Table of Contents Show
The next time you walk through a neighborhood, take some time to stop and really focus on what you see. Look closely at the homes and the yards.
How do they seem; warm and inviting, interesting or curious, protective and withdrawn, or do they look random and uncoordinated? Do they have large, spacious yards, or small spaces with intricate detail? How do they make you feel? What do they tell you about the owners and the people of the neighborhood? Do you think they are utilizing their space in the world for their maximum benefit and pleasure?
Why Do We Landscape?
One thing you will notice immediately is just how important each landscape really is as a part of our world. Landscaping is our way of making the world around us beautiful, more accommodating to our needs, and more livable.
We manipulate and control nature in a way that is both functional and pleasing, extending our living space beyond the walls of the home, while giving us a medium for expression, for personalizing this part of our world. In a true sense, landscaping is a practical form of art, specifically “yard art”.
Humans seek to modify their spaces in the world, to tame them and control them for maximum benefit. We accept that our homes are our castles, so we go to great lengths to give our homes personal touches, and we do so with great pride.
Our homes become an extension of us, an integral part of our daily lives. If you think of a landscape as an extension of the home into the yard and the surrounding spaces, then you can capture a sense of the true value of a landscape.
Like your home, your landscape is part of where you live, and so above all else, it has to suit you. Your landscape connects your home to your yard. A pleasing, open, and inviting landscape will draw you outdoors to use it and will welcome people into your home, into your living space.
It will ultimately expand the scope of your living space to include your yard and all the pleasures it can bring you. You will find that a well-designed and truly functional landscape will make your yard into another room of your house, complete with function, purpose, and beauty. It’s actually like having a much larger home!
But look a little deeper. A landscape is also your calling card, your trademark. It invariably makes a statement to the world about you; it reveals your likes, your dislikes, your hobbies, and your style. It defines the value of your living space and environment to you; a clean, proper landscape speaks volumes about how you value and care for your belongings.
Unfortunately, this works both ways; a poor, shoddy, unkempt landscape also speaks volumes about you, but not in a good way. This is your home, and your yard, and how you choose to present this to the world tells a great deal about you as a person. It is for this reason that many people go to great and expensive lengths to perfect their landscapes.
The good news is that everyone can create a “perfect” landscape for themselves, there is no doubt about it. For landscaping, as for art, there really is no right or wrong.
There are baseline rules and common sense guidelines that will help you achieve a long-lasting, trouble-free, and beautiful landscape, but your personal landscape will ultimately be your creation, and the most important measure of the success of your landscape will be the personal satisfaction and enjoyment you derive from this significant piece of your world. This guide will show you how to achieve this.
The Designer as The Artist
It is often said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When it comes to any form of art, be it painting, music, or landscaping, this is universally true. The creator is the true judge of the value of the creation, and they know this by their personal satisfaction. When you design your landscape, you are leaving your indelible mark on the world.
So, first and foremost, it has to truly reflect you and live up to your personal expectations. Rule number one; you are doing this for yourself.
In reality, however, landscaping is also about function. It’s like buying a wonderful sofa; if it looks stunning and fits like a glove into your interior design, you are surely satisfied. But you know that you have a real winner if, at the end of a hard day on your feet, when you drop yourself down on that sofa, you sink right in and are enveloped in a soft, warm comfort. That is function.
Your landscape must achieve the degree of functionality you expect from it. Do you expect your landscape to win awards or be the rave of the neighborhood? Or, do you have a family with certain expectations of the yard? Maybe you have special hobbies or interests that could be supported or enhanced by your landscape. All of these need to be taken into consideration.
The best landscapes are those which harmoniously balance art and function. So how does one achieve this balance? What most people don’t realize is that behind even the finest art is a special blend of fundamental principles and pure intuitive genius, each and every time.
Pure inspiration is only as good as the tools used to express it, and this is the same with landscaping. You must begin by understanding the basic principles that underlie art. The best landscapers in the world did not become such by sheer talent alone.
And finally, you have to want to undertake this yourself. If you are approaching landscaping simply because you have to, and this is a chore you desire to put behind you, then you are better off calling in a professional right at the start. I am convinced that everyone can create an exemplary landscape, but only if they want to. Let’s call this decision point one in the process.
A Brief History of Landscaping
I often wonder where the turning point in history might have been that gave us the first landscape. I can picture a happy stone-age couple, newly wedded and just moved into their new cave. Maybe their cave, unlike most of the others, had a particularly scenic view of a nearby lake with a mountain or two behind, and maybe a tall, old tree that framed that view just right.
Maybe they also had a patch of wildflowers that grew naturally right outside their front entrance, or a large, flat rock just to the side of the cave that was perfect for sitting on.
This cave couple would have noticed that they used the outside of their cave for both function and enjoyment, as an extension of their interior rooms, and that their friends tended to congregate more at their place. They may have noted the inordinate number of comments about the view or the flowers compared to their neighbors.
More likely, it was their neighbors that noticed how their own caves simply didn’t have that same magical touch, and they started to actually think about what the differences were.
It wasn’t, however, until they made the first attempts to modify their outdoor living spaces that they entered the world of landscaping because that is really what landscaping is all about; changing our living environments to make them more livable, attractive, functional, etc.
Landscaping has evolved differently in various regions of the world from these fictitious beginnings. This simply reflects the reality that each part of our planet has its own native plants and hard materials, and its own unique set of circumstances of climate or environment that people desire to modify.
Some of this has been functional, such as the value of vegetable gardens nearby, the need for windbreaks on northern properties, or shade in hot southern climates. Some are related to culture, such as family gathering places, and others to a common standard of beauty, such as the distinctive English Victorian formal garden.
It is only recently that we have broadened our horizons beyond our local sphere, with the advent of global travel and an appreciation and understanding of the rest of the world.
Principles of the oriental gardening styles, with their focus on form and texture and incorporation of specific hard elements, have been integrated into conventional North American gardens, and it is not unusual to see a Southwestern motif in a Northeastern landscape. Plants from China are now so commonplace in North American gardens that we often forget that they are many thousands of miles from their homes.
The result is a much greater diversity, and ultimately a much greater range of design principles and options to choose from, allowing you even more room for personal expression.
Finally, landscaping can simply be trendy. Certain styles, material selections, or plants come in and out of vogue, just like fashions, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That speaks volumes to the observation that even though landscaping is a personal expression of form and function, it is always perceived within the context of the larger picture.
Your individual landscape is one of the many that comprise the general landscape of your neighborhood, which combines with others to define your city and your region, and so on and so on.
Styles and Themes
Although landscaping is representative of the individual at its fundamental level, there is no question that different regions display common tendencies that have given rise to definitive styles which are notably distinctive from other styles. These are all just the different spices that add up to make life in our human world interesting.
The important thing to note is that it is not imperative for the designer to adopt a specific style.
Rather, by examining the principles that underlie the basic and time-honored styles, the designer can expand his or her repertoire of techniques and actually create a unique and expressive landscape design by borrowing from a number of styles and techniques. As long as the basic principles are honored and applied, there is no limit to the creativity the designer has at his or her disposal.
Following are some of the basic design styles from around the world:
The contemporary urban home landscape is really a reflection of our times and the way we live. It is neat and unassuming, easy to maintain, and highly functional, maximizing the limited opportunities that we have in our small but cozy yards.
The modern landscape utilizes the basic landscaping design principles quite literally. The home is the centerpiece of the plan, and the landscape radiates out from it.
The front yard is the public domain, characterized by one or two ravishing accent plants framed against a tall-treed background, with small gardens strategically located near the home foundation and at the entranceway.
On the other hand, the backyard is a private space, typically screened from the neighbors and distracting views, and designed for maximum human function.
The bottom line is that you really can’t go wrong with adopting this style, although it is somewhat harder to find room for true individual expression.
Japanese, Chinese, and Bonsai
The tradition of the Asian gardens goes back many years and has found its way into North American living spaces, both indoor and outdoor. At its heart is balanced, with every extreme balanced by elements of the opposite extremes, all existing in perfect harmony.
This type of design is characterized by the very purposeful placement of elements, strong horizontal influences, and the strategic placement of minutely detailed accents. It is asymmetrical, meaning it is not strongly formal in geometry, and yet each element exists in harmony with the others.
This design works well with water, where the horizontal lines of the water’s surface complement the horizontal or weeping plants. The form and texture of plants are of much more importance than loud colors or showy flowers.
Bonsai is essentially the miniaturization of these principles, often featuring intricately detailed plants which have been trained to grow in a dwarf manner. A particularly interesting form of bonsai is the recreation of a scene from the real world on a small scale.
Of all landscaping styles, the Southwestern is the truest to its region. In a part of the world where negligible rainfall and climatic extremes have forced both plants and animals to adapt, there are few landscaping materials available that will grow without significant human intervention.
The Southwestern landscape evolved from this reality and reflects the uniqueness of its constituents. Lawns are sparse or uncommon, and cacti, wild grasses, and other water-conserving plants are the features. Hard materials such as rock groundcovers and weathered wood accents are more prominent compared to plant materials.
Because this style is so distinctive to this region, it can appear rather stark in a densely treed region of the world and should be used with restraint.
This style is like a snapshot of culture, the English Victorian ages of the late 1800s, and reflects the values and character of that time. It is characterized by strong and rigid geometries, straight lines, and sculpted shapes.
Common features include tightly trimmed hedges and statuary as accents strategically placed on lines of sight. Paths and barriers are used as visual channels to guide the eye to strong focal points, often statues or fancy gates.
Topiary, a form of gardening where certain accent plants are trimmed into non-plant shapes such as animals or statues, is used much as sculptures are used in a museum. There is very little free movement or flow, and little tolerance for the individuality of the elements unless explicitly called for by the design. Such rigid landscapes may actually appear somewhat dated in today’s modern world, and require a great deal of maintenance and attention.
English formal is certainly not for everyone. However, many valuable tools and techniques can be drawn from this style and successfully utilized in today’s home landscaping.
At the other end of the scale is the naturalistic landscape. This style attempts to recreate the subtle ways of nature, the forests, and the meadows that have grown in biological harmony for thousands of years.
Formality is replaced by randomness, symmetry with asymmetry, and nature is left somewhat to its own devices. Harmonious plants and hard materials are incorporated from the surroundings and naturally complement each other as they do in nature. Shade trees are surrounded by natural underbrush, and wildflowers grow where they seed themselves in a clearing.
Primarily native plants are used, as they are the best adapted to local conditions. This is the lowest maintenance of all landscape styles, requiring little watering, mowing, fertilizing, or pruning. This is another style that should be used in the context of its surroundings, as it could look messy and unkempt in a suburban neighborhood.