Friday, March 26, 2010

Landscape Design: I'm still "keeping it subjective"

I wrote this post a while back about the virtues of keeping garden design subjective. If you missed it, hopefully you'll go back to it and agree that it can be unfair to be too judgemental about a garden when as visitors, we don't always know the full story.

A couple of coincidental things have happened since that post - the photo above is my favorite fall beauty of 2009. And just after I found my love for this ornamental kale, and fall planters using them, I read something in a magazine describing my new fave as "common" (the biggest insult in my lexicon) and sarcastically poking fun at people who own them. Soon thereafter, I wrote this post about how I found a garden just like my new, brilliantly designed garden in the pages of a magazine!! was the "before" photo in a garden makeover.

I do generally consider myself a person of good taste. I can flip thorough a magazine or book and after a cursory look, instinctively tell you what's beautiful and what's more...common. I can definitely tell you what does NOT look so great - and on a good day, can point out ways to improve the design.

Here's the problem: in my garden, I'm a little more confused - maybe because it's so much more personal. I'm a little less confident. I hesitate. I'm proud of what I've done one moment, and embarrassed the next. Sometimes when I'm working in the perennial garden and a neighbor walks by, I think they're thinking, "Tsk, tsk, tsk, that woman sure is working hard on that f-ugly looking garden". But then I try to be more positive about it. The truth is, I am only a landscape architect in my dreams. I have a day job and I'm good at it. It took me a long time to learn it. Similarly, even in my dreams, I've been a landscape architect for only about 4 years. It takes time to learn how to work with plants, to design something that works at a real house with its real obstacles. There is simply no way around it. I will have to gain experience, and that just comes with time.

Last night, Joel Lerner, a specialist in landscape and environmental design came to speak at my Master Gardener class. I loved learning about some of the most important design principles such as balance, contrast, sequence, repetition, and proportion. I enjoyed viewing his "drive by" photos and critiquing them - I'm happy to know that my idea of good design matches the fundamental principles of good design. I'm happy to know that the improvements I would suggest are the improvements our expert would suggest. I loved that the successful expert was open-minded enough to invite critiques of his own work in order to encourage us to think about what has been done. What I loved most, was Joel Lerner's message about design that he repeated several times throughout his lecture:

Landscape design is an ongoing process...

As he put it, you'll try something seven or eight times, and then say A-ha! That's it!

What I don't quite understand, is how some people I've encountered in life and on the web can be so critical of the designs of other people, such that they'll laugh, make fun of, or shake their heads. Perhaps I'm being too Pollyanna, but as I heard from an expert, landscape design IS an ongoing process. I'm typically not lucky enough to get things done perfectly on the first try. Even if I did, I sure as hell hope I wouldn't be too judgmental towards people who don't. If I ever look at some one's garden design and laugh out loud, or shake my head, may Mother Nature herself strike my perfectly placed plants down.


  1. Oh, gosh! I have no time for people who seriously ridicule anyone else (though a little self-ridicule can be a healthy thing). You keep going with that process, and make the garden that speaks to you. I happen to like all sorts of "common" garden varieties.

  2. Oh I hear ya. I've been trying to beautify my garden for 5 years. I would look through my Home and Garden magazine for ideas and then put a ton of hours working on my garden. Someone would come along and say how dead my garden looks. I guess you know where I'm heading with this. The audacity for someone who doesn't even know anything about landscaping to blurt that insult! Anyways, I'm with you 100% on this, landscaping is an ongoing learning process, you will never know it all and do everything right the first time all the time.

  3. Wendy, did their mothers not tell them "If you have nothing good to say, say nothing". My husband always says "People who criticize, don't" meaning people who do nothing, criticize the most. And everyone has different taste, imagine how boring the world would be, if everyone had our exquisite taste, lol.

  4. Sandy Farber BandierMarch 27, 2010 at 12:21 PM

    Hi Wendy,
    The other rule of thumb that Joel and I advocate is: when you make a new plant installation, it takes a few years for the plants to adapt, mature and prosper. If you are not crazy about the design when it is first installed. This is one of the reason Landscape Design is a ongoing process. Thanks for the great posts on your blog and I will see you April 6th!

  5. Wendy, you're awesome. :) Of course design is an ongoing process; a garden is a microcosm of life, never stagnant, always evolving.

    For what it's worth, I really like your backyard garden makeover, and if that is the one you saw listed as a "before," I suspect that the "after" would have been far outside the budgets and capabilities of most of us - and designed to sell products for the magazine. I try to take the glossy mags' suggestions with a thousand grains of salt, esp. since I rather like the common plants. (I also planted purple ornamental kale this fall.) They're popular for a reason.

  6. My dear Wendy,

    You are being way to hard on yourself. I love that you have this dream to be a landscape architect. Just keep visualizing and practicing and it will naturally evolve.

    The goal, in anything we do, is to just keep working and improving ourselves. That can be gardening, cooking, cardmaking...whatever. So don't focus on the negative. Continue to be Pollyanna. (My Pollyanna spirit is one of my favorite things about myself.)

    I think you are amazing!

  7. I enjoyed your post! I think I have learned the most through my mistakes.
    I feel like I am constantly moving my plants around until I have them just where I like them. I feel like I am moving furniture.
    Can't please everyone... fact of life :)

  8. Just like anything, landscaping is a personal thing. some people think a few hedges count for landscaping, others think they need to hire someone or it won't be "professional". And what was in style yesterday(afore mentioned hedges)_isn't the thing to do now but they will probably start pulling out what we think is great now and putting in hedges again. Very retro, right? There is no accounting for taste.

  9. Not to talk about landscaping, even my container garden changes regularly. Love this sincere thoughts that you have put in here. Thanks for sharing. Gardening is a life's time hobby and hence, it an on going process to change and learn :-D

  10. I think in whatever you do, there's gotta be passion attached to it. Gardening is intuitive and easy for some but for me, it's very hard. I tried fixing up my backyard for about a year now and progress has been slow but I learned so much through my mistakes. Great post btw!

  11. When I saw the picture, I thought it was a rose!

    My personal opinion is like this:
    another man's garden may appear to be another man's weed.

    Here people cherish spanish moss and detesh grasses where exactly the other side of the globe - people throw away spanish moss considering them weed and adorn their garden with fountain grasses?
    What more with bird nest ferns that grows everywhere in nook & corners by the drainsides and tree barks.

    So, thats what I guess about preception. Its just relative.

  12. you introduce so many thought-provoking subjects. by and large, i find gardeners to be kind and generous, but at the same time opinionated and outspoken. when my 'drift' was referred to as a 'ghetto' i was crushed at first. then decided: phooey! i like it!

  13. Wow, great post, Wendy. You know the saying "Mean people suck"? Well it definitely applies to people mocking another person's efforts, whatever the genre.

    I really try to keep a sense of humor about it all but I suppose people could take offense with my tarps and tacky flower toilet. Maybe I need to write a disclaimer. Do you think they are offensive?

    Honestly I think ANY attempt at beautification should be applauded. So what if it doesn't hold to someone else's standards of appropriate design? If it makes the beautifier happy, then everybody else, shut up.

    I agree that garden design is definitely a process. Heck, I'm still dealing with some of my neophyte foibles. And I don't like the idea of snooty people traipsing through my garden with a critical eye. [I wonder too about neighbors or passersby laughing at my middle-aged butt in the air in my FAR from perfect front yard. And like you, some days I'm thrilled with how my garden looks. Other days, "what the hell were you thinking, Grace? Who told you that you could do this?" I suppose it's human nature sprinkled with a bit of biology--those esoteric mood alternators enough sleep, or too much stress, hormones...

    Somehow there has to be a lot of love and humor infused in any critiquing going on. People have feelings. There is a fine art to stating opinions.

    I happen to like your garden and should ignore those mean people.

  14. Thanks I really enjoyed your post! (ricki at sprig to twig included a link on her blog)...sometimes I pull up in front of my house and I see the front garden not how my mind sees it (the way I want it to look) but rather as others must actually see it, and it's not pretty. Then I realize that's what everyone else sees all the time! The horror. I hope they are all as kind as you. BTW what you are doing if fabulous and to (hell) with them if they don't get it! And I mean that in the nicest way...

  15. If it makes you feel any better, my first thought when the picture loaded at the top of your post was, Oooh! I love those-they're so pretty! LOL!

    Who cares if something is common? If you love it and it makes you happy, so what if "everybody" else is using it? Shouldn't that be a good thing? I mean, I guess you don't want a garden that is indistinguishable from 100 other gardens, but you can still use "common" elements to make an exquisite display.

  16. I'm glad we're on the same page! Grace, your tarps are too funny and I'll think of you forever whenever I see one. :)


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