphorbia (green plant at back) and Phormium (burnished plant in front) stand-out with their strength and play of form and color.

“But first you have to come to the decision that you need a designer,” she says.

From there, do your homework. If your project involves major buildings, grading or drainage, you should probably start with a Landscape Architect. The American Society of Landscape Architects (www.ASLA.org) has a searchable directory by region and zip code. Personal references are always best, she suggests. If not, a trained Landscape Designer will be less expensive and more than equal to most garden design tasks. The Association of Professional Landscape Designers (www.APLD.com), of which Karen is a member, also has a good searchable directory by region. “Look at potential designer’s portfolios, make sure their field of expertise or experience matches your project’s needs, and call references if you did not have one to start with.” You will trust this person with your money and perhaps more importantly with your environment – “you should resonate with each other,” Karen emphasizes. Photo: One balance that Karen strives for is that between privacy and refuge on the one hand and depth views on the other. In this instance, the balance is sublime. She picked up on a three-window element in the architectural design and repeated it in several instances of the garden design. Here, she not only repeats the design element but uses it to preserve a wonderful depth view. These three “windows” in the exterior garden wall allow a peek from the private area of the garden to the public river beyond. They are high enough in the wall from the inside to be generally eye-level for an adult, but, due to a slope, are well above eye-level for people walking on the public trail along the river. The privacy of the homeowners is maintained along with their lovely depth view.

Karen, by the way, is the quintessential good designer – primarily because she is a very good listener. She has a friendly, intelligent personality, a quick easy smile and she looks at you when you are speaking. She tips her head or changes her expression in direct response to what you are saying so that not only do you feel you are being listened to but you are being HEARD. Having walked through at least three gardens with her, she does not appear to prejudge, but assesses each experience and plant as they come to her, even while being able to conceptualize the workings of the whole. The designer who helped me with my Odd Garden was much the same – he was a young man – but had similar qualities. This leads me to believe that good designers might make good marriage counselors or psychiatrists. It’s just that they like to work with plants as well as people. Photo: Karen in the McConnell Arboretum and Gardens.

As for the design itself, “all designers work differently, all gardeners/homeowners have different spaces and criteria for their project. Some people want a minimalist Zen rock garden, others a riot of color cottage flower garden. So there’s no one answer.” That said, however, she goes on to tell me the story of a sweet little 3 x 5 dog-eared and stained note card that she sets on her desk as she works on any plan. At the top it says: CREATE and then has 8 bullet points. Photo: The simple plant palette and materials of an asian influenced garden owned by sculptor Jerry Wingren outside of Boulder, CO.

Those bullet points are as follows:

1. Edges (Should be clearly marked, defined and strong enough to hold the design.)
2. Pathways (Should be a comfortable width, interesting spatially, and built out of a material that complements the house and garden site.)
3. Thresholds (Should be defined and help a visitor to understand that they are leaving one space and moving into another.)
4. Depth View (The longest view possible in a garden should be maintained if at all possible so that tree-tops or a nearby steeple or mountain-top can be still be viewed from within the garden. This longer view relative to the garden as a whole, helps to create a greater sense of depth and size to any garden.)
5. Heart (Some purpose or underlying theme should be apparent in a garden – this is what ties a garden together and takes it from being an Odd garden to being a unified whole space.)
6. Complexity (The diversity of space, plants and hard-scapes should be in keeping with the mood the gardener/homeowners are seeking as well as the style and size of the house and property.)
7. Mystery (It is always nice to have some secret that the garden reveals to you after some exploring. Not being able to see an entire garden in one sweeping look helps to create a sense of depth, complexity, journey. This can be accomplished in many ways from small buildings to disappearing paths to well placed trees or shrubs that block your view strategically – for very small gardens or very big ones.)
8. Refuge (Some place in your garden should be set aside specifically as a personal refuge – your garden’s “away room,” in the now well- known words of architect and author of The Not-So-Big House, Sarah Susanka.) Photo: Strong linear paths, plantings and architecture complement the enormous presence of an old gnarly oak at this Sonoma winery.

Karen McGrath tries to address each and every one of these concepts in her landscape designs. “If each of these points are purposefully addressed, you will have a good design,” she asserts. If they are addressed in a way that makes you happy – you will have a well-designed garden. And a well- designed garden is worth aiming for – especially if you happen to be the gardener. Photo: A Karen McGrath design.

Look for Karen McGrath’s articles on Landscape Design at A News Café (www.anewscafe.com). Also, look for her seasonally offered landscape design classes at the McConnell Arboretum and Gardens at Turtle Bay Exploration Park. More on her design work is available at: www.karenmcgrathdesign.com

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. It is made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell

In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.

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