There’s a room in a back issue of Elle Decor that will knock your socks off in its use of color. The couch is velvet, orchid-violet velvet, with pillows covered in stripes of bronze silk set against pale, pearlized lilac walls. Tall stalks of some flower I should know but don’t in a color that looks like chartreuse but isn’t, quite, stand in a clear cylindrical vase atop an ebony-lacquered table and to me, that room is a garden. So much so that I use it as a visual aid in my landscape course to encourage students to take from the medium they know, and to use that knowledge in the medium of landscape design.
In the landscape there are bronze-leafed things and chartreuse-y things and lilac and lavender and liquid amethyst; there are things dark and pale, things cool, things hot. I can’t give you crystal, but I can give you a green so grayed it gleams like burnished silver or a yellow so light it’s called moonglow. I can’t give you ebony, either, but there are purples and reds so dark we use them like black, to ‘ground’ the space, to give it dimension and delicious sensuality.
I recoil whenever I hear talk of the ‘outdoor room’ because whenever I hear it I know that we’re into the theory of little: little rooms, little vignettes, little snippets and slices and bits. Properties done in this style look like permanent versions of Junior League show houses, where each room is taken over by a different decorator and done according to theme. They’re great fun to tour, but living in such a disjointed space would make you crazy.
The inspiration from an interior room, though, can be a fabulous tool for garden design. The kind of rooms to which you’re drawn will tell you a great deal about the kind of exterior design that will resonate. Someone with a neutral palette and minimalist decor will more likely be captivated by simple, architectural plantings with layers of tone-on-tone coloration than by busy landscaping in a barrage of color. The reverse, of course, is also true; someone with a highly floral interior — bright hues, lots of pillows, cushy sofa — would be miserable with a simple, streamlined landscape. So how do you get from the interior to the exterior, from the pictures you like to the property you’ll love? Find the common elements.
Much as I love the room in Elle, I wouldn’t do it for myself; it’s too bright for me. It is, however, dramatic as all get-out, and drama I can do. When I look a the rooms I’m drawn to they’re all dramatic, even the ones in the neutral tones I prefer. I want furniture with strong lines, dark wood and deep cushions in fabrics that you can tell just by looking will feel good against the skin. I want creamy walls and captivating artwork. A stainless steel kitchen — another holdover from the chef days — and a bathroom in stone and glass with massage jets galore. I want a bedroom that’s a meditation on minimal; I want an open plan, soaring ceilings and walls of glass with a western view. I want a simple, bold and, looking at the words I’ve just written, rather hedonistic living space. What kind of garden is that?
The ‘strong line’ part is easy; those are the plants we call architectural, plants with structure and clearly defined geometric shapes. There are Siberian iris, which grow in circular habit, form tall columns, have sharp triangular blades and soft triangular petals. There are giant allium, a glorious relative of garlic that seems to be deer-proof, mole-proof and gopher-proof. The leaves aren’t much, but the singular stalks are distinctively round and the heads, even gone to seed, are perfect spheres. There are Turk’s cap lilies and Russian sage, ornamental grasses like Miscanthus and a tree-form hydrangea called ‘Tardiva’ that is vase-shaped in habit and forms flowers in the most extraordinary cones you’ve ever seen. The list goes on, but you get the drift.
The ‘dark wood’ piece is also easy: to me, dark wood is sexy, blond wood is so-so. To somebody else, it might be just the opposite, and that’s where knowing your internal eye comes in handy (see The Eyes Have It). Perhaps it’s the contrast between the dark wood and the pale walls, perhaps it’s the full saturation of color, perhaps it’s the memory of my first kiss: Billy Welch, at the beach house, with the afternoon sun streaming through the grape arbor and playing patterns on the wood floor. What color was the floor? Of course. It could be that I had a fondness for the color before I had a fondness for the boy, but that day sealed the deal. The images are fused in my head, and I like what I like.
So far we’re two for two, easy; let’s get a little esoteric. Stainless steel is industrial, yes, but it’s also simple, and terribly practical. That means simple design and easy-care plants. Those include everything I mentioned in the ‘architectural’ category, and a slew of others. I can have roses, if I stick with the rugosas and the David Austins; all I have to do is whack them back in the fall and that’s not only easy, it’s kind of fun. I can have peonies galore; they can live a hundred years, are remarkably tolerant and, with the single-flowering varieties, don’t require hoops to stand upright. There are scented ones, too, and scented day lilies like ‘Hyperion’ that hit the pleasure centers of the brain like molecular massage jets.
There are colors that cool the eye like stone cools the body and, of course, swaths of stone that break the influx of visual data. This cools the mind, as well, which is what meditation does. There are pools of water like glass, and perhaps even an unobstructed view of the setting sun, the ultimate in captivating artwork.
That’s my room, and my room to grow.