THE FIRST FIVE

Landscaping is the third leg of a design triangle; the first two legs are the topography of the site itself and the architecture of the house, both of which form a pattern of shapes. Design happens when you recognize the pattern and do one of two things: conform to it, or move in counterpoint. These are the first five things I do when I walk a property for a design consult:

1. I note the geometry of both the house and the site, and play against the strongest shape on each side when configuring the space and selecting materials. Design requires dynamic tension to be successful.

2. I evaluate the width and orientation of walkways, and establish sight lines throughout the property. At every turn and every vantage point I ask, What do I see, and what do I want to see? I draw sight lines from the interior of the house, too; the view from the living room is just as important as the view from the deck.

3. I assess the terrain and the soil condition, with an eye toward turning the natural habit of the land to advantage. A boggy area can become a wetland garden, a sandy slope an oasis of lavender or Russian sage. You may as well cooperate with Nature from the start, because she wins, anyway!

4. I chart the path of the sun, and note the number of hours given to each section of the property. I note the quality of the sunlight, as well; is it four hours of midday sun, or four hours in the late afternoon? This is important info for the people spaces, as well.

5. I track the seasonal color of perennials, shrubs and trees, and plan ways to augment those colors to highlight different areas of the property throughout the year. Think of the site as a symphony ~ when the violins come up, the horns go down, and that shift in focus allows you to enjoy every aspect of the piece.

THE TEN QUESTIONS

More than half of my business comes from redesigning sites that originally were done by someone else, putting to rights landscape projects that may technically be fine but aren’t what the owner envisioned. How can you keep this from happening to you?

Ask to see the designer’s favorite projects: if they all look vaguely the same, the designer’s own style is being showcased and your style likely will be pushed aside.

Ask to see some sites that were done a few years ago: if the plants are growing in well, if they seem to have become part of the property, you’ve got someone who knows how to select the right material for the site. If the stonework has settled but not shifted, you’ve got someone who knows how to choose the right stone, and the right installer, for the job.

Ask to speak with other clients: find out if they were happy with the way the project went. Find out the best aspect, and the worst aspect, of working with that person. Landscape projects are like mini-marriages, and the same issues of compatibility and communication can make or break the relationship.

Ask for what you want: if you want a landscape that’s peaceful and serene, say it, and resist the temptation (your own or the designer’s) to shoehorn that description into any one style. Maybe a Zen garden is the perfect thing, maybe it isn’t; there are all kinds of ways to create tranquility in the landscape. Talk about what those terms mean to you, and ask how that meaning can be interpreted in color and material as well as in design.

Ask why the designer is drawn to your property: if there are particular features that you adore, either in the terrain or in the architecture, you’ll want to work with someone who appreciates them.

Ask how the new plan will fit into the property: if there’s one thing worse than cookie-cutter gardens it’s ‘orphan’ gardens, installations that seem as though they don’t belong to their surroundings. Also ask how the plan fits into the ‘borrowed’ landscape, those elements of neighboring properties that are part of your visual field.

Ask how the design relates to the interior of the house: if the two styles are wildly divergent, you’ll feel an emotional disconnect that will make you uneasy in either space. Ask how the design will look from different rooms, as well, and from different levels. Downstairs, a mid-story ornamental is a tree, upstairs, it’s a flower.

Ask how much time is required to maintain the installation: if you truly only have an hour a week, be honest. Don’t let the excitement of having something new and beautiful blind you to the constraints of your real life.

Ask how much it will really cost: if you’re on a budget, you’re on a budget; both you and the designer need to feel comfortable within those financial parameters. Ask about phasing in the plan over time; good stonework and some well-placed trees can make a huge difference even to an otherwise bare property.

Ask if the designer will be on site during installation: if problems occur or questions arise, as they usually do, you’ll want the designer there to make certain that your interests prevail. The installer often is more focused on getting the job done than on maintaining the ethos of the design.

THE FAST FIVE

If you’re selling a house — especially in a soft real estate market — or if your parents are coming for a visit and you need to spruce up in a hurry, here are the five fastest ways to make an impact:

1.  Inventory your perennials and regroup wherever possible.  Mass plantings add drama and make a great first impression.

2.  Elevate the canopy of leggy, overgrown ornamental shrubs by removing the lower limbs.  The exposed branches are often wonderfully gnarled and knotted, and the garden takes on an open, airy feel that adds grace and fluidity.

3.  Connect planting beds ~ visually or physically ~ and remove elements that make the space seem choppy.  A unified visual field looks larger and more substantial.

4.  Prune shrubs, particularly those that crowd pathways and windows.  Older landscapes often dwarf their houses; righting the imbalance will make the house “read” bigger and brighter.

5.  Put a clean edge on the gardens and walkways, and cut mulch circles around the trees.  Good grooming isn’t just for you ~ it makes the property look polished, too.