What is the first thing you unpack when you move into a new place? For me, it’s the kitchen equipment; I’ll get by with a mattress on the floor for a few nights as long as I can make a cup of tea and a good dinner. If you were designing a landscape for me, what would that simple act tell you about my style? How would you put that idea, literally, into place?
For most people, tea is a calmative; it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that I’d be happiest with a landscape that was visually soothing. What can you infer from my need to establish the kitchen before anything else? A certain amount of hedonism (I like good food), and a certain amount of practicality (making good food requires order in the kitchen). The take-away is that I want a landscape which is soothing, sensual, and ordered.
That’s an awful lot to glean from the simple act of unpacking, but the establishment of place isn’t really all that complicated. It is, in fact, like unpacking a series of boxes, save that these boxes aren’t usually labeled all that well. Once they’re opened and sorted, though, it all makes perfect sense because the contents are familiar.
Let me say that again: the contents are familiar, because they are the simple, ordinary things we do to provide a base, to ground ourselves. The very phrase conjures land, and so again we’re not far away from a design concept we can apply to the landscape.
With those boxes in mind, let’s go back to the beginning, to the last time you moved. What was the first thing you did to establish yourself in the new place? Did you paint the walls, or hang all your pictures? Did you set up the bedroom, so that you had a sanctuary within a sanctuary? Did you leave the clothes packed away but pull out your favorite books? What do these things tell you about your needs for your landscape?
Since our feelings about personal space have little to do with actual, factual details like size or location, but come instead from intuition, I’m going to ask you to take a couple of intuitive leaps. If you paint first and unpack later — barring walls that truly are too terrible to live with one minute longer than necessary — chances are you like a lot of visual stimulation. If you like it indoors, it’s no leap at all to suppose that you will like it outdoors, as well. That bit of knowledge is key to understanding how you would respond to a design plan, and it would be at the top of my list in putting together a plan that connected you, viscerally, to the site.
Not so complicated as it first seemed, is it? Let’s try another, even easier one, the sanctuary within sanctuary. We all need a private space of retreat and repose, but if your life is especially hectic, the need may be omnipresent and require dedicated space both indoors and out. That’s a construct worth examining from the whole-property point of view, as well, because it may require more than just a secluded area within the landscape to provide what you need. It might take a soothing palette all around, including plants that are streamlined, structurally, so that your eye is allowed to rest.
As to the books, there is a divine ritual in the unpacking of words. Though they themselves are ephemeral, the bound pages which contain them are concrete examples of connectedness. Every volume has a memory, and for avid readers the vast number of our memories have a volume at the core. If your first task on the first day in a new house was to put books on shelves, if you are comforted by the ability to physically touch an experience, there are probably any number of plants which have that same level of importance.
Those are the perennials or shrubs or trees that are part of your internal landscape, and they should become part of your external landscape, as well. If they’re not present, there will be a volume missing from the shelf and you will notice, and feel its absence. But the book need not be a literal translation to do the job. If, like me, you have a penchant for lilac, but live in a climate where lilac isn’t happy, you can take one of the elements of that shrub — the color, the scent, the form — and find a local plant in possession of that trait. Your mind will make the necessary link between what was and what is, and the memory will help bond you to the here and now.
That phrase is ordinarily used in the sense of time, but it carries within it a zeitgeist, a combination of both time and place. Designing a landscape that works for you demands the incorporation, in equal measure, of those two concepts. Time requires an anchor, roots in a given space, in order to become useful; place requires the dimension of time in order to become usable. Together they form the matrix of your personal landscape, the place that exists as ‘home’ in your head.
Put the matrix in the ground, and watch the spaces between come alive.