Understanding Garden Design



This post first appeared on the Kirkus Reviews Gardening page.


What I know about garden design could not fill the rest of this page, much less a book.  I'm an impulsive plant shopper; my garden is more like a closet stuffed with outfits I don't remember buying and will never wear.  Some things work, some things don't, but trust me:  it is all chance.

But Genevieve Schmidt of North Coast Gardening is not only a garden designer, but a blogger and an avid reader. She's designed many beautiful gardens around town, and she's always been nice enough to find something polite to say about my totally random, haphazard garden. When Vanessa Gardner Nagel's book arrived, Gen and I sat down to talk about it.  Here's her take on UNDERSTANDING GARDEN DESIGN:

Amy:  So this book is written more for you than it is for me.  It's really aimed at garden designers or even people with garden design aspirations. What did you think?

Gen:  Well, I learned a lot. It's probably best suited to aspiring or new landscape designers, or someone like me who is self-taught or comes from a horticultural rather than architectural background. But it's not a textbook–she has a wry sense of humor that isn't obvious until you spend some time with the book, and she wasn't afraid to give away her best tricks.

Amy:  Oh, that's a good thing.  So give those tricks away to me–what did you pick up on that was most useful?

Gen:   Okay.  For instance, I love her emphasis on borrowed scenery and how borrowing a view and integrating it into your landscape can give it a sense of belonging to the time and place.

Amy:  So you're talking about making your garden match what's around it–the neighbor's trees, the mountains off in the distance, stuff like that?

Gen:  Right.  She really gets passionate about making the landscape suit you and your surroundings, and I agree entirely. It's one of the elements that can take a design that's attractive and functional, and give it that extra boost to become deeply meaningful.

Amy:  Yeah, I can guarantee you most gardeners don't think about that.  What else?

Gen:  Another of my favorite bits was her section on plants. She goes through the thrillers, spillers, fillers bit for pots, which we may have heard before, but is a useful thing to mention, then goes on with a fascinating section on using plants as punctuation within the garden. I mean, who the hell thinks to liken Hellebores to semicolons? I love this!

Amy:  Punctuation.   I do like that.  A little grammar in the garden.

Gen:  Exactly.  I also liked her discussions on the psychology of space, like not wanting to have our back to any places where people are entering or walking–

Amy:  Now, see, that's something I would never think of–

Gen: I know.  And here's another thing:  she's one of the few designers who makes a distinction between a fine landscape maintenance service that is qualified to do natural pruning and skilled care, and lawn services that often prefer to shear plants into meatballs.

Amy:  Mow and blow.  Ugh.

Gen:  Yeah.  I liked that she cautioned designers to keep the maintenance in mind while designing, AND have the money budgeted to pay for a more skilled service if you're not going to care for it yourself.  She reminds designers not to expect lawn people to do something outside of what they are skilled at.  It seems obvious, but many designers seem to think maintenance companies are all the same (and all stupid, rather than that we all have differing specialties – really, I'd do a terrible job at mowing lawns).

Amy:  And I guess that's something for the person hiring the designer to be aware of, too–make sure the garden is designed so that whoever is going to take care of it can actually do that.  So would you recommend the book more to your clients, or to other designers, or both?

Gen:  It's not strictly a business book, is it?  She doesn't talk about the business aspects of becoming a designer, or make much distinction between how a professional designer might tackle something or how a homeowner might tackle something. It's not about the business of landscape design, but it's definitely about the process and the concepts involved in creating a thoughtful, personalized design.

Amy:  And it's not just a book of pictures–I mean, there are a lot of ideas here, and some concepts you really want to think about.

Gen:  Exactly.  She structured it so homeowners who are very passionate about creating a landscape for themselves could benefit, but it’s not about quick, easily-implemented photos or project ideas. If you want what this book has to offer, you should be willing to take it seriously and give it the time and respect it deserves.

Amy:  Which is pretty much true of a garden.  Or you could just go out and buy a bunch of plants on impulse and cram them into any little spot you can find.

Gen:  Well, YOU can do that–

Amy:  I know!  I know.  I can't help myself.


  1. Nice post, the book is really good but I am similar to yourself! I lvoe the clothes in the closet analogy, wish I would remember that the next time im shopping for garden arches!

  2. Thanks for that insightful post. I’m definitely in the closet camp, but over the years I’ve arrived at this philosophy: Focus on the paths and the garden will take care of itself. Whether it’s the (annually changing) maze of paths through the vegetable garden, or the hard or grassy paths in the overall garden of the yard, paths determine the literal and figurative flow, and they can help tie in those larger external or panoramic features. Design paths with heart — you can always rearrange the plants next year!

  3. Gen has never steered me wrong when I’ve bought something (OK, pretty much everything) she reviews on her blog and I’m going to get this book today. This is exactly what I need! The design part is the missing link for me and while I’ll never be a garden design, I strive to have a better understanding of garden design.

    Also, I love your analogy of a garden as a closet stuffed with outfits you don’t remember buying.

  4. Awww, Erin, I’m touched! Not to be a book-buying enabler or anything, but you might also like Plant Driven Design by the Ogdens. Sorry, your visa card is probably hurling expletives at me about now!

    Roger, I love your philosophy. My philosophy on garden cleanup and maintenance has been to focus on the edges. The paths, of course, would be an integral part of that! You said it beautifully.

  5. Our first owned house had a sort of blank canvas yard, and from the time the plot was divided in thirds, little had been done to the landscaping. I was ecstatic, because it meant I had A Free Rein! Someone who responded to my ad took out two stunted undesired fruit trees (and they did well in her yard). After pruning the old Golden Delicious apple tree, I began acquiring antique apple saplings, a European pear, an American one, and one Asian pear. I had no idea how big that persimmon was going to get–I just loved the fall colors and the flat fruits.

    I had an entry arch (later two of them) with wisteria and climbing roses, framed by currant and elderberry bushes, and a Leonidas rose in a shady place, so as to get the deepest color.

    In the middle yard, three shade trees, several roses, and assorted other border plants were put in, with dwarf fruit trees (mostly citrus) in half-barrels lining the patio edge. Later came the wisterias to beautify the plain wooden fence along the extended driveway.

    Half of the front yard was covered with roses, and bordered by lavender varieties. There were more half-barrels of citrus and roses, due to the former-driveway nature of the ground. It had great curb appeal.

    This house’s backyard is much more hodgepodge. I have planted some narrow conifers to take over so that I can rid the yard of the ugly, messy shrubs and tree which were there when we bought it. There is a pool in the middle to deal with this time–so perhaps this yard will be more like Amy’s (minus the Rapacchini garden), at least in the back.

    At least I have mostly removed the “generica” plantings here when we moved in, and added more trees in a greater variety.

    I never wanted the mow, blow & go maintenance crews. I got rid of shrubs that required a chainsaw. We have very little lawn.

    In the Santa Cruz house, I had a great gardener and miss him and his husband terribly. I have gone through at least ten gardeners in 6 years, due to a variety of issues, even though I interviewed fairly thoroughly. Some just stopped showing up, the rest were let go for incompetence or simply not following directions.

  6. So you are suppose to plan a garden? That means I shouldn’t have to move something at least 3 times to find the right spot. Where’s the fun? I usually get it right the first time, but then some plants don’t read the garden guides on how big they are gonna get.

  7. I frequent “death row” at the local big box store to pick up bargains though I have no idea where they will go. The thought of a perfectly good plant going to the dumpster hits me like someone dumping a box of kittens by the side of the road – it’s just wrong! Fortunately gardening is a process, and no garden is ever “finished” so I usually find somewhere for my bedraggled treasures, and it makes me feel good knowing they have a second chance at life.

    I’ve found some great stuff, too!

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