Philosophy: Approach to Design

Garden design is a dialogue between the homeowners, the designer, and nature.  In a first meeting with homeowners, my job is to listen, to walk, and to observe. 

If I were to share a secret about this process, it would be that many, many homeowners greet me with a task-level list of changes to be done in their yard:

  • the myriad thirsty plants they no longer wish to water
  • a drying lawn or three to remove
  • a patio or deck to re/construct
  • the need for shade
  • fears about an outdated irrigation system
  • an awkward stairway or busted retaining wall

Can we fix those things?

My job is to hear all of this but to not resolve individual issues too quickly.  Or to say “Yes, we can do that,” and then ask more questions because my real job is to listen.  It has taken time for this list of outdoor annoyances to percolate to the point of asking a stranger for advice and direction.  So, it is best to walk and talk and listen. 

As we circulate through the yard, homeowners reveal a landscape’s history.  Memories are peppered with sensory experiences – hot days weeding in overgrown planting beds; the nap-busting, mulch-removing screech of blowers and mowers; muddy water puddling beneath the bedroom slider.  There is the good stuff, too, like that 2-year-ago summer filled with moonlit patio dinners and the front lawn trampled by kids tumbling after footballs and frisbees.

I ask, “These days, how much time do you spend outside?  In the morning? afternoon? evening?” “How often do you travel?” “What do your kids/grandkids want to do in the backyard?” “Would you ever read or nap in the shade?” “Who are the six people you’d like to see around the table?”  The future starts to take a new shape.  The task list quiets.  We begin imagining a revitalized outdoor living space. 

We explore the yearning to connect with nature.

What kind of atmosphere is desired?  Is it serene?  Is it bustling with family and friends?  How will sun and shade be divided?  Working with the lay of the land, can we accommodate the dreamed of activities? 

“Let’s take another walkthrough.”  We observe the siting of the architecture, the existing hardscape, the favored shade structures and trees.  Is there harmony?  Can we imagine harmony? Would it be better to reroute the flow of movement?  If we moved the air conditioning unit, would this end of the home become a more inviting area?  How big is that space where old wood is stacked?  I unfurl the measuring tape.

“Do you think of yourself as separate from or as part of nature?” This is a my segue to frame the garden’s layout.  Human-scale activities and hardscape will claim their piece of terrain.  Boulders and native trees will anchor the ecosystem for wildlife: birds, butterflies, bees, lizards, spiders, and insects.  Where do greenery and privacy belong?  Where will seasonal color bring joy?  Does a water feature make sense?  Where is the place for quiet meditation?  Can we illuminate early evenings and go dark for the night?  

“Who will be the garden caretaker?” What kind of timeline is envisioned for the project?  How can I help manage costs for you?  In the surge of possibility, we are excited.  The homeowner sees me as an experienced problem solver.  I promise a talented installation team.  We want to work together.  Agreements are signed.

Then I ask for what I need.  Time with the land. 

I want to return alone, to listen to and feel the space.  I meditate on the words to guide the design:

  • ease
  • simplicity
  • restraint
  • earthiness
  • asymmetry
  • movement
  • transience

The experience of a garden landscape begins at the macro level, the “atmosphere.” What should come to awareness is … (read more here>)