Designing Your Landscape: Unifying House and Garden

Part One of an Occasional Series on Tips for Designing the Home Landscape

When you step into a really well designed landscape, something just feels right: There’s a sense of pleasure, of comfort, of being at home, outdoors and in. While you might be tempted to think that this sensation arises from nature, in reality your reaction is the result of considerable human contrivance, the byproduct a series of design tenets and considerations that operate behind the scenes of all good landscapes, guiding and organizing the reactions of the viewer.  Of these design concepts, perhaps the most important is the necessity of making sure that the various stylistic elements of your landscape work together to connect your garden to your house. Believe it or not, your house is actually the most important part of your garden (your landscape is, after all, laid out around your home, not vice-versa) and without a cohesive style that matches that of the architecture, even the costliest and most finely wrought landscapes will fail to satisfy.

It’s interesting that while most people immediately realize the necessity of a cohesive design throughout their interiors, far fewer understand the importance of linking house and garden together. In the same way that you choose a unified decorative style for your rooms, you should also create a unified theme for the garden, one that ties the various parts of the yard together, and also unites the garden to the house. This requires beginning to think about your house and garden, not as two separate elements, but as your property, as a single, cohesive unit. The best time to start this process is, of course, at the very onset of your garden planning, before you plant a single plant or lay a single brick, but in reality, you can re-evaluate your current landscape at any time, as long as you’re then willing to make any required changes. To get a better idea of the method, let’s take a look at three sample landscapes. The illustrations below show three separate schemes for the same property, just as if you had asked for input from three different landscape designers, or had done three different plans for your garden yourself.

Plan One

The first plan is typical of formally styled gardens, where often space is arranged around two major axes: one radiating out from the house, another intersecting the first towards the rear of the lot. Together these lines form a large cross, whose the center in this case is marked with a rectangular pool. A gazebo acts as a terminal focal point along the main axis from the house, with the expansive lawn area surrounded on all sides by perennial beds. The garage, a feature that could potentially throw off this otherwise symmetrical plan, is cleverly relegated to the visual sidelines by an allée of evergreens — another of the garden’s formal features. A private garden off the rear of the house near the terrace provides a balancing element on the opposite side.

Plan Two

The second plan, which somewhat resembles the first, is a slightly less formal approach. Although the same double axial design is used, the overall effect is much less rigid. The space behind the garage has been divided from the main yard, forming a charming, private kitchen garden. In place of the hard-surfaced terrace, this design substitutes a grass oval, bordered by evergreen shrubs. The lawn and pool in the first plan have been replaced with a delightful cottage garden with a sundial in the center. Although at first glance this plan appears to be almost as geometric as the previous one, its planting scheme, with a mass of flowers and vegetables spilling out of the beds, is far more loose and informal.

Plan Three

The third plan is the most “natural” approach and closely resembles many of today’s landscapes with their meandering curves and stepping-stone walks. Instead of a vegetable garden, this scheme contains a rock garden with a free-form pool, as well as very simple, mostly evergreen plantings.

So how would you choose between these different designs? If you listen to the advice of many modern landscape experts, any one of these plans would be correct for this yard– the choice being determined only by your own personal taste and budget. I would argue that not only is this viewpoint an oversimplification, but that the basic premise is false. While it’s true that each of these plans physically fits the lot in question, whether the design is suited to the house is an entirely different matter. The simple fact is that certain garden styles work best with certain types of architecture; and while there often may be several plausible options, one is generally better than the others, and the remainder appropriate in diminishing degrees.

How then to begin? Simply step back and take your cue from your house. What kind of feeling does your home exude? Is it formal and symmetrical, or whimsical and offbeat? Is the ambiance cultured and urbane, or informal and country? Does your home invoke tradition, or reject it? Wherever your home leads, your garden should follow. Adherence to this premise also has the added benefit of generally assuring that your garden will better correspond to your lifestyle, on the theory that people rarely choose house types that don’t match their mode of living, though they often build gardens that do.)

For example, if your house is very rustic, such as a lakeside chalet or log cabin, or an extremely modern non-traditional design, the laid-back naturalistic approach of the third option would work well. But this same loose asymmetrical design would seem out of place next to the simple geometric lines of a Colonial or Neo-Colonial house. (As an aside, this “natural” style of landscaping is also the most difficult to carry off successfully. One of the most often overlooked truisms of landscape design is that the more informal the garden, the harder it is to make the landscape look convincing and real.)

A far better choice for a Colonial, Neo-Colonial or colonially inspired house (which includes most modern box styles based on classical precepts) would be the second option, which closely resembles the actual gardens of the Colonial and Colonial Revival periods, and echoes the symmetry and balance so present in the architecture of those times. (This option, with its extensive vegetable garden, is also the hands-down winner for productivity.) The formal, entirely ornamental landscape of the first example would be appropriate for a large columned Greek revivalGeorgian, urban town-house, or other equally grand and traditional structure, in a household where growing food wasn’t of interest.

So before you begin to design or redesign your landscape, do yourself, and your pocketbook a favor: take a good look at your house and your lifestyle, and make sure your garden plans reflect and complement both. Once you have decided what the overall style and mood of your garden should be, then you’re ready to start thinking about how to layout your garden’s individual components, which incoincidentally, will be the subject of an upcoming post.

Until next time, I’m Michael Weishan, for Old House, Old Garden.


Designing Your Landscape: Unifying House and Garden — 1 Comment

  1. I love this post, and I totally see your point about not all of them being correct for the house at all. I personally also feel it’s just as important to give weight to the ecosystem you’re in, like not cramming the lot full of imports that require too much TLC to maintain or plants that can easily become invasives in your climate. To me a great landscape design honors the house, the lifestyle and the ecosystem in which it must participate. My ideal land would be very much in line with permaculture which I’m just learning about.

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