What if I told you that building a landscape was like building a wardrobe? I admit that I’ve compared garden design to any number of things (cooking, poetry, sex) but hear me out on this one. For a wardrobe, you need the basics: a good suit, a couple of silk shirts, a great pair of jeans, some linen for summer cool, some cashmere for winter chic and a really fab little black dress, just because. For a landscape, you need the basics: good stonework, a couple of ornamental trees, some breezy perennials for summer, some structure for winter interest and at least one of the ‘little black dresses’ of the plant world, just because. If you can build a wardrobe, you can design a landscape.
Let’s start with the suit and what a suit conveys: power, strength and leadership. Those same qualities are evinced by stonework; it’s the strongest and most powerful element of the design and it is used, literally, to lead people from one place to another. Stone articulates the language of the property, defines areas and expresses the overarching theme. Whether I want to convey a person or a message, I install stonework.
A great suit is all about line; the right cut emphasizes the good aspects of your body and minimizes the bad. Great stonework is all about line; the right layout emphasizes the good aspects of the site and minimizes the bad. At their most basic, body shape, architecture and topography are simple geometry. They all have a dominant shape and they all have an opposing shape that acts as balance.
If your body is more round than angular, I guarantee you look for clothing that gives a more linear proportion to your body. If the opposite is true and you’re entirely without curves, you probably choose pieces whose construction gives you at least the illusion of hourglass. Stonework can provide the same kind of correction for your property. It can, for example, sweep an arc into the ground to balance a roof line that might otherwise visually overwhelm the space.
I’ve been using the female body as exemplar here, but it’s precisely the same for men. If you’re long and lean, there’s a double-breasted jacket out there with your name on it; your heavier-set buddy wants the single-vent, two-button version. You both do this to present the best possible image, to cut the best possible figure, and that’s what stonework is all about. We cut the best figure into the land to get the best result out of it. We do this with pattern and proportion, and sometimes a little bit of tailoring.
Once you’ve got the right suit, you’ll need something to wear with it. My advice, because I’m ever so hedonistic and want things to feel good as well as look good, is to go straight to silk. With a classic silk shirt you can’t go wrong; it’s a perfect companion to the suit, but you can also wear it with jeans and still look dressed enough for almost anything. Keep that last image in your head while I talk to you about roses, and peonies, and lavender, and all of the plants that traditionally are used in formal gardens, because that plant material is more versatile than you think.
Pair a really gorgeous, jewel-toned silk shirt with an Armani suit and the image is elegance from head to toe. That same shirt tossed over a pair of jeans is a different story; classy, but not intimidating. The same is true for those ‘silk shirts’ of the plant world; paired with a highly-structured bluestone walkway, they assume an elegant air. Paired with an irregular flagstone walkway, that same material can seem positively relaxed. The structure of the suit, and the fabric from which it’s made, sets the focus, and the rest of the pieces are seen through that lens.
Linen and cashmere? Linen is the ideal material for summer, breezy and billowy, but tougher than it looks; there are plants with those same characteristics. Coreopsis, day lilies and rose mallow immediately come to mind, but so do ornamental grasses like Miscanthus sinensis. They can withstand a bit of wear and still look good. Looking good and feeling good are the two qualities of cashmere that keeps me rifling through the resale shops, because it’s cashmere that’s the backbone of my winter wardrobe. What’s the backbone of my winter landscape? Trees with structural interest, even those without evergreen leaves. An intricately branched tree, leafless, will still grab my attention, and there’s nothing more spectacular than a stand of white birch shimmering in a field of snow. That view is classic here in Maine and evinces the same easy elegance as my prized 1950’s cashmere coat.
As for the black, be they cocktail dresses or flowers, for sheer drama there’s nothing better, nothing simpler. A little black dress, a great pair of earrings and you’re good to go. It works the same way in the garden; add some floral black and you instantly kick it up a notch. Of course black, in the plant world, isn’t really black, it’s deeply, darkly, red or purple, but in either hue it’s dramatic as all get-out, and that’s the point. That eye-popping moment, that wow, is the same on the body or in the land, and it’s done for exactly the same reason. It’s bold, it’s surprising, and it’s sexy; that’s reason enough.
So go now, rifle through your closet; pull out the key pieces of your wardrobe and see them as building blocks, as style elements. Take those elements to the stone yard and to the nursery, and find the landscape materials that express your style. Gather them together and build yourself a landscape that suits you to a tee.