I have suggested, often and loudly, that landscaping is poetry. Let’s talk for a minute about the prose of design. Think of the property as an essay — not in the oh my god, it’s due tomorrow sense, but in the op-ed sense. Here’s your forum, your chance to speak your piece. What do you want to say?
The truth is you’re already saying something, even if you haven’t crafted your message or refined your expression. Whatever you’ve done on the property — or not done — tells the tale. Is the landscape witty, articulate, engaging, or is it the dinner guest from hell with monosyllabic responses and a vague bronchial wheeze?
Try this exercise: take a walk to the end of your street and pretend, for a moment, that you are a visitor. Turn around, and head back toward your house. What is the first thing you see when it comes into view? Photograph it, sketch it or take notes, but in some fashion mark the spot of first impression and the feeling it creates. That’s what the outside world is seeing and feeling. Is it what you intend?
I ask my students all the time why they have used this material or that in their designs, and the most common answer is: it was there when I bought the house. Sorry, no dice. If the landscape is an essay, then every plant is a word, every spatial arrangement is a paragraph, and either they serve the narrative or they don’t. Your eighth-grade English teacher would tell you the same thing.
The analogy is apt only to a point, of course; you construct the essay at will. You construct the landscape at desire, mated with budgets and timetables and zoning ordinances. In the article Do Tell I talked about using an existing Japanese maple, commonly known as bloodgood, as the centerpiece for a garden renovation. Would I have chosen bloodgood? No, not because I don’t like the tree itself, but because every yard in the neighborhood had one and that seemed a bit wanting in imagination.
It met the project criteria, though: it was a good size and shape, it was within the color palette, and it was free. To have bought something of comparable maturity would have cost a few hundred dollars; we spent less than half that to transplant it. Further, since the tree was awkwardly placed to begin with and not showing to advantage the transplant met the ‘two birds, one stone’ definition of Yankee thrift.
Before the opportunity of thrift, though, came the requirement of thesis; I had to distill what this client was trying to say before I could edit the property. This is ultimately what led to our conversation about her ideal table setting for an imaginary dinner party, and conversations about her schedule, and the ways in which her family interacted with the property. The site had been in several different hands, and it showed; either the prior landscapers hadn’t listened to this owner or hadn’t asked the right questions. That’s because the right questions have nothing to do with plants.
The right questions are all about the visual palate, those colors and shapes that literally light up our brains. The right questions are all about language; yours, not mine. There’s an old sales adage that says, the seller speaks the buyer’s language. In other words, to reach a client I need to go where she is, to understand the language she speaks. Sometimes it’s as basic as clarifying common English.
Back, for a moment, to the fanciful dinner party, which was a candlelight affair with damask and burnished Victorian sterling. Our conversation about that party took place in the client’s dining room, which had been painted an unfortunate shade of deep bluish-green. I say unfortunate because the addition of blue ‘cools’ a color, and this copper-haired woman clearly wanted to be warm.
The client didn’t describe the color as cool, though; her word was dark. That was my opportunity to establish a common vocabulary, to talk about the difference between those two words. Can you be dark and warm? In my head, yes, but I needed to know if those two words were paired in her mind, as well. Forging a common vocabulary would give me a language I could use in the redesign of her landscape. If she could visualize ‘dark’ as a warm tone, it would explain why she was unhappy with the existing landscape. The bulk of the plant material was on the cold end of the spectrum: blue pinks, blue violets, blue greens. The one notable exception? The bloodgood, yet another reason not to ditch it.
Aha, you say, but cool is the opposite of warm and appropriate counterpoint in a landscape. Yes it is, and used as punctuation it’s terrific — the chartreuse heads of Lady’s Mantle next to an iris called Superstition are a sight to behold. Even though I have used cool colors as accents in the redesign, the property ‘reads’ warm, which expresses the owner’s personality. It also expresses, in literal terms, the owner’s desire to extend a warm welcome to all visitors. That warmth is part of the distilled message within this landscape.
I’ll paraphrase my own eighth-grade English teacher for this last thought. Every essay has a theme; in your landscape, theme is characterized by the manner in which you present the property. Every essay has a format; in your landscape, format is characterized by terrain and architecture, and by the shapes you choose to balance those forms. Every essay has paragraphs that articulate your writer’s point of view; in your landscape, paragraphs are the trees and walkways and gardens that articulate your designer’s point of view. Every essay has words that color your message; in your landscape, words are the materials you choose that color your design.
That’s your landscape language, and that’s the way you communicate with the world. Everything on the property not written in that language is just bad grammar.