The Garden Renovation Primer: Evolution

My grandfather’s mantra was: plan twice, plant once.

As it turns out, that wasn’t quite accurate.

In reality, it’s plan, plan more, replan, and plan again, and keep planning until the garden you’re searching for finally emerges from the design.

Of course when you’re planning your own garden, you have only one judge to please. Build what you want, plant what you want – you are judge, jury and executor. When, however, you’re working for someone else, things become considerably more complex. I always jokingly warn my clients at the beginning of a project that they’ll wind up with one of two gardens: mine or theirs. Both will be lovely, but one will feel much more like home than the other. The key to achieving a garden design that is unique and individual to you is continual input and feedback throughout the planning stages.

In this article, I’m going to give you some sense of how a garden plan evolves over time. I’m not going to take you through the step-by-step of how to actually draw a plan – those basics I’ve covered already in my books The New Traditional Garden and The Victory Garden Companion. What I would like to describe now is some of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating an individualized garden plan.

So, back to our Federal-era house in Boston: after having spent considerable amount of time on site measuring, photographing, cataloging existing conditions, etc., my next step was to meet again with the clients, to get a better feel for exactly what kind of landscape they’re were looking for. In the first article, I’ve already detailed some of the general parameters of what the clients, Mr. And Mrs A., wanted in the new garden. Further discussions, though, brought up some other considerations: Mrs. A was rightly concerned that the south/west exposure of the area off the kitchen would make for overly hot conditions in the summer; she also mentioned her preference for being able to walk through the garden space, often even taking an outdoor route to the car, rather than walking through the house. Mr. A revealed that he was concerned that the garden not look “suburban.” The house, he rightly noted, was unique and quirky, and he wanted a garden to reflect that.

While these might not sound like hugely important design considerations, in reality they were. Take for instance Mrs A.’s point. What she was stating, though in layman’s terms, was that landscapes can be static or kinetic, meaning that you can either participate in them visually, from a far, as you do with a painting, or in a tactile sense, actually experiencing the landscape in sound, touch and scent. Her preference was clearly for the later. Mr. A was also addressing another important issue: the overall impression the final garden would give. Simply put, he wanted something with a bit of visual bang.

A week or so later these discussions led to a very basic plan, essentially just a plot to show how space might be divided in the garden:

The initial site overview plan (click on this and the other plans to enlarge.) At this stage, the garden is more like a furniture layout plan indoors, simply trying to decide what goes where, and how we'll move through the "room."

To orient yourself, you’re looking only at the backyard. West is at the top; south is to the left, The kitchen and family wing of the house are on the bottom and right.  There are five main features to this plan: a large terrace off the kitchen linking various entrances at the back of the house;  a large water feature, called a rill, to provide some sound and motion to the garden; an extensive mixed flower/shrubbery garden area for Mr. A, which would provide both visual interest and privacy from the neighbor to the south; some sort of secondary structure, at this point still in the conception stage, to provide shady summer seating, and a bluestone bordered games lawn with four large corner piers capped with urns. To the south and west, the property was to be surrounded by a yew hedge, which would help hide some irregular fencing and give some additional screening from the neighboring houses as the plants reach their final 10-15′ height.

Always travel with a camera when touring gardens; you never know what might inspire. Here's a rill I saw this summer in the Hudson Valley, which prompted its inclusion in the initial plan I proposed to my clients.

Again, at this stage, these were only suggestions as to how one might utilize the space.

During the course of our next meeting, we reviewed these options. Mrs A liked the idea of the large terrace, and secondary seating area, but was concerned that it not appear too massive or grand. (I also had proposed some sort of classical garden folly, which was adjudged a little to English for New England.) Mr. A liked the terrace & garden idea very much, but thought wasn’t at all convinced about the water feature. (After talking about this at length, I decided to nix the rill. While I am a huge fan of water in the garden, I also know from personal experience how much work it is to maintain these kinds of features, and Mr. A. showed no enthusiasm for such a project, while Mrs. A was ambivalent. That’s a recipe for disaster. As the garden owner, you must either love, or be ready to learn to love, the major features of your garden.)

Most importantly, while Mr. A appreciated the idea of the stone bordered lawn, he was concerned that the end result might lack some of the visual bang he was hoping for, and wondered if something might be added to give a bit of drama to the landscape. In landscape design, “drama” generally means “structure,” so we discussed several options. A series of brick piers with wrought iron chains? Very Fletcher Steele and very French. Too French perhaps. Some sort of wall? Not really appropriate…

Then: How about some sort of change of level, he suggested. A sunken garden?

Hmmm. A brilliant idea. Changes in level, inside or out, are always a dynamic feature, opening up all sorts of opportunities for altered vistas. The problem is they are expensive. I had briefly considered the idea early on, but discarded it as too costly. (You don’t want to give your clients cardiac at the first meeting arrest, after all.) I threw out some ballpark figures for such a plan; again, this was an item that was measured in tens of thousands.

Let’s draw up some plans, and get some estimates, Mr A. decided.

A section of the second layout review, incorporating the ideas from our earlier meetings

Another week, and another plan, the product of our extended back and forth.

So in this version, several major elements have changed. The summer pavilion has shifted from round to rectangular, and moved to the central axis. It was now envisioned as a simple New England structure, cedar roofed with ionic columns. A 2′ sunken garden (really a sunken lawn, as the garden surrounds the lower area, not vice-versa.) has been been added, with four oval granite stairs, and a band of ground cover along the base of the walls. The terrace has been given some additional ornamentation: bluestone banding separates a frame of running bond from a herringbone interior to provide textural interest during the winter months. A small outdoor grilling area has been added off the terrace, and natural stone pathways added through the garden areas to allow the owners to better experience the garden.

But what was this actually going to look like, Mr. And Mrs. A asked?  The elements seemed OK, but both were having trouble visualizing the design in three dimensions.

This is a very common issue, which can be resolved in several ways. One of the easiest and most cost effective methods is simply use spray paint to lay out the proposed sections of the garden. It’s really amazing once you paint out a space: you can almost see the final product. Walks can be judged for width; terraces for furniture sizing, beds and borders for shade patterns.

Here though we had a problem: not only was there a dense thicket in the way, but the layout I was proposing required moving several very large American hollies and other shrubs in order to clear the space. There was no possible way to paint it out before hand. And even if you could, that really wouldn’t give you a feel for the summer house structure or sunken garden I was envisioning.

For a project of this size, cost and complexity, there is really only one solution: a rendering. And knew just the man to do it: architectural artist Jeff Stikeman. A true wizard of design, Jeff can take flat, two dimensional images and bring them to life like few others. He and I had become acquainted several years back while launching the FDR Suite Project, and I was totally amazed at his ability to translate thoughts and impressions into visual reality. So I sent him the plans, and rough sketch of my own showing the stairs, pavilion and orientation I wanted to see in the drawing, and this is what I received back:

The garden! Pretty amazing, huh?

Equipped with the view, Mr. and Mrs. A. could now visualize their new back yard, and gave the initial go ahead for their project. As a final precaution, I suggested clearing out the overgrown plantings, moving the large hollies, and taking one final look in the planning phase before we committed to the final design (that’s the subject of the next article.) In the meantime though, here’s the moral of today’s story: whether you’re working with a designer, or designing a garden for yourself, take the time to plot your proposed landscape out on paper, then play with  possibilities, and think, think think. You’d be amazed what a little brainstorming can do.

And, as Grandpa rightly pointed out, thinking twice is a whole lot easier than digging twice – or thrice.


The Garden Renovation Primer: Evolution — 2 Comments

  1. Pingback: The Garden Renovation Primer: Moving Established Trees | Old House, Old Garden

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