I shot a piece for the local news on a project I recently finished, trying to tell the show’s viewers — in two-and-a-half minutes — how to use the features of their land to direct their landscape designs. I can take a bit longer here, but it’s really quite simple. The design exemplifies the land, the implementation of that design exemplifies the person.

The reason I chose that particular site to film was that it showed, in graphic detail, what happens when you don’t take your design cues from the land. The property itself is a big, bold hill on which sits a big, bold house, unfortunately fronted by a bitsy little walkway replete with bitsy little curves set in bitsy little bricks and cobbles. The architect followed the land; the builder followed the land; the only person who didn’t follow the land was the landscape designer, and so the design falls flat.

There are any number of sites like this, and I suspect it’s because the designs for these sites are conceived on paper and not on the land. When your design emanates from the property, you move out of the realm of two-dimensional design and into the world of 3-D; in this world, the entire property becomes a walkable sculpture. This is the first leg of the design triangle.

Whether hilly or flat, treed or pastoral, city or country, each site has a geometry with which you can play. A hill provides a strong arc, a flat city lot is often graphically rectangular. A stand of spruce evokes a triangle, an old apple tree is a circle. Trees are classified, in fact, by their growth habits: globe-shaped, columnar, vase-shaped, spreading.

The house, which is leg number two, has a geometry as well, but that geometry varies depending on the side in view. A pitched roof that forms a strong triangle may be the dominant feature on the front, while the rear of the house may be a simple square.

If you combine the primary shapes from each aspect of the property and each aspect of the house, you have the beginnings of a pattern. To complete the landscape leg of the design triangle you need do only one of two things: conform to the pattern, or move in counterpoint. For example, that prominent roof peak forms the same angle as a vase-shaped tree. If you install that tree, you conform to the pattern; if you install a globe-shaped tree, you complement the pattern.

Either choice is correct, as long as the choice is an equivalent visual weight. A tree-form Pee-Gee Hydrangea, for example, could be the perfect complement to a sharply peaked roof if that roof sits atop a cottage. If that roof sits atop a two- or three-story house, however, such a little tree will be overwhelmed and the effect lost. If the property size realistically does not permit a more substantial globe-shaped tree, then a tall vase-shaped tree becomes the logical choice to balance such a large structure.

No worries, though, if your heart was set on round. There are vase-shaped magnolias with fat, round flowers to choose from, and round stands of lilac with with elegant, floral cones. The decision to compare or contrast can be made at all levels, and each decision helps define the next choice.

I have a client who insists that secretly I think of his property as my client, and that he just pays the bills. He says it as a joke but the truth is, he’s not wrong. My commitment is to the land first, because most of what I do is permanent. The house will change hands time and again, but generations from now the trees will be there, the granite will be there, the peonies will be there. If I design for the land, that design will do more than just transcend owners; it will allow whoever lives there the freedom to change styles without altering the essential elements of the design. Property-centered design forms the skeleton; you can flesh it out as you like without starting from scratch and without losing the beauty of mature growth. This particular property is lucky to have an owner who is a good steward of the land and dedicated, despite his teasing, to preserving it.

Years ago I redesigned a sunny, southwestern slope overlooking an expansive wet meadow, taking it from a thicket of juniper to waves of lavender, day lily and ornamental grasses. The lavender is in there to discourage the deer, who hate the scent, from eating the day lilies, which they love. The grasses are there because they have shallow root systems — just the thing for soil retention on a slope — and are happiest in full sun. The lilies are Hyperion, because the owner loves yellow, and the lavender is Hidcote, because purple is the color opposite of yellow and Hidcote is the best of the purples.

The truth, though, is that this space could have been filled with anything that met the design criteria of the space and the needs of the site. It could have been reed grass and blue oat grass and miscanthus; it could have been a stream of lavender; it could have been common orange day lily and Russian sage. Anything with a billowy, breezy habit would have done.

The design criteria dictated only the form, which was meant to balance, to mimic the form of the meadow just beyond. The other two legs of the triangle were fixed: the house was there, the meadow was there, and the land rolled gracefully from one into the other. There was nothing else to do, in keeping with those elements, but to fill the slope with materials that fit the texture and the temperament of the land.

The former owner committed design treason when he installed juniper — stiff, sharp, severe — on a site that was soft, round and inviting. He did it because he liked juniper, apparently of every genus and every variety; he did it because it suited his style.

The problem was that his style didn’t suit the form of the land. It might have suited the architecture of the house, had the house been built on a parcel surrounded by something more structural than meadow. On a site with a mountain view or even a view of the city, the architecture would have taken on a harder edge, and the rugged nature of the juniper would have been right at home.

The gentle roll of this site, combined with the ephemeral feel of the meadow, made the introduction of such harsh plant material visually disturbing. Visual dissonance leads to emotional dissonance, that feeling just beneath the skin that something isn’t quite right.

This is not the same as using color contrasts or geometric opposites to do fun things with the visual palate; it is a type of dissonance akin to watching a delightful romantic comedy where, in the last scene, everybody dies. I grant you, there are some movies in which that actually could be amusing, but for the most part it would just leave your brain screaming What?

Remember the qualities that drew you to the site in the first place. Remember that form follows function. What is the function of landscape design? To complement the site. How do we do that? We complete the design triangle by establishing the shape of things to come.


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