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.