SYLLABUS: Landscaping in the Vernacular

Instructor: Lindsay Knapp

  • Course Schedule:
  • Week 1: The Zeitgeist of You
  • Week 2: The Tao of Land
  • Week 3: The Metaphysics of Design
  • Week 4: The Zen of Color
  • Week 5: The Voodoo of Editing
  • Week 6: The Gestalt of Installation

Week 1: The Zeitgeist of You
Zeitgeist is an amalgam of two German words: zeit, meaning time, and geist, meaning spirit. It’s usually applied to an era, when talking about the intellectual or cultural climate of a particular time and place, but what if we apply it to you? What if we ask who and what you are in spirit? What if we ask where you are, not just in time or geography, but in life? If we ask those questions we have the beginnings of a mindful approach to landscape design.

Whenever I take on a new client, I spend at least an hour asking everything from what do you do for a living to what do you remember about your grandmother’s garden? For this landscaping project, you are both the designer and the client. Ask yourself these questions:

Who am I? what’s my personality?
What do I do for a living? what’s my schedule?
Why did I buy the house? what do I like about the property?
How big is my family? how do we interact with the property?
What image am I trying to project? what am I trying to say?

You know where you are geographically, of course, and you know you’re in the new millennium, so that takes care of time and place. To find out where you are in life takes a little more effort.

How much time do you spend at home?
How much time are you willing to spend working on the property?
Are garden chores drudgery or therapy?

Where you are can be visual…

Are you on a small city plot or five acres in the country?
Are you nestled in the mountains or looking out over the sea?

…and practical…

Are you on a hillside or deep in a valley?
Are you in the shade or the sun?

So if you know who you are and where you are, the only thing left is to find out what you are. This one’s easy, because you’ve already partially answered it.

Are you bold or quiet?
Are you formal or informal?
Are you North or South, East or West?

I ask this last question because, for many of us, what we are is not in keeping with where we are. If you are a transplant and have not adapted to your surroundings you will be designing for what you crave, not for what you have.

You may be able to incorporate elements of what you desire, to pay homage, here and there, to your past. But for the most part, you need to identify those aspects of yourself that are in harmony with your surroundings, and tailor your landscape accordingly. The trick is to pinpoint the characteristics of the site. If you can figure out what you’re really responding to you can figure out what part of you is involved in the response. When we identify what we are we find ways to connect with where we are that remove the feeling of dislocation.

That, in a nutshell, is zeitgeist. Once you know that, you can answer the question, what do I want to say? You have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of square feet between your front door and the rest of the world. You can waste that space, or you can engage in a dialogue with your visitors before you utter a word.

Week 2: The Tao Of Land
The concept of beginning from the land is common in architecture; Frank Lloyd Wright established an entire school of design based on his devotion to this idea. The low, long lines of his Prairie Homes were synchronous with the low, long lines of the land. Those designs worked because Wright heard what the land was saying, and built in harmony with that voice. The current architects of Taliesen West, the school Wright established, have carried on his innovative, land-inspired design. They are doing it, though, in the language of this century. The Prairie Homes captured both a place and an era, and time has moved on. The land says what the land says, but our interpretation of that statement is coincident with our period. Since you cannot translate what you have not heard, the first step is to listen.

I guarantee your land says something. It has inclines and angles and curves, it has hills that plateau and fall away. On undeveloped land, the trees form natural lines that you can follow, clearing an envelope in which to build that conforms to the habitat. On developed land you are working with someone else’s version of things, which is a challenge all its own.

Make a careful check of the topography of your site, because you will be far more successful if you design with an eye toward enhancing what the land is already doing. If you identify a natural curve over there, you can mimic that curve over here. If you recognize an existing rise, you can visually extend that rise by adding a stone wall that seems to flow straight out of the ground. Does this mean you should never alter topography? Of course not. It just means that I encourage you to question whether such alteration is necessary, and if there is a better, easier or more subtle approach you might take.

On highly developed lots, like city properties, topography may be less varied but it still has a “read.” City or country, note any section of the property where water naturally seems to pool, and any areas of moss or lichen. Moss denotes a cool, shady spot; lichen requires precisely the opposite. It wants heat and sun, and is found on stone outcroppings; in other words, ledge.
Reading the land also entails taking your trusty shovel to various parts of the site to check the soil quality. ON CITY PROPERTIES, YOU SHOULD NOT PLANT EDIBLES DIRECTLY IN THE SOIL WITHOUT HAVING THAT SOIL CHECKED BY A LABORATORY FOR TOXINS, PARTICULARLY LEAD. For perennials and shrubs, however, a soil check is a simple matter of looking and touching. We’ll go over soil basics in class, but here’s a good rule of thumb: if it’s blond or gray, it needs organic matter.

Here again, though, there are advantages to recognizing what you have, even down to the level of the soil, because there are certain soil conditions that cannot be overcome. If your property is covered by pine trees, for example, you never will get “sweet” soil no matter how much lime you add. There are, however, certain plants that adapt perfectly well to acidic conditions, and make your design choices rather simple. There are plants that prefer sandy soil, and ones that like their feet wet.

Determining the shape and condition of your land will help you determine both the landscape design and the plant materials you select to bring that design to life.

Week 3: The Metaphysics of Design
I remember standing outside a Thai restaurant years ago with an artist, a shy man who created wild, abstract oil paintings. I asked him how he did it, and he told me to look back into the restaurant, through the windows. “What do you see?” he asked. “I see the edge of the door to the kitchen,” I said, “and the soffit over the bar. What do you see?” “I see a triangle,” he replied, “and a rectangle over there.” See the pattern, not the object.

Design happens when you recognize pattern and do one of two things: follow it, or move in counterpoint to it. A curve here can be met with a corresponding curve there, or an elongation of the curve, or a reversal of it to send the flow in the opposite direction. A curve can be countered by a square, or an angle, or bisected by a simple line vanishing at the far edge. Play with it. Have some fun. In this case, folks, it really isn’t rocket science, and the only rule is balance. Here’s where most people get stuck; they think of balance as weights and measures, one left, one right. Pure symmetry, and nothing more.

Balance is, according to Webster’s, an esthetically pleasing integration of elements or, my favorite, equipoise between contrasting, opposing, or interacting elements. Don’t you love that word, equipoise? It connotes tranquility, harmony, and there’s where I get my definition of balance: harmonious interaction. Not one to one, not this for that, not even necessarily perfectly equal. Just poised somewhere between all and nothing.

What creates design is the interplay between opposing forces: public and private, light and shadow, circle and square. What we have come to in landscaping is a little bit of this and a little bit of that, so homogenized it has no contrast, no character. People have interpreted the idea that we should imitate nature to mean that all the gardens should appear as they would in the wild, with indistinct edges and the melding of all seasons, all colors. The problem is that nature doesn’t actually do that. The sun is a perfect circle; the new moon and the crest of a wave are perfect arcs; a blue spruce is a perfect cone. A piece of granite will split into parallel planes; a blade of marsh grass profiles an acute angle; the velvety heads of cat-o-nine-tails grow in pure cylindrical form atop pure, cylindrical reeds.

Nature does not blend all things; she takes your eye in different directions at different seasons, and she’s often monocultural. The birch grows here, the pine grows over there; each has a dramatically different understory and a dramatically different feel as you wander through. Nature is bold, and strong, and decisive. She has contrast and character, both. Watch an October sunset and tell me that’s not theater.

There’s an archaic meaning to the word design: to indicate with a distinctive mark, sign or name. This week, we’re going to revive that meaning as you begin your designs. Take what you know of yourself, and what you have observed of your property, and indicate those qualities with distinction.

Week 4: The Zen of Color
This is the worst dilemma for most people; for me it’s a piece of cake. In the case of the bluestone walkway, there were three elements affecting the decision, the strongest of which was, you guessed it, the bluestone. Once I had chosen that particular shade of blue the only choice left, in keeping with good design, was to stay within that color range or choose its opposite. The two remaining elements made that choice effortless.

The bluestone is formal; the client is formal. The most formal color? White. In addition, the client works seventy hours a week; the only time he’s really going to see this garden is late into the evening. The color most visible in low light? White. What looks great with white? Blue. What looks great with bluestone? Blue. What color was absolutely made for sunlight? Blue. The client has a blue and white garden.

Staying true to our color choices is where most of us falter. When I say blue I mean blue, not purple or lavender or mauve. White is white, not yellow tinged with cream, not even the very palest of shell pink. When you lose definition, you lose contrast; when you lose contrast, you lose design. You may have a very pretty assemblage of things, but you don’t have design. It’s brutal, I know, to walk away from the most astonishing flower you’ve ever seen just because it’s a shade or two off hue; do it anyway.

I read all these books and hear all these designers talking about color selection being the palette with which you paint the garden. I disagree, because I think of color in intimate, emotional terms. Blue is inviting and serene; it’s the sound of your child laughing as you play at the water’s edge. White is a radiant seaside Victorian, painted wicker on the veranda luminous in the moonlight. Orange is a bonfire at the rim of a frozen pond, cold cheeks and hot embers. Red is scarlet lipstick against pale skin all in black; it’s Bogart and Bacall and killer dialogue. Green is the branch of a tree dipping into the river as you drift downstream, the paddle stilled for just a moment as you reach up to draw your hand along the leaves. Lavender is a field in the south of France, bread and wine and heady perfume. Purple is the final reflection of rimrock at twilight, coyotes howling in the distance as you make love in the warm desert wind.

My chiropractor, a charming man who tolerates my perpetual ruination of his handiwork with relative good humor, asked for help last year renovating his gardens. The doctor and his wife live in the upper half of a large duplex on a busy city street; his office is on the first floor. Color becomes key to creating not just a look, but a feel to this new landscape. It needs to be vibrant and welcoming.

The couple early on develops a rare and very clear division of territory; the public areas are his, the courtyard is hers. This leaves me free to design for one person, and one purpose. To make choices that work for this property, I start with the basics. What do I know about the site? We have a large, square, white building newly wrapped, front and side, by a ramp for handicapped access. The ramp adds an element of architectural pizzazz, but it too is white. The only dampening of this luster has come from a rather sickly maple at the edge of the sidewalk, soon to be removed. This means we are in for all white, all the time.

What do I know about the doctor? He’s reserved in public, but deliciously funny in private. Dances well enough to compete; prefers the samba, notoriously sensual in its movement. Member not just of a healing profession, but of an holistic healing profession, which has a different sensibility. And avid rosarian, which means he adores, and has, roses in every conceivable color.

In this case, white is not even in the running for plant materials. In fact any pale color, with that backdrop and that amount of sun, would fade to nothing. To achieve contrast, I need to go as far in the opposite direction as the province of flowers allows: not truly black, but the darkest purple I can find. Having decided that, I went looking for its mate and there, in the back yard, was this orange rose. It wasn’t apricot, it wasn’t salmon, it was orange. I flipped. Rose petals in hand I wandered the nursery, laying in the fragrant heads of Hidcote lavender and the fat, full blossoms of Jackmani clematis. I know, I know, blue is the true opposite of orange; I don’t care. Purple and orange sends me, blue and orange just looks like a Mets uniform. The fact that they were my ex-husband’s favorite baseball team may have a tiny little something to do with it. Look, I told you color was emotional.

So now we have roses in tangerine, and coral, and Mandarin silk. We have Hermés boxes and frosty bottles of Orange Crush. We have Concord grapes, cool to the tongue, and hand-painted plums on Limoges plates. We have Purple Haze and Twilight Time. We have orange daylilies to inject the blood of the commoner, and Black Knight delphinia to guard the roses fair. We have a low-growing, sterile variety of woolly lamb’s ear to play off lavender’s gray-green foliage and the gray-green leaves of the flowering crab. We have design, and dialogue. We have contrast, and character, and man! do we have color.

We also have people smiling as they come up the ramp, people who are otherwise in pain. Ex-husband jokes aside, color has a profound impact on our spirits. I didn’t wear red until I was forty-three, undoubtedly because my mother always insisted I should. It started with red lipstick, and a postman who was ridiculously appealing, and it went on from there. The color, not the man who was, sadly, married. Anyway… the point is that it changed my perception of myself, which changed how I presented myself, which changed everything. It has become the color everybody associates with me, even though I’m most often in black, so apparently I now sport a red attitude no matter what shade of lipstick I wear.

You’ve noticed by now that I tend to limit color selection within the confines of each garden space; I do this primarily because it makes the space look larger. Continuity of color allows the eye to take in the garden as a whole, without interruption. I can punch that monochromatic scheme here and there with its color contrast, and still have a unified field. I can remove the contrast if I up the ante in foliage, and still have visual interest. From a practical standpoint, it’s a great system for people who tend to lose track of precisely what they planted. I must be getting older, because these little memory aids are becoming more and more important. If it’s in the yellow garden, I know it’s yellow.

Equally sophisticated is planting within a short range of tints, like pink to magenta. In this case, I would skip the contrast and simply allow the colors to flow, each into the other. I’ve done this in linear fashion, from pale to deep or throughout the space, at random, with the same success. Again, the eye sees all of this as one because, with this scheme, we’re really just playing with different saturations of the same color.

Riskier, but a great deal of fun, is a planting that runs the gamut of all hot, or all cool colors. This style requires a lot of space to be effective; the stroke must be bold for the impact to be perceived.

How do you choose color? Go back to the beginning. Who are you, and what do you want to say? When you have the answers to those two questions, the colors will choose you.

Week 5: The Voodoo of Editing
The one thing I can say that was absolutely fabulous about the course at Harvard was the opportunity to hear a lecture by Edward Larrabee Barnes, a landscape architect whose work is as close to perfection as anyone is likely to come. In his presentation were two slides of the same stand of trees. Same season, same time of day. What’s different? he asked. About five trees, as I recall. Their removal subtly changed the quality of light within the stand, and changed our ability to see the individual trees within the grouping.

The principal is the same in your design, in your landscape, in your perennial gardens. We edit a landscape to allow the view to be seen with clarity, just as we edit an essay to allow the viewpoint to be seen with clarity. Flooded with images, the eye is overwhelmed and ceases to distinguish between individual objects; flooded with messages, the brain is overwhelmed and ceases to care. Let’s go back to color for a minute. If the eye sees yellow, the brain says, Ah, yellow. As the eye begins to perceive form, and then texture, the brain says, Ah, this is interesting. These yellows are different. The brain gets one message at a time, and willingly follows. If the brain gets yellow orange red blue purple green, it loses the ability to organize the messages into a cohesive whole.

Whether I’m handling a new design or a renovation, I ask two questions, and I ask those two questions from key points throughout the site. What do I see, and what do I want to see? My favorite client and I argued for three years over one tree, a Black Hills spruce eight feet from the house. A thirty-foot tree eight feet from the foundation of a house is a mistake on its face, but even apart from the damage the root structure might cause, the damned tree was blocking the view. I wanted people to catch a glimpse of what lay beyond; the client considered the destruction of that tree to be, and I quote, murder.

People, it’s a tree. If it’s badly placed and young, find another spot for it. If it’s badly placed and old, cut it down. Don’t waste the wood, but also don’t waste your time agonizing over the decision. Editing a written piece involves the deletion of something that blocks the literary flow; editing a landscape involves the deletion of something that blocks the visual flow. The concept holds for trees that should be removed, for shrubs that should be shorter, thinner or somewhere else, and for perennials that should be divided, regrouped, or given to your neighbor.

Go back to basics, and decide what you want to say. This landscape is your story; be concise, be on point and be ruthless in the elimination of anything that doesn’t serve the narrative. This is miserably hard for most people, because they see it as a loss. I can’t argue with that; it is. The trick is to focus on what you gain: space, light, proportion, flow. Besides opening the view, the removal of that spruce reestablished the proportions of the house, which had been dwarfed by this huge green tower. In addition, it allowed the sun to reach a Cranberry Viburnum that had all but crawled up the drainpipe in search of light, and allowed me to “edit” that Viburnum by means of some pretty radical pruning.

It also allowed me to create a new garden; as you round the house now, you see not only the view beyond, you see (and smell) a mass of Viburnum interplanted with butterfly bush and dwarf flowering quince. The bees love the quince, the butterflies love their namesake and the birds absolutely adore the berries set by the Viburnum in Fall. The open, airy quality of the space plays well against the open, airy quality of the wet meadow beyond, and the Fall coloration of the Viburnum plays well against the pale caramel of fading grasses.

All that, for one tree. Not bad for a loss.

Week 6: The Gestalt of Installation
Gestalt is defined as a pattern or structure so integrated it becomes a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Essentially, it takes on a life of its own. This is what we have been working toward: that you, and the land, and the material will coalesce to form a landscape so seamless, so unified, it will become a entity unto itself.

 How do I know this? I watch it happen at every location. The design is there, the materials are there and at some point, indefinable but tangible, a connection is made between the elements and they cease to exist as individuals. They are of one mind, one habit, one visual presentation. You will be able to recognize, to savor, this delphinium spire or that rose blossom, but it will always be upon second look.

This happens with stone as well. One of my favorite installations is a piece of walkable sculpture that covers 450 square feet, not counting the pathways of entry and exit. I took sixty slabs of granite – old Portland curbstone, in fact – and laid them against an imaginary channel of water that shifted midway through the design. Curbstone now is machine cut, but a hundred years ago each stone was odd-sized, imperfect and, to my eyes, gorgeous. I found some with quartz fault-lines that were spectacular. Artistic, yes, but try to imagine running two lines of three-foot and five-foot slabs along forty-seven linear feet, making sure the shift in those slabs occurs just to the left of the existing staircase and maintaining a perfect edge to the dry water channel in between. Now add stone dimensions that vary in width from sixteen to twenty-three inches and you begin to get an understanding of how astonishing it is that this came together. The channel is eighteen inches wide throughout the design, the shift in that channel occurs just to the left of the staircase, and each band of stone runs the length of the design in tandem, nearly to the inch.

To this day, I don’t know how. All I know is that I had the right design and the right material; at some point during the process those elements bonded, and took on one identity. I must tell you that identity did not match the picture I had in my head, and that was the last time I allowed myself to be constrained by my limited imaginings.

Now I just assemble the pieces and watch what happens. If that process dictates a last-minute change in the design, I change the design. There’s a break in one of my stone walls for just that reason. As the wall was being built, I saw a stone upended for a moment and I realized that was precisely where it should stay. There’s now an entrance to this little garden, and a terraced pathway through the space to the lilacs beyond.

Sometimes change is caused not by a whiff of inspiration, but by a mistake. Recently, and for the first time, I miscalculated the measurement of a design. Maybe because my mind was elsewhere, maybe because someone jinxed me by remarking that it had never happened… who knows. Come the day of installation I have five slabs of granite, each eighteen inches deep, and nine feet to cover. Even allowing generous play between the slabs, I’m sixteen inches short. I can’t use another slab, which is okay because there aren’t any more to be had, and I can’t use loose stone, which means I can’t allow the channels of river jacks I have running along the sides to flow into the main design. If I weren’t in snow country, I’d have done precisely that, but snow removal is a huge issue here and has to be a consideration in design. The visual effect, though, would have been smashing… the granite would have looked like it was floating.

My solution was a quick purchase of landscapers’ cobblestones, and a change in the design. The central three slabs are now separated from those at either end by a course of cobbles that fit into the space as though they were meant to be there. More importantly, they fit into the design. A bit ego deflating to think that chance could be a better designer than I am, but it’s applied chance, really, and there’s an art to that, too.

Perhaps it’s the adrenaline rush that comes with pure panic, perhaps it’s the freedom that comes with not being tied to one and only one way of doing something. Perhaps it’s simply that I’ve gotten older and am willing to accept just because as a valid answer. This gestalt thing happens just because it does. Leave yourself open to it, recognize it, use it.

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