DO TELL

In the article Divide and Conquer, I encouraged you to use the geometry of both the land and the architecture to create a design that complements the site. If you’ve done that, here’s your reward. In this phase of the design process we enter the realm of style, where personality comes to the fore. I’ll use the sharply-pitched roof of an historic home in the West End of Portland, Maine, to show you how those elements are woven into landscape design.

The house was a stick-built John Calvin Stevens whose most prominent form, streetside, was the strong peak of the porch roof. Even without the extremely Victorian trim colors of violet and teal, this roof line was inescapable, and needed something to act as visual ballast. My first choice would have been to plant something with a complementary O-shape, but on such a small city lot there was no way to install a globe-shaped tree of sufficient weight.

Vase-shaped it was. After that, it was a matter of finding something mid-story, zone-hardy, with strong color and a tolerance of city life. Spring blossoms would be nice, and perhaps a good Fall color change. Summer was something of an issue, not in terms of blooming but because the clients spent a good part of the season on island. All the plant material had to be somewhat indifferent to care.

So what was the choice? An Ornamental Plum which, though it has a nondescript flower, has a gorgeous bronze leaf, tinged purple, that stays vivid Spring through Fall. It’s fronted by a row of tree-form PeeGee Hydrangea for that circular balance, and the geometry of the space is echoed in the perennials: lush, round peonies, Miscanthus Gracillimus with its sharply-turned blades, the fat trumpets of day lilies… you get the idea. In a very small area, we have a very rich garden.

By using the modern versions of heirloom varieties we acknowledged the historic nature of the property, but we kept the space rooted in the here-and-now. Many of the perennials are childhood favorites of the owners, and the color scheme is a reflection of what I suspect is the secret wild side of two people who outwardly seem quite reserved.

This is where those three self-descriptive words (see the article Three Little Words) come in handy; it’s a way of getting quickly to what really matters. It’s a cipher, a translator for the enigma of personality. In the act of describing themselves, people reveal not only who they are, but what they want in terms of garden design. There are other ways, as well; sometimes it is as simple as asking, Why? What is there about that plant, that tree, that style of garden, that speaks to you? It may be a childhood memory; more often, it’s a question of self-image.

Let’s go, for a moment, to another site, studded with harsh juniper against the backdrop of a gorgeous wet meadow (see the article Gardening Heresy). Juniper is rugged and strong and imposing, the traits many associate with masculinity. It came as no surprise to find that the person who planted the stuff — and Mugo pine and Balsam and Blue spruce and Cotoneaster — was a man. Here’s the question that he never asked: Is it possible to express those qualities in a style that is compatible with the site?

When I handled the redesign, I did ask and my answer, of course, was yes. There are any number of so-called ‘architectural’ plants, plants that are bold enough to stand alone, impressive enough to anchor a group. They are the ‘alphas’ of the plant world, and for the alphas of the human world — male and female — they make a statement. There are also the techniques of mass planting for dynamic line and repeat planting for dramatic effect. Compressing the focus to such a narrow lens was too limited to serve either the property or the owner. The wide angle that comes from asking the question gives us more room to play, and more stuff to play with.

So far we have three little words and one really great question; let’s add a tell. Yes, just like poker, and every client I’ve ever had and every student I’ve ever taught has revealed at least one. The first example of a tell you’ve read about already: those wild Victorian colors of teal and violet. It’s true that the owners were being historically correct but those colors had to be, they just had to be, an expression of personality as well. You couldn’t enter that house day after day and not love them. That said volumes, to me, about the personalities of the people who would make such a choice.

The same kind of tell was revealed by one of my first students, so quiet on those rare occasions when she spoke that I had to lean in a bit just to hear her. She didn’t really know what she wanted, she said, and she didn’t really know what she liked, but there would be Oriental poppies somewhere on her property. Classic orange, and lots of them. Period.

An Oriental poppy is about the sexiest flower going, with a fat seed pod nestled in a blue-black throat at the base of a grand orange bowl. Except at the hand of Georgia O’Keefe flowers don’t get much more erotic so, quiet or not, buttoned-down or not, this woman obviously had a wild streak. Since I am only too happy to encourage wildness, I urged her to develop a design based on that color and that passion. Passion is a strong indicator of true self, and whether that passion is for color or form or scent or anything else, it’s a good guideline for the implementation of your design.

There are more subtle expressions, too, and they can be tipoffs. Recently I asked a client who was struggling to find her style what the ideal table setting would be for a dinner party. They would dine by candlelight, she said, and the service would be set on a beautiful damask cloth. Plain china with a simple gilt rim; clear crystal goblets; Victorian sterling with mother-of-pearl handles.

Sounds like a garden to me, and I’ll tell you how it translates. Unlike plain linen, damask has a tone-on-tone pattern woven in thread with a slight sheen; this implies an appreciation of texture and the subtle layering of a quiet garden. The plain china is minimal and unfussy; the gilt edge adds just that bit of elegance, as does the mother-of-pearl in the hilt of the flatware. That tells me she wants plants with good bones and no frills, but varieties perhaps a little out of the ordinary.

Imagine her crystal, reflected by candlelight in the burnished sheen of vintage sterling, and think rich, dark sensuality. There are dozens of shrubs and perennials in the darkest purples that fill the bill, and reds so deep we call them black. Pair either of those with cream and chartreuse; mate the purple with violet or the midnight red with copper pink and you have a smoldering, sexy, multi-layered landscape. Since we already had the variety of Japanese maple known as ‘bloodgood’ and some fat cream-to-copper hydrangea on the property, my color choice was set and it was just a matter of bringing in the additional pieces that would add depth and texture.

Whether or not you understand the language of the garden, you already are speaking a language that can be used to mark your path. Parlay your description of self, your passions and your quirks into an authentic, resonant design. The trick is to go inside yourself before you go out into the landscape.
c. 2006

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