I have never done the same design twice. Prospective clients are always surprised, and some a bit disappointed, that they can’t just point to a photograph in my portfolio and say, Do this. I give them the same response my hairstylist gives me, Your hair won’t do that. A design works on a particular property because it arises from, it is connected to, that site. Change the quality of light, the topography, the architecture or the owners, and the design falls flat. I’ve seen those landscapes, and so have you; they feel two-dimensional because they are. The designs were copied from a book, and put on the ground with no more thought than a change in the length or width of the borders to accommodate a given space.

Those are concept gardens: English cottage, French, Medieval, Tuscan, Zen. A woman took one of my classes some time ago to see if I could help her figure out what the problem was with her Japanese tea garden. She’d been working on it for a couple of years, and just couldn’t “get it right.” She couldn’t get it right because it was a Japanese garden, complete with tea house, installed on Peaks Island, Maine.

Tea gardens have a zeitgeist; they are rooted in a specific time and place. When transplanted whole, they are out of context. There is a garden idiom, just as there is a language idiom, and as you know, idiom does not translate well. The translation is often bizarre, frequently stilted and always, always out of kilter because it lacks the cultural reference of the original.

The concept garden, which is the end point for so many designers, is really just the start. Fancy a particular style? Dig a little deeper, and figure out what it is that you love. The tea garden is peaceful, ordered and still; miles from the noise of daily life. English cottage gardens are abundant, carefree (not really, but they look it) and a happy riot of color. Tuscan is evocative of an elegant, lyrical time; French is all heady perfume, lavender and attar of roses; Medieval is fire and candlelight and billowing damask.

The garden itself may translate poorly, but the idea behind the garden comes through with stunning precision. It’s the same principle that allows you to hear music in a foreign tongue and understand it perfectly. You may not get the words, but you get the meaning, and the mere replication of a picture of a garden is void of meaning. So how do you get behind the picture?

Pull out all the illustrations from all the garden magazines you’ve been saving and ignore, for the moment, the physical details of each garden. Just tell me what it says to you. Do this with all the pretty pictures you’ve earmarked, or do this until you’re bored to tears, and you’ll have a fairly good understanding of that part of you that is answering the siren call. Do this and you’ll be standing with me on the precipice of Rattlesnake Canyon in southwest Colorado, staggered by red as far as the eye could see, by this massive vertical wave of rimrock. And connected, immediately and intimately, to the ocean I adore. I was a thousand miles away, and yet home.

Most designers would take that image and say, Water garden it is; that’s the limitation of the concept garden. But I am constrained by that garden, because it represents only half the experience. What property is there, inherent to water, that makes both places feel the same to me? Fluidity. Can I treat the ground like fluid space? Yes. If the materials I select seem to pool together, I achieve it. If one area of the property flows into the next, I achieve it. And I can do it in linear, angular space just as easily because fluidity is all about motion. In fact, fluid is defined as smooth, easy style.

Both places have other areas of commonality, as well; they are wild, bold, vast. The ocean on an August day is the bluest blue, the canyon at sunset the reddest red, and they both go on forever. They fill not only the visual field, they fill the psychological and emotional fields. We know they were like this ten thousand years ago and we know they’ll be like this ten thousand years from now. They confirm our place in the universe; they ground us, they give us perspective. A sweet little water garden doesn’t come close.

So now I know I need not just fluidity, but bold fluidity. That might be water; it might be something else entirely, depending on the land. Whatever it is, I am free of the two-dimensional picture; I have a full-fledged, 3-D idea. Ideas are always 3-D, by the way; it’s what makes them seem so alive. Plant an idea, the garden has volume, and mass, and gravity. Plant a picture, though you reproduce the material item for item, you lack that third dimension that makes the garden redolent, and round.

If this sounds like gardening by poetry, it is, and perhaps that’s the easiest way to think of translating concept. Find the poetry behind the picture, and articulate that poetry in your own voice. That idea was voiced, on one particular site, by running a “dry water” channel through huge slabs of recycled granite. Dry water is an Asian technique that uses sand or gravel to simulate water flowing through the landscape, but in this case the material selected was intrinsically Maine. Though the design had an unmistakable Taoist reference, it was highly evocative of our rocky coastal beaches. The client got an installation that is a nod to history in the reuse of vintage Portland curbstone, a bow to the serenity of Eastern design, and a wink at childhood along the coast of Maine.

Every guest to his home interprets it differently, and that’s another advantage of planting an idea. An English cottage garden is, ever and always, just an English cottage garden. It has no poetry, because it has no capacity to be taken for anything but what it is.

Find your own translation of the concept, and you will have a garden that speaks volumes.

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