“Horticultural excellence in the garden can never compensate for a fundamentally bad layout.”  Thomas Church, Landscape Architect.

Or, to paraphrase Tommy, a fundamentally floppy, disorganized, or unstructured layout.  Here at the California School of Garden Design, we teach landscape design students the essential elements to create a structured landscape design with long lines, angles and organization.  Most people instinctively rebel against this approach, thinking it means the garden will not flow or never appear soft and pleasing to the eye, or that it isn’t creative, and clients are often the most vehemently opposed to such structure – but in fact, it really is the best approach for a number of reasons.

Think of a couple dancing a waltz – let’s take Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for our example.  You can easily picture them in your mind:  Fred is wearing a dark, elegant tuxedo, with long, lean lines.  Ginger on the other hand is in a long, flowing gown covered with sparkle or feathers, maybe in silver or pale pink.  As they dance together, Fred holds her in front of him, leading her strongly through the steps, and as she moves within the framework of his arms, her skirts flow and ebb softly around his legs.  Think of them this way:  Fred represents the structure of a design, like hardscaping, arbors, paths, and Ginger the softer elements – the flowers, plants, vines, grasses.  Remove one of these partners, and what you have left is still ok, but much weaker.  Together, they are perfect.  Now go back and read our quote at the top of this article one more time.

The necessary horticultural knowledge is easy to come by, if you feel you are weak in that area.  Check your local community college for plant ID classes, pick up a few helpful books on plants, such as the Sunset Western Garden Book, or connect with your local chapter of Master Gardeners.  Becoming a Master Gardener will help you establish a firm knowledge of plants and their uses.  At the CSGD, one of the requirements for passing the Beginning Landscape Design Course is creating an Herbarium – a collection of various types of plants and their uses, tailored to your geographical area.  An Herbarium is a useful tool to help you choose plants that grow well in your area when you begin designing on your own.

Learning about how to create structure and form in landscape design requires a bit more of an effort, but there are some excellent books available to get you started.  A couple of good books on this subject are Creative Connections – Aspects of the Garden Design Process by Barbara Hunt and Elizabeth Whateley on Packard Publishing Limited and the Thomas Church book Gardens are for People. Both of these books are easily found by doing an internet search.  There are a number of private garden design schools both in the U.S. and the U.K., including ours that specifically teach students the importance of these design principles.

 The photo at left is a design I created for our local hospital – it is a memorial garden for the use of patients, staff and visitors to the hospital.  The space was a long rectangle.  As you can see, there is quite a bit of structure and hardscaping in this fairly small space – an overhead pergola, the brick path and planting beds, a water feature, etc.  Although the plants at the time of this picture were still young, you can already see that the grasses are mounding and spilling over onto the brick, softening their edges, and the vines are already clambering up the pergola.  Various shrubs and mounding bushes are arranged along the walls to soften and fill in the spaces.  Water plants grow out of the metal fountain, and a sheltered wall of the building is covered with a woven matting which absorbs sound.  The structure and plant elements combine to create a well-balanced garden space that will look attractive all year ‘round, not just in spring or early summer.

Below is a “before and after” of a front garden that I designed a few years ago which illustrates what a difference having a good balance between structure and plantings can make. 

 In this “before” picture, the plantings are running rampant, the lawn is all Bermuda grass and the only path is a very narrow sidewalk of ill-fitting stepping stones running along the house.  The rest of the yard, not shown in this photo, is nothing but hillside and disorganized ground covers.  It is, for all intents and purposes, completely unusable space, and yet this is the area of the garden that the client’s used the most for entertaining and relaxation.  The other side of the house faces West and is extremely hot in the afternoon sun.

In the “after” picture (right), the same front yard reveals a wide, inviting path of warm colored stone visible on the other side of a new, made to look old garden fence trailing with vines.  A seating area and water feature have been added, as well as an arbor with a path leading through it that beckons visitors to wander through and explore more of  the garden. 

Another view, at left, shows the entry arbor.  The addition of several interconnected stone terraces and patios, pathways and structures, as well as the water feature, have transformed this garden into a paradise for the very happy owners.

To finish up,

Horticultural expertise will not save a garden that lacks structure, proportion or functionality.  Establish your layout, choose your paving materials carefully and introduce plantings and water to reinforce your designs and never be afraid to introduce changes in elevation to create additional interest and separation of space.  Good Luck!


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